In 1944, nearly every man, child, and woman in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, was massacred. Its empty buildings and still streets remain as a reminder of the horror. Some continue to this day to seek justice against the German SS soldiers responsible—soldiers who were then 18 or 19, and now are close to 90.
The brutality exercised by German soldiers in this small French town was completely unexpected. Oradour-sur-Glane was not noted for having a Jewish population, and the region had been relatively unaffected by WWII. The vast majority of citizens thought they had nothing to fear when soldiers rounded them up, expecting some routine checks.
The soldiers gathered the men into barns and shot them in the legs so they would slowly die, then set them on fire. They gathered the women and children into a church, tossed in an explosive and razed anyone who emerged from the smoke-filled building with rapid gunfire.
A document that only came to light in 2011 gives what is believed to have been an eyewitness account of the aftermath, including the horrific detail: “I saw one baby who had been crucified.” This document is an escape and evasion report written in 1944 by American Lt. Raymond Murphy and recently reported on by Foreign Policy. Few details are given, but after he left his flaming B-17 bomber and traveled for months in France, making his way back to England, he said he passed through a town that meets the description of Oradour-sur-Glane, in which “some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans.”
Actually, in Oradour-sur-Glane, 642 people were killed, including 254 women, 207 children, and 181 men.
Sarah Farmer described the events in her book, “Martyred Village,” after talking with the few who escaped.
She wrote: “One resident of Oradour, recalling his family’s perceptions at the time, captured the prevailing mood: ‘Really, we sort of thought that we were—that we weren’t part of the war. We thought that we wouldn’t be concerned by the war—anyway, not a lot….'”
At 2 p.m. on June 10, 1944, a unit of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi Party military wing, moved in. They quickly surrounded the town, drawing people out by going door-to-door and pulling farmers away from their fields. Within an hour, the women and children were separated from the men and all were assembled to meet a doom they could not have foreseen.
The stories of the few who escaped are telling.
Marcel Darthout was protected from the bullets, which stuck in the bodies of the men in front of him. He remained hidden under his dying friend as the soldiers walked over the mass of bodies to fire finishing shots. He crawled out of the barn as it was set ablaze. He and four other men made it to safety, one other was shot after leaving the barn.
Farmer described the escape of Marguerite Rouffanche, a 47-year-old woman: “As the church burned, she crawled behind the altar and found a stool used for lighting candles. She managed to climb up and out the window. She dropped three meters to the ground below. Looking up, Madame Rouffanche saw that she had been followed by a young woman with a baby. The young woman handed down her baby before jumping, but all three were caught in a hail of machine-gun fire. Mother and child were killed; wounded, Madame Rouffanche was able to crawl into the garden of the presbytery, where she hid among rows of peas.”
“Eight-year-old Roger Godfrin fled out the back door of the school building. He hid for a while in a field of tall grass and then ran on toward the Glane. Though shot at by German soldiers, he made it across the river to safety. He was the only schoolchild in Oradour to survive,” Farmer wrote.
It may have been revenge for perceived assistance to the French Resistance and American forces. One of the officers had told the townspeople that the SS knew of a cache of arms and munitions in Oradour-sur-Glane, though there is no indication such a cache existed. It may have been an act of rage following on the heels of the D-Day Allied landings.
In December 2014, a court in Cologne, Germany, decided evidence is insufficient to try former SS soldier Werner Christukat, 89, who was present at the massacre. Christukat was 19 years old at the time and has never disputed he was at the town on that day, but he denied participating in the killing.
“His name is not in any interrogations, nor did any witnesses link him to the events in Oradour-sur-Glane,” the court statement noted.
In an interview with BFM TV, Christukat tearfully said he was horrified by the event and even tried to save some people, reported the New York Times. But, Jean-Jacques Fouché, a historian and former director of the memorial center at Oradour-sur-Glane, told the Times: “Even if he didn’t shoot, he allowed others to shoot, and it’s called complicity.”
Few of the soldiers involved were chastised. In 1953, 60 were tried in Bordeaux, France, many of whom had been detained since 1945. Only 20 were convicted, but they didn’t remain in prison long after the trial. A senior SS officer was sentenced to life in prison in 1983, but released on the grounds of failing health in 1997. He died in 2007. Heinz Lammerding, who is believed to have been in charge of the SS unit, was never charged.
In January 2013, investigators opened a new inquiry in light of documents that surfaced from the archived files of East Germany’s Stasi secret police. The East German government refused to extradite six suspects for the 1953 trial. These men, now in their late 80s, may face some legal action, but it is unclear if anything will actually come of the inquiry.