Oradour-sur-Glane is a WWII war memorial just west of the center of France. It was a prosperous and fairly typical small town until June 10, 1944, when a Nazi SS unit burned it to the ground. After they locked all the women and children inside the ancient church and set off smoke bombs, they opened the church doors and fired machine guns at those trying to flee. The altar and chancel walls are pock-marked. The soldiers had already rounded up the men in groups of 20 or so and shot them on the street. 642 people died that day. There’s no satisfactory explanation about why the SS unit did this (part of the panic after the D-Day landings a few days before? were they looking for Resistance cells?) beyond, of course, the fact that the Nazis did this sort of thing. It’s the sort of thing they were capable of, known for, efficient at. Just as all humans have been, from time immemorial, whenever we let go of the reality that anything which diminishes human dignity is a very bad idea.
Last month, I visited Oradour-sur-Glane with my friend Nathalie, who remembers going there as a schoolgirl in the 1960’s, and has taken her own children there. It’s a sobering place, both terrible and beautiful in its quiet peace. The underground visitor’s center leads you through the events of that day in June 1944, with displays showing the town as it was before and immediately after the massacre. There are excellent synopses of concurrent events, and brief descriptions of historical context in several different languages, though most of the displays are presented in French, German, and English. When you leave the visitor’s center, you walk uphill toward the town itself and cross the road. It’s difficult to think at that point, let alone to speak.
A single hand-painted sign leans against an enormous tree at the road into the town. “Silence.” Nathalie and I touched hands briefly, then continued our quiet walk toward the town center, past the stone walls of houses, shops, a school. Here are a couple of centuries of stone construction, their wood or thatch roofs burned away, metal window casings bent and rusting. Only broken glass has been cleared away; everything else has been left exactly as it was found on the morning of June 11, 1944. Small plaques label each home and building with the owners’ name and business, and at the places where men were shot, the plaques list their number. I kept my eyes on Nathalie as often as I could, needing to know I was there with another, and dear, human.
And then I did a terrible thing. I heard loud voices behind us, Dutch, and turned to walk towards them, as angry as I have ever been. They were 6 or 7 men and women, in their 70s, calling loudly to each other to look at this, no, let’s go this way, where’s the church?
In my sternest English, and then in angry French I scolded them. “Silence! Silence! This is a memorial!” They looked at me resentfully, then guiltily, and eventually stopped talking. I walked away, seething, knowing them to be stupid, thoughtless, beyond any capability for compassion.
By the time I reached the edge of town along the river, near the ancient cemetery where the victims are buried, I realized what I had done. In my certainty at protecting the sacred, I had violated the human dignity of those Dutch tourists, and my own. I shouted “Silence!” in a place where there should be only silence. Why did I not give those people the benefit of the doubt? Maybe they didn’t understand the signs. Maybe they had not first toured the Visitor’s Center, which charges admission, and had entered the town itself, which does not. Maybe they had not had time to absorb their surroundings.
I gave in to thoughtlessness. And that is not a good place to begin when the point is to consider human dignity.