Louise Bardet never got to eat lunch with the elder of her two children on 10 June 1944. That morning the sky had been grey and the air damp when her daughter, Denise, had climbed onto her bicycle before heading away with a quick kiss and smile. It was a Saturday, the sun was showing its promise, and Denise had work. Her mother understood. She had chosen to give up so much for Denise to be able to qualify as a teacher. Her younger brother, Camille, had also committed himself to the profession and Louise was proud of them both. Time with her daughter, Louise knew, would have to wait. But Louise had decided that lunch that day would be as special as she could afford or manage. It was, after all, Denise’s twenty-fourth birthday.
Denise never returned to her mother. Instead she accompanied the children of her class, one of two at Oradour-sur-Glane’s school for girls, to the Champ de foire, the village green. Soldiers had come, rounding everybody up. She comforted some of the girls, whose activities that morning had included preparation for the fête-dieu celebration due to take place the following day. They were also awaiting a medical visit. Denise was with the children as they were walked to the church and she waited with all the children and women from the village in a space far too small for everybody. She was with them when they all died, asphyxiated, then shot, then burned. The village’s men, gathered in the barns and store-rooms, were shot too. Denise’s life was one of the 643 lost in Oradour that day.
Louise would discover in the hours and days to come that her daughter had been killed. Camille returned home, for he had been studying in nearby Limoges that day. Camille and Denise’s father had died years before when Camille was just a toddler. Every day since Louise had worked her hands to the bone to provide for her children, so that they could have better prospects than she had ever been afforded growing up amongst the farming peasantry of the Limousin. Each morning she had worked the fields around the farm, and by night she had sewn while Denise read to her. As well as repairing their clothes, Louise had supplemented their income by sewing textiles for local merchants. Louise’s life had been one of sacrifice. It had been evident from an early age that Denise was precociously bright. She needed more than that which French primary education offered to young girls. By continuing her studies she was able to take a path closed to most young women. Louise had been happy to gift her life to her children.
In 2002 Jean Bardet, Camille’s son and Louise’s grandson, published a thin volume that included text from a school exercise book into which the aunt he had never met had poured her thoughts. Written in 1943, before she had been appointed to her position in Oradour, they illustrate a mind obsessed with philosophy and literature. A Germanophile, she was looking forward to the day the German people would return their country to its former grandeur. At the same time she wrote about the boys who had proposed to her, and the children in her class who she adored but who were a little too young for her to properly teach. She would get the chance to educate older girls in Oradour. The school for girls was a short two kilometres from her mother’s farm. She settled there, happy to be home with her mother and able to cycle to school each day. She got engaged to be married to a young police inspector from Limoges, who would later have his own role to play in the Oradour drama.
Jean Bardet sent me a document which outlined his thoughts about his life growing up in Oradour, a place where tragedy had been all pervasive during his formative years. His grandmother never recovered from losing Denise. “My grandmother never stopped evoking memories of her” writes Bardet, now a resident of Coulommiers. “This person into whom she, a woman of the agricultural class, had poured all of her hopes. Denise had been properly educated, so she could escape from the life of the peasantry. She was going to live her dreams as a woman of culture, a woman of letters”. But Denise had been obliged to make her own sacrifice on 10 June 1944. That day her place had been with the schoolgirls of Oradour-sur-Glane. As a result, the rest of Louise’s life was spent in mourning for her lost daughter.
Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France by Robert Pike will be published on 13 April 2021 by The History Press.
Bardet, J., Cahiers de jeunesse de Denise Bardet (Saint Paul: Le Puy Fraud, 2002)
Farmer, S., Oradour-sur-Glane: Memory in a Preserved Landscape in French Historical Studies, 19(1), 27-47 (1995) doi:10.2307/286898
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