Originally published on French History Network Blog
When a single singed page landed at his feet, having drifted down from the smoke-scented air, fourteen-year-old Albert Valade recognised it straight away. It was a page from the book of catechism, so familiar to all the children of Oradour who had attended those Thursday morning sessions with the local priest. He would welcome them into the sacristy and seat them on wooden benches, giving out copies of the book. On sunny days the children would be desperate to go out into the warm air. That June Saturday Albert could see that the whole church was burning, sacristy included. He did not know that Oradour’s children and mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters, were burning too. Albert had left school the previous summer so that he could work on his father’s rented farm. He watched the smoke rise from Oradour, his dog by his side, while tending the herd of red cows of the limousin variety that provided milk, meat and traction. He had brought them to the banks of the Glane in order for them to drink and his sister, Germaine, had warned him not to go near the village because something was going on there.
Sitting in the well-lit office room of his home in the rebuilt new village of Oradour-sur-Glane, a stone’s throw from the remains of the ‘village martyre’, Albert Valade spoke quietly and purposefully. Small and slightly hunched due to a bout of polio contracted during his childhood, he told me about growing up as part of the wider community of the Radounauds. It was not an easy interview as, occasionally, he chastised me for asking about something that he had clearly written about in his book. As he came to realise that I was probing him to go further into his life before the tragedy of 10 June 1944, he opened up and spoke about the small things that had been the lot of the life of a métayer, a tenant farmer. When he recalled the bread that his family made in the farmhouse once restrictions were brought in under Vichy, his description of the scent and textures took me with him.
The SS Panzer Division came to Oradour-sur-Glane with the intention of removing a whole village from the map of France. In his 1983 trial, held in East Berlin, former SS-Untersturmführer Heinz Barth was asked whether he thanked God that there had been some survivors. “No. Honestly I did not think that, at least not at the time. I have to be completely honest.” A remarkable admission. ‘I was a quite shocked to find out that there had been some escapees from that village because we left on the principle that, as far as we knew, there were no survivors”.
If Oradour had not been destroyed it would have been any other en route provided it was easy to surround, presented no immediate difficulty with entrenched maquisards nearby and about which local miliciens could provide ample information. It was a mode of operation conducted by the same unit in Eastern Europe. By June 1944, however, new young men had been recruited and trained while the Das Reich was on a period of recovery in Southern France. This included a large number of forced recruits, including some from Alsace Lorraine. During a 1953 military tribunal held in Bordeaux it became common knowledge that almost half of the foot soldiers on trial were actually French. The real perpetrators of the crime, those who gave the orders, escaped justice. Even Barth was not in charge on the ground.
643 men, women and children were killed on that early-summer day. The village itself was burnt down and, for several days afterwards, smaller SS groups returned to create mass burial sites so that the vast majority of the bodies could never be formally identified. Among the dead were Albert Valade’s STO-evading cousin Marcel who had been staying with the family at their farm in Le Mas-du-Puy, a hamlet just a kilometre or so from the village centre but outside the extended round-up periphery dutifully stuck-to by the young soldiers. Also in the church were his young niece and nephew belonging to his sister Germaine, who lived on their farm. A decade older than him, she had married a man nine years her senior when she had just turned fourteen. By the time of her wedding she had already given birth to a daughter and three more children followed when the couple moved in with Albert’s family. Jean Valade, Albert’s father, was a veteran of the First World War and appreciated the extra manpower. Everybody worked, and Albert left school to take on the herd; peasant children were allowed to do so a year early if their hands were required. Germaine, like her mother, helped in the fields and the farmyard and also sewed for local textile producers. She had been wearing a flowery dress when she had gone looking for her children having hopped onto her Peugeot bicycle. She never returned.
Visitors to the village martyr, of which there are thousand upon thousand every year, can see the devastation caused during the massacre. Carried out as a warning to all people of the region to desist from helping the Resistance in any form, the choice of village was arbitrary. Very few escaped. But what made the following decades so devastating was that the schools were filled that day with children from the surrounding hamlets. Many of these, such as Le Mas-du-Puy were further out than the cordon. Each day its children would gather in groups and walk to their schools in Oradour. The result was devastating. My interview with Albert Valade was marked by one moment during which he could barely look up from his desk. “One thing that is not so well known is the suffering, and how long that lasted, for the people of the villages. The hamlets were not destroyed; they were intact. But there were no more children. And that is no exaggeration. There were no more children.”
Albert Valade, who spent much of his life helping to ensure that local children understood what had happened in Oradour, passed away in December 2019. I was honoured to have met him at his home where he lived with his wife. He published two books, one on the families who lived in the hamlets and one about the building of the new village. Few radounaud voices now remain.
This blog post relates to my book Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France. The book is about the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in the years leading up to the famous massacre of 10 June 1944. It focuses on who the victims of the tragedy were, and is a case study of what, until a fateful early summer’s day, was a typical village in Vichy France.