Sunday, 20 September 2015

Shadows Part 2

"The action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil"  (OED)

When a story finds me, I follow it .
Sometimes, however, it leads to places I would rather not go.

On  June 10th, 1944 at Salon la Tour, near Limoges, an SS Panzer Division set up a temporary base.
Halted in their rush to Normandy to engage the Allied invasion by the activities of the local resistance, they set up roadblocks and began a search of the surrounding villages.

This was the web that Violette Szabo was caught in, but she was not the focus of their attention.

 Helmut Kampfe, a battalion commander, had been captured by the local Maquis, and executed.
On discovering his fate, his friend and fellow commander ordered a reprisal of staggering brutality designed to stun the local population into obedient complicity.

Even by the standards of the day it was a horrific reaction and had he not become a casualty of the war shortly after, he would have faced a court martial for his actions.

 Entering the village of Oradour sur Glane his troops gathered the entire population of 642 people, separated them into manageable groups and murdered them.
The women and children were herded into the church and killed, and the whole area looted and burned.

The village has been preserved intact as a memorial and a shrine to these, and other victims of a systematic destruction that we struggle to comprehend.

Visiting it now is a strange experience.

Tourists in summer clothes walk round its frozen tableau in respectful silence, amazed at the sewing machines still left on decaying tables, bicycles propped in sheds and ancient cars slowly collapsing into rusting heaps.

People entering the church take care to soften the sound of their shoes on the flagstones for fear of disturbing the silence, as if the air itself was charged with the horror of what took place here.
A small boy is reprimanded for asking what happened in a normal tone, as if the enquiry is insensitive and disrespectful.

But there is another aspect to this place, which nothing can prevent.
Despite all their efforts to freeze this place, time and nature have conspired to reclaim it.
Birds do sing here, and flowers grow in the corners not cleared of new growth by the site's curators.

There is something uncomfortable about the need to promote the pain and suffering that took place here with no respite, as if only by provoking us into imagining children dying in fear and pain can we learn from history.
Everywhere are signs encouraging us to remember, but remember what?
It is too huge, to vile and too far from my experience to comprehend, and the site itself has a life of its own now, like an abandoned film set.
A survivor of Auschwitz, on returning decades later was heard to say "It looks so lovely now."
What she saw was ordered tidiness and lawns where before there had only been frozen filth, and she struggled to connect it with her recollections of her time there.

Maybe those who follow have an obligation to keep faith with these times and places but in a way that allows redemption and offers a place in our world now.

I returned the following morning to pay my respects and offer an alternative.
I wanted to celebrate what had been here before this happened, and take a moment to try to imagine what things were like when this was just a place where children were daft, and made a noise, and ran about and laughed.

It only took a few seconds to float some childish bubbles through the burnt out shell of the church.
A few seconds that was about hope, and fun, and life.

Security did not agree.

I left, stung by their disapproval, and made my way out through the visitor centre where, for 10 euros you can buy an account of the massacre at Oradour, complete with photographs of charred children's corpses and pornographic descriptions of their suffering.

I think they deserve better.


  1. Phew.... Another humdinger james x

  2. James, this is beautiful :..(

    1. Thank you Beth, it's a delicate subject, and there are a lot of strong feelings out there but you have to go with your own view. It's a good to hear from someone who feel the same x