Visits with my younger daughter who lives in France are fewer than I would prefer: once or, if I am lucky, twice a year. We plan our time together when I arrive serendipitously, choosing local sites, repairing things in her house side-by-side, doing laundry, cooking together and enjoying a normal and pleasant adult relationship. But our visit at the start of this past July was different, at least on its first day. We planned to look horror straight in the eye. And so we did, at Oradour-sur-Glane.
On June 10th, 1944, four days after D-Day, with the Allied forces moving south, the Waffen SS in Vichy was running scared. The marquisands, Resistance fighters based in the Massif Central, north of Limousin, were active locally, and their success in several captures and assassinations of SS members lead to gruesome revenge.
Tales of Nazi atrocities, as well as those of the Kaiser’s army during World War I) are too huge to compare. The Holocaust itself was made up of individual acts of evil, albeit well-organized (as all things German), hard to comprehend or to imagine performing if one has the wherewithal to go there. Deniers abound. But Oradour-sur-Glane bears silent witness to the truth. It can never be erased.
Several platoons of SS men arrived at Oradour on June 10th, and rounded up more than 600 local residents at the local fairground in the middle of the village, one served by a local train line, with electricity, and many modern conveniences. Many men were executed as the German troops entered the town, the rest assembled with the women and children. The men were then separated and the women and children lead into the local church. All were executed, but the women and children suffered a particularly gruesome fate: Alive and frightened beyond belief, they were broiled alive when the Nazis locked the doors and set the church on fire.
A series of the usual small signs is posted at the entrance to the remains of the village, red circles with diagonal stripes through them. One indicates that no photos are permitted. A separate metal sign, older than the others, merely decrees “Silence.” De Gaulle (who visited shortly after his return to liberated France) decided to have the ruins of the atrocity preserved as is. A new village was built with the same name just up the hill from the one destroyed. In recent years an underground museum and memorial was constructed, and through its doors (and only through them), can one enter the actual gate to the village where the small prohibitory signs are posted.
Alain de Botton, in “The Art of Travel,” dwells very heavily upon the existential aspects of travel, the phenomenon of imagination and disappointment: how things “fall short” when we actually “get there,” how the richer and more long-lasting way to travel consists of encountering life, not planning it, enjoying or recoiling at beauty or ugliness, not “capturing” it in photos and Facebook posts but, instead, dwelling inside ourselves as we walk the path.
Places like Oradour-sur-Glane certainly lend themselves to adherence to de Botton prescription for living: few and far between were those in the hundred or so persons we saw during a couple hours outdoors in the devastated village who spoke a word, even among themselves. Oradour, though, cannot fall short unless one actively makes that happen. At many sites were groups of men were executed and their bodies set on fire, as well as at the church, signs suggest, after describing the number of men who died in front of the hair salon, the shoemaker, the little grocery: “RECUEILLEZ-VOUS”: (Take it in, what happened here).
The signs were, in fact observed, as far as my witness extended, even by the errant few who flipped out their cellphones un-self consciously at certain other points along the way. (And with due deference, I suspect many visitors did not even notice the little “no photos” emblem, not even three inches in diameter, nestled among its five similarly faded neighbors of similar size with the usual interdictions against eating, dogs, radios etc.).
Some acts are oxymoronic, though. The general encomium, oft-repeated as we walked the site, to internalize what one saw, was starkly contradicted by taking a photo. One blocks the other: the sense of accomplishment, internalization, and preservation of a psychic moment becomes just that: a moment, one that could be far richer and more memorable if the button were not pushed, the urge to capture a memory while actually effacing it eschewed, and deeper deliberation engaged in rather than the pornography of photos.
We walked and walked and spoke little. The twisted, melted, rusted baby stroller near the place where the altar once stood in the parish church finally brought me to tears: we’d spent a couple hours in the museum beforehand, and glad I was that we did: to prepare us with texts, photos and films in advance, to give us context and information to see fully what would promptly be right before our eyes. Unlike art galleries, where I often ignore the explanatory cards until I’ve had a chance to experience the work in question and formulate my own aesthetic reaction before being told how and what to see and feel, this museum was a lamp unto our feet, opening our hearts and souls to see and feel more deeply that which would lie before us.
Not to my knowledge are any such ruins preserved in Europe: I grew up on wartime newsreel footage, presented by Walter Cronkite on “The Twentieth Century” each Sunday evening in the late 50s and throughout the 60s, always starting with its booming, heroic theme song and a background advertisement for Prudential Insurance Company’s Rock of Gibraltar. Scene after scene of carnage on the Eastern, Western and Pacific fronts, of post-war salvation melded with my childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town built as The Secret City in the foothills of the Appalachians to fabricate bomb-grade Uranium for Little Boy and Fat Man before they landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki head first.
I needed no personal photos of Oradour to cloud my time there. I already owned them through my youth. Undoubtedly others do not, whether due to age, nationality, or plain and simple ignorance of the history of the War. Still, I maintain, photography sometimes ruins things, a vice in which I participate with glee and pleasure, addicted to my own personal pornography of ownership and memory. I won’t stop it: I treasure the pictures and films, be they of travel or family, for years, even decades, find them painful to look at after certain years and life-changing events. All the feelings are valuable, in retrospect, sometimes bittersweet, causing me to turn my head away, close the computer, but not to try and erase the images nor the feelings themselves. In this way, the creation of film I believe valid and authentic, as feelings and ideas sublime like dry ice, and images can re-solidify what once seemed gone.
But Oradour-sur-Glane is another kettle of fish. Here photo-taking is putatively sinful and disrespectful, rendering that which is authentic quite the opposite. There are hundreds of images on the internet that one can cull and make one’s “own.” Every time the button was pushed while we were there, someone turned their face away, shut their eyes, blotted out a memory, not creating one.
My daughter and I walked out the gates in silence, our eyes agape, our ears tuning as birds chirped and the sun shone brightly against an azure sky. 70 years ago last month, the same heavens burned in the night like hell itself, the smoke of the buildings mixing with the acrid odor of burning flesh. We had not a word to say.