In the last of four special blog posts, I pay tribute to several survivors of the terrible massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, who recently passed away. The French village was destroyed on 10 June 1944 by the SS Panzer division "Das Reich".
Every year the anniversary of the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane is marked by a solemn day of ceremonies and reflection. The local schools are involved as students read out the names of the many children who perished that terrible day. Next year, 2024, will be the 80th anniversary, but it is unlikely things will be done much differently than normal. A church service in the new village starts proceedings, then speeches are given on the grass outside the new mairie. A slow procession then winds its way through the streets of the ruin to the cemetery, the only part of the original village untouched by the massacre. Many wreaths are then laid. It was via this cemetery, which leads to woodland and fields, that several men escaped. One hid in a partially constructed tomb.
This year the commemorations will be missing two familiar faces. Last year André Desourteaux attended the church service, and I was pleased to catch up with him briefly outside while he waited with his wife for his lift home. Robert Hébras, .with the help of his devoted granddaughter Agathe, managed to attend the full series of events. Neither will be there this year. Both sadly passed away in recent months. Another survivor, Renée Maneuf, whose maiden name was Villéger, also died in October 2022, since the last commemoration.
It will be a difficult day for Agathe Hébras, daughter of Robert's only son. The pair, Agathe and Robert, had a special bond. They worked together on a book which came out only last year. "I'd say that what I'll remember most is his simplicity and humility in general" she told me this week. As far as their personal familial relationship was concerned "it was his unconditional love, and the way he looked at me."
The last of the survivors of the round-up, Robert Hébras spent half of his long life trying to right some of the wrongs of Oradour, by encouraging European reconciliation. It was important for him to pass on what he, by bitter experience, had learned about the world. Benoit Sadry, president of the association nationale des familles des martyrs d'Oradour-sur-Glane, learned a lot from Hébras and witnessed him dealing with young Germans in Germany. "He never tried to make young Germans feel guilty" Sadry told me, "on the contrary, he always tried to make them understand that he wasn't there to judge or to ask for anything. He just wanted to make young Germans aware, as he did young French people, of the dangers of ideologies that deny freedom and respect for human beings."
Hébras used his voice to work for a better future for young generations, and he carried on taking groups into the ruins well into his eighties. "He taught me tolerance, fraternity and vigilance, of course" his granddaughter told me. "But above all, he helped me understand the importance of passing on what we have learned. That we should believe in mankind which, while capable of the worst possible things, is also at the centre of everything that is best."
André Desourteaux was a childhood friend of Robert Hébras, and his death at the end of April this year came just two months after that of Hébras.
He was the grandson of the mayor at the time of the massacre, Paul Desourteaux. His other grandfather was Joseph Beau, the fierce political rival of Desourteaux who had been removed from the post of mayor by Vichy authorities. He had beaten Desourteaux in the municipal elections. Despite the acrimony, a love affair blossomed between one of Desourteaux's sons and the daughter of Joseph Beau. André was the result and, after a period of scandal, his parent's lived with Beau and ran one of the village's grocery shops. With so much going on in the shop, André was a true witness to life in the village, and after the tragedy he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone and everything that the village had been. Benoit Sadry fondly remembers sharing André's passion for the history of Oradour. "It was always a pleasure to share our discoveries or to inform each other of new things". André and his wife invited me into their home in Limoges, and I too gained so much from talking to them both - piecing together family trees. He was a welcoming and warm man.
Desourteaux survived because he was working a shift at the postal office in Limoges when the SS arrived. He returned home to find his village destroyed, somehow avoiding the soldiers who were still there.
He had his key ready to open his front door, but there was no home left. He lost almost every member of his family. Like Hébras, he later spent time in the Resistance, by then the FFI, after losing most of his family. During this time, after the fall of the Saint-Nazaire pocket in October 1945, Desourteaux was instrumental in sparing the lives of around thirty German prisoners. Sadry called him a " man of honour, of whom we can be proud".
I turned to Andrea Erkenbrecher, a German academic who recently published a book about Oradour, to find out more about Renée Maneuf, née Villéger, who I had never had the chance to meet. In my book, I tell the story of the Villéger family and how Renée, fourteen at the time and the oldest of three sisters, along with their mother and pet dog, managed to stay alive while hiding in their farm which was used by the SS as one of two command posts. My research was based on archival testimonies and letters, but Andrea had known Renée personally. In 2014, Andrea had been involved in the investigation by the public prosecutor's office in Dortmund, and the Düsseldorf LKA into the events in Oradour, and she had got to know Renée and her sisters very well.
The survival of Renée, her sisters, and her mother had been miraculous, especially since they had a baby and a dog to keep entirely quiet while hiding behind a wall that, for a time, was used as target practice. Nevertheless they discovered days after the massacre that they had lost their brothers, and father.
They were not well looked after by the state, despite having lost everything. Renée's mother had to take a job, and sister Odette was sent to boarding school. The youngest sister Hélène, was only two at the time and stayed with her mother, but Renée was sent to work on a farm. "I only came into contact with her late in life, probably because she and her sisters are among those survivors of the massacre about whom little has been said - and little is said to this day" wrote Andrea when Renée passed away last autumn. Andrea knew about Renée's past openness about her difficulty in accepting what had happened, and in learning to forgive. "She never let me, or any other German who visited her with me, feel this difficulty" wrote Andrea. "We sat around her table in her wonderful little house, she made tea or poured water and was kind from the heart. She often cried when she talked about what the massacre meant to her and her life."
There are one or two people with experience of the events of that day still alive, and I will pay tribute to them when the time is right. For the moment however, it feels that this year has been significant. Something has changed with the loss of these three important and remarkable people. I asked Benoit Sadry what the disappearance of the last survivors means for the villagers, and for the association of which he is president. "It's the arrival of the dreaded moment" he said "when we gradually move from memory to history. The moment when there's nobody left to say "I was there, I saw it". Fortunately, we have written, recorded or video testimonies of the witnesses." Recently he attended a meeting at the Palais de l'Elysée in Paris, alongside Philippe Lacroix, mayor of Oradour, and Agathe Hébras, to discuss the investment urgently needed to preserve the site. "In Oradour, we still have the martyred village, which is why it is so important to preserve it in its entirety, so that when the memory of the people has faded, the memory of the stones will always remain."
When the commemorations happen on 10 June this year, my own thoughts will be with Robert, André and Renée, and the many lives they touched.
This is the last of four special blog posts.
My book about Oradour-sur-Glane, Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France is available from all good booksellers. Follow the link on my website to purchase signed copies.