Oradour Is On My Mind Tonight


I know I had heard about Oradour before. But when you've lived a long time, it's useful to have your memory jogged. There was an article today about Oradour. Oradour was a French town, near Limoges, in the west-central part of the country. It was a medium-sized town, nothing special. One day, less than a year before VE Day, war came for Oradour.

The town had been pretty much left untouched by the war. To this day, no one is quite sure why the town was chosen by the Waffen-SS. It had no resistance fighters, had never been a trouble spot. Everyone kept their heads down, and the town had only once seen German soldiers pass through, back in 1942. As historian Robert Pike puts is, "'What mattered to them was putting food on the table and a trouble-free existence for their family." Some speculate that its very quiescence was the reason for the choice: it looked like a town that would make no trouble.

The SS arrived and surrounded the town, herding almost 650 residents towards the center, where they stood for an hour, not knowing what was to befall them. The men were separated from the women and children. The men were split into six groups, and herded into barns and warehouses where they were machine-gunned to death. The women and children, all 450 of them, were herded into the town's church. As the soldiers set fire to every building in the town, they also put a smoke bomb in the church and set fire to it as well. The soldiers opened the door to the church and machine-gunned the place for good measure. Many of those that died in the church were burnt alive. Only 5 people survived--643 died that day. In many families, 3 or even 4 generations were lost in one fell swoop.

While perhaps the Germans were trying for a terrible demonstration that resistance was futile, Oradour became a rallying cry for the French, and many joined the Resistance in reaction. After the war, DeGaulle declared the town would not be rebuilt, but would be left as a permanent memorial to the dead and a testimony to the heartlessness of the invading Germans.

Tonight my thoughts swirl around Oradour. "'What mattered to them was putting food on the table and a trouble-free existence for their family." So it is in our country today. As our country's future becomes more fragile, many feel if they just keep their heads down and dont cause any trouble, all will be well for their family. I don't believe that is a safe bet at all.

It reminds me of a most memorable poem, "Myxomatosis" by the UK poet Philip Larkin. The title refers to a disease that was purposefully imported into Australia to kill off the exploding rabbit population--rabbits having been brought to Australia by the colonizing British. Here is the poem, from 1955:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
while hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
   I make a sharp reply,
   Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
   Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
   You may have thought things would come right again
   If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Will the rabbit strategy of keeping still and waiting serve us well in the days to come? Pike says of the inhabitants of Oradour, "They typified the generally passive French attitude to their German occupiers. Shutters closed. Eyes shut. Waiting for it all to end."

Yes, Oradour is on my mind tonight . . .