I first visited Oradour-sur-Glane in 1993. My mother was an A level History teacher and my parents were Francophiles. It followed that I would study French and History and I chose to write my A level French project on Oradour, which I had seen in the opening sequence of The World at War.
As an undergraduate spending a year in the Dordogne I took a friend there in 1997. After a career in teaching, I decided to get into writing and it was while writing my first book, Defying Vichy, that I decided I wanted to write next about Oradour.
In my absence, a new visitor centre had been built and opened in 1999. With its new car park and facilities quite apart from the 'rebuilt' Oradour-sur-Glane just a stone's throw away, the visitor centre is only visible when you are almost on top of it. When I first went to Oradour the visitor passed through a gate at the western edge of the village where a small cabin served as a small shop selling books and post cards. Then we were faced with a walk downhill into the village. A different experience. I'm very glad I got to experience both.
The exhibition provides good background to the story but what really struck me when I went back there in 2018 for the first time in 21 years was a corridor at the end of the exhibition as you are about to emerge into the sunlight of the village itself. A huge effort had gone into finding photographs of the village's inhabitants. Before, the only place any such portraits could be found was in the cemetery. Now they are presented as part of the village and I like that. I was as fascinated by the wide variety of names. Italian, Spanish, German-sounding names, and so very many examples of shared local surnames. Even outside of family groups with their tragic faces of lost, young children, the same names dominated.....Senon, Desourteaux, Brandy, Hyvernaud, Thomas. This was an ancient community, with a mix of outsiders.
It is difficult to avoid the hard-hitting photographs of the recovery of charred bodies. In my view they belong behind a closed door and should not be what any visitor remembers. So too the centrality of the SS Panzer Division Das Reich and their operations in the area. This was not their village, and their commanders never took responsibility for what they did there. Why discuss them so much? I made a conscious decision to limit photographs that showed destruction. I would include no images of death and as few as I could of destruction.
I'm going to talk now about how the focus of my research changed due to a series of encounters and conversations I had.
In mid 2018 when I started the book I was still knee-deep in the Resistance. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Georges Guingouin and his famous Haute-Vienne maquis. I went about things in entirely the wrong way at first.
When I returned home I wrote misguided letters to the directeur of the Centre de la Mémoire and even Robert Hébras, the only survivor that I knew much about and whose story I had read many times. I wanted to go there and talk to them about possible links between Oradour and the Resistance. Unsurprisingly I got no reply whatsoever.
I returned to Oradour a few months after Defying Vichy was released, excited because someone official at the Centre de la Mémoire had agreed to meet me, Sandra Gibouin in charge of the Centre de documentation. She listened patiently as I blurted out my ideas, somehow expecting her to be impressed by everything I had read. I think the only thing she was impressed with was my enthusiasm.
Sandra explained to me, with some degree of patience I have to say, that there had been a surge of interest around the time that investigations were carried out in 2014 following the discovery of a stasi document that had helped track down certain former SS men who had been in Oradour. This, along with further contributions from a couple of revisionist writers, had continued to churn out accounts that were as unfounded as they were upsetting for the people of Oradour. I was treading a dangerous path. The thing is, Sandra explained, there was no maquis in Oradour, nor were there any stores of arms or even any real Resistance links. It really was an ordinary village. It had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Hallie Rubenhold's book, The Five, influenced me. Rubenhold removed Jack the Ripper from the narrative of the Whitechapel Killings and concentrated entirely on the lives of the ordinary women who, through a serious of circumstances, had ended up where they were on the night they were murdered. I found the angle of the book fascinating. The killer became the footnote, not the centre of the story. I found myself thinking about Oradour. About how much has been written about the perpetrators of that crime, and about the crime itself. How little is understood about what the village was like beforehand.
I returned to Oradour a number of times, reading and re-reading the panels on the buildings and beginning to piece together what the place must have been like.
Sandra, I think recognising what I was trying to do, acted as a kind of gatekeeper. She arranged for me to see four people, the only remaining survivors. I had by then decided that I wanted to investigate the ordinary people, and their lives leading up to the drame.
I knew I had what I needed to tell the story of the day itself from the archives. I think my line of questioning about the day to day reality of living between Oradour and Limoges may have surprised Robert Hébras, one of only five men to escape the shootings of the Laudy Barn. I tried to find out all I could from M. Albert Valade, who unfortunately passed away later that year, about life in the hamlets as a tenant farmer. I questioned Mme. Camille Senon about her life spent working in Limoges and coming back to Oradour at the weekends. I spent a fruitful afternoon with M. André Desourteaux and his wife talking about his two grandfathers, political rivals neither of whom were spared. His knowledge of the village as it was is truly encyclopaedic.
So what makes my book a bit different...what is unique about it?
As I read witness statement after witness statement taken immediately after the massacre, I was led to new places. To STO evaders, to Jewish families who were hiding out. I got to understand why there were so many names from Alsace Lorraine, all different in 1944 to those that were listed as having arrived during the evacuation in 1939, why there were children from places as diverse as Paris, Roubaix, Barcelona and Avignon. I got to know who owned the farm buildings, whether there were any miliciens or a significant presence of members of the Légion. The story of the Spanish and the GTE camp in the village was revelatory. I tried to knit it all together into a narrative. Oradour was, I realised, a story in itself regardless of the massacre. Not an epic, a soap opera.
In some ways the massacre had frozen the story of the village at a specific moment in time. Saturday 10 June was a snapshot. People had come to shop, to collect their décade of tobacco or were passing on their bicycles, some to source food from local farmers. I hope and believe that my picture of the community of Oradour is accurate if something of a sketch.
A lot of change took place over the course of five years, from September 1939 to June 1944. There were refugees, evacuees, and displaced families. Pétainists, Jewish families, STO evaders and escaped prisoners of war. Farmers thrived in the countryside around while new faces appeared, children and women primarily, hoping to escape the bombs expected to fall on Limoges and Paris. Evacuees from Strasbourg came and left. As a result of all the movement people fell in love, others set up businesses. The church congregation waned then flourished, schools filled up. Oradour was like a microcosm of Vichy France.
I could picture the Brandy sisters in their café and Monsieur Morlieras in his café-cum-barber-shop-cum-hatshop opposite. I understood why Madame Dagoury's business was listed as a cement merchant as well as a café, and why there were so many sewing machines on windowsills. There is something both heart-breaking yet comforting about getting to know who the victims were.
So what do I want readers to take away from Silent Village?
I want readers to learn about the challenges and realities of life in occupied France while following the narratives of a limited number of people. In the case of Oradour this also helped to garner an understanding of how and why Oradour came to be massacred, no mystery as it turns out, when considering the context of the time. I won't go into depth on that here other than to say that if it had not been Oradour-sur-Glane it would have been some other village. That is the tragic reality.
I want to thank the people who made this possible for me. I won't go through the acknowledgement page of the book but as well as Sandra Gibouin without whom this could never have happened, I'd like to mention the interviewees and others in Oradour and Limoges who helped me along the way. Thank you to the people who have gone before and produced great work on Oradour, none more so than Sarah Farmer. I'd also like to mention Rod Kedward and Hanna Diamond both of whom have given up their time to read early drafts and have advised me along the way. Megan Ison and Chris Millington read drafts and I'm so pleased that they, along with Dan Baker, agreed to participate in the launch.