I hate to be distracted when I write, when I’ve got the idea for a story, this one about a boy who didn’t do as he was told. And today, sitting writing this I was so interrupted.
It began as it most usually does, with that question: ‘what are you writing?’ I tell the old man it’s a story about the war, a story I thought I knew, but on reading more found there was more to know, more that could not be known.
He had been in a war.
I close my computer.
We talk about death.
“On the way to a funeral you must throw a penny at each crossroads” he says, hunched and ancient as if a heavy life lay upon his green duffle jacketed back.
“Why?” I ask.
“That way the dead can find their way to the other world of course”.
“The Romans buried people who’d committed suicide at crossroads” I add, wondering if there was some connection, between the Romans, the Roma, and this old Irish traveller. “But they called it ‘self-death’ not suicide back then”.
“Once upon a time they’d bury you at a crossroads with a wooden stake in your heart, like a vampire, if you committed suicide. It was a sin” he says, his chunky thumb smoothing the side of his coffee cup, then adds “be interesting to know how many kill themselves these days compared to back then, now we don’t have sin anymore”.
The old man drinks up his coffee and leaves me thinking, about death and sin and missing his company.
I cut out what I’d written and paste below our meeting, and begin again.
The village of Oradour-sur-Glane was once a beautiful and peaceful village, set in the lush farming region of Limousin, France, beside the river Glane, that sung “under deep green cradles its eternal hymn of glory to our beautiful Limousin”. Farmers and their families would come into town to buy supplies, to visit the market, perhaps stay at the hotel or visit the cafes. At weekends people would play football and fish, or go to church on a Sunday.
In 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane was a small island of peace set amongst the chaos of war, the day Saturday, June the 9th. Four days before the allies had landed in Normandy. The world was in flames, tens of millions dead - but not in Oradour-sur-Glane.
The town was busy that Saturday morning, it’s inhabitants swollen from 330 to almost 700, with refugees from war-torn regions, hidden Jews and red Spaniards who’d fled Franco’s Spain. People had come in from the countryside, some to get a promised tobacco ration, others for their children’s First Communion day. A medical visit had also been scheduled for the children, so 191 boys and girls sat waiting in the school.
With the whole world at war, in that moment here life was a picture of peace.
Then at 2:45pm ten trucks loaded with German and French soldiers drove into the town, two hundred men from the 3rd Company of the SS regiment “der Führer”. They disembarked, their weapons drawn and advanced into the town. Most of them were less than eighteen years old.
Their reasons for being there varies depending on official or unofficial accounts. The day before an ambulance had been found with the occupants burnt alive by the Maquisards, the French resistance. A bridge had been blown up. An officer had been kidnapped. The town had been chosen by mistake, the town of Oradour-sur-Vayres fifteen kilometres away, and full of resistance fighters, the real target. What is known is that the SS were attempting to get to Normandy, the balance of the war at play. If they could defeat the allies at Normandy, which they had a very good chance of doing, the landings a huge gamble, then it would mean a total defeat of the British, and the repulsion of the American threat for many years to come. It was a fight to the death. But the Maquisards had risen up at Charles de Gaulle’s command to slow the German army, to give the allies time to create a bridgehead. The Maquisards had done an impressive job at stalling the enemy, the journey from Bordeaux to Normandy not taking three days as it should, but seventeen. For Charles de Gaulle this was not so much simply a fight for a free France, but his opportunity to define himself as the saviour of France, having already undermined the 25,000 Communist partisans in Paris. The truth of why the SS where there, or how things unfolded will not be known until 2053, when the sealed account of what happened next will be opened, but what is known is they were there for murder.
The town cryer was commanded to bring the whole village to the square, so that everyone could show their papers. Men and women and children, the sick and the old, no one was exempt. Soldiers went from house to house, pulling out those who had hidden, the school teacher appearing in his pyjamas, the baker naked to the waist and covered in flour. Soldiers search the houses, for treasure to steal, for Maquisard weapons and explosives, or their lost officer Karl Gerlach.
The women and children were split from the men and taken up to the church, while the men were split up and taken to six locations.
What happened next is unclear, the reasons being that most of the German soldiers would soon be killed in the fighting, as were most of the town’s inhabitants.
At around 4pm there was a huge explosion, or a series of explosions in the church, at which point the soldiers guarding the men opened fire. The church was now in flames, the screams of the women and children clearly heard, as the soldiers went amongst the men shooting the injured in the head, then set fire to the bodies. Somehow six men survived under the corpses, then wriggled out and escaped into the countryside, all burnt and shot, alive, but sure their wives and children, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters were dead.
Of those in the church, only one escaped, through a window. Some say that the Germans placed a bomb or gas bomb inside the church the kill them all, then shot those who tried to escape, while there is also evidence that ammunition had been stored in the church, and this had somehow exploded, creating the trigger for the massacre. Murder done, Oradour-sur-Glane was set on fire and destroyed, and by the day’s end the village of Oradour-sur-Glane was no longer part of the eternal hymn of glory to beautiful Limousin, and to this day it remains a ruin, a monument to war, and its 642 dead.
I go to wiki to check dates and times and places and numbers, to double check the dates in my head. I take a moment to chide the inter-web for being so heretical about Trump, thinking - at that word ‘hysterical’ - how I’d read that morning, about a woman left un-murdered by a serial killer, her reason being she knew hysteria at being bound and raped would see her dead.
I go back to wiki, and to finish up, my battery at 7%.
There I see that Oradour-sur-Glane comes from the Latin oratorium, which means an altar, that the town was a crossroads and in Roman times had been a burial ground. Oratorium: ‘a place to offer prayers for the dead’.
But my point, I almost forget.
When the German’s arrived they came to the school and the children all lined up at their teacher’s command, lined up and filed into the square, to “assure their safety”, then up to the church, and to a horrific death. All died - but one - Roger Godfrin - a young boy who disobeyed, who listened not to his betters, those wiser than him, but to his animal spirit and instinct, who on seeing the Germans coming said to a friend “They’re Germans, I know what they’re like. They’ll try to hurt us. I’m going to try and escape.”
And he did.