When the small Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed by an SS Panzer division on 10 June 1944, 643 men, women and children tragically lost their lives. Few escaped the notorious massacre. One woman escaped through the window of the église Saint-Martin where the women and children were asphyxiated, shot at and then burned. A handful of men, got away from one of the other places of execution where the men were shot then set alight. Others successfully hid or fled as the SS approached. Small in number, their testimonies have proved invaluable to my own recent research. One cobbler, for example, was under surveillance because of his past links to communist militancy and fled fearing arrest. Two brothers, one an escaped prisoner of war the other an evader from obligatory work service in the Reich, known as STO, successfully hid in their usual hiding place until fire forced them out. Then there were several Jewish people. One older couple from the Bordeaux area were hidden by a neighbour in a cellar. A dentist from Brittany who had been staying in one of the village’s hotels having crossed the demarcation line watched event unfold from a ditch. And then there was the remarkable Pinède family.
The village of Oradour-sur-Glane had, by June 1944 become a microcosm of Vichy France. Support for Marshal Philippe Pétain had waned, though there were still some who had retained a belief in the ‘victor of Verdun’ far after their trust in the Vichy government had been eroded by years of restrictions, economy-draining and calls on manpower. Refugees had arrived from Spain and Alsace Lorraine, then during the ‘exode’ of May 1940, from all over the country. Families had sent children to small rural communities to find safety in the countryside. When evacuees returned North, Jews were left behind. When Alsace Lorraine was annexed, Francophone families from the region were expelled and Oradour even set up a school to accommodate the extra people. The hotels were filled with newcomers and housing crammed to bursting. The period of occupation did not mean soldiers or even miliciens on the streets in villages such as Oradour. It meant lots of new faces and new ways of getting by.
Robert Pinède, a veteran of the First World War, brought his wife, mother-in-law and three children to Oradour having failed to find work and shelter in nearby Saint-Junien, a town known for tanning and glove making. He had headed there from Bayonne in 1943 having helped secure passage for the Jewish community of the city to legally cross into what had become known as the ‘free zone’, despite full occupation in November 1942. He knew that French Jews were in danger of arrest and deportation even though the Vichy authorities had begun deportations with foreign Jews first. His mother, Gabrielle, was accommodated in the Hôtel Avril, next door to the village’s tram station and he rented an apartment for his teenage daughters and young son who had learning disabilities across the street from where he slept with his wife. He kept from his family that he was still working for Jewish aid agencies but had his finger on the pulse of the coming danger. When the SS arrived just after lunch on Saturday 10 June, he told his children to hide in a cellar under the hotel. From there they witnessed their parents and grandmother arrested. They would never see them again.
Francine, Jacqueline and André Pinède escaped with their lives. Uncharacteristically one of the troops let them escape when they stumbled into him. Other Jewish families were not so lucky. One Jewish girl called Sarah Jackobowicz was hiding in the home of the aforementioned cobbler and did not attend the round up for fear of deportation. Her charred body was found under a metal-framed bed by her brother days later. She had been hiding in Oradour for less than ten days. After the liberation of the area her remains were re-buried in a Jewish cemetery in Limoges.
What had life been like for Jews who had been living in Oradour-sur-Glane? Clearly, they were fearful of what was going on around them but very few spent their days in hiding, as had the young gentile Frenchmen desperate not to be called up to STO. The Pinède family lived happily among the rest of the population. Francine and Jacqueline enjoyed their new life in the countryside, cycling and going to watch the football team, though they drew the line at the illegal dances. Carmen, meanwhile, was thrilled that she finally had a garden in which André could thrive. The girls were unaware of Robert’s activities with the Jewish aid agencies, but felt safe. Jean Roumy, a former chief of the pétainist veteran association and head of what was known to be one of the more right-wing families in Oradour, lived next door neighbour to the Pinède family. There were no denunciations. Indeed, the Pinède and Roumy families became good friends. Carmen even agreed to let Marie Roumy keep her jewellery safe.
Oradour’s material remains were frozen in time when General De Gaulle ordered that the ‘village martyr’ be preserved as a national monument to France’s collective suffering during the German occupation. Its community was frozen in time too; lives ended but preserved in situ as an example of what a rural community in Vichy France had become by the time that the Allies landed in Normandy. In such places and against the grain of Vichy policy Jewish families were living in security. Oradour’s mayor's son André Desourteaux, referred to me as Jacqueline and Francine as ‘les petites juives’. They were firm friends. Conversely Frenchmen, terrified of being deported, were hiding. One, Paul Doutre, saw the operation from his attic where he had been hiding for a whole year. His next-door neighbours had no idea that he had been there, believing him to have been in one of the many chantiers de la jeunesse.
Nobody was spared at Oradour, pétainist or otherwise. In fact, no identity checks were made. Killing was indiscriminate and the intention of the German High Command was to erase a whole community from the map of France to warn the county’s population. More would follow, was the implication, should Resistance activity, of which there had been none in Oradour, continue. They very nearly succeeded in erasing Oradour-sur-Glane, but the courage and determination of its survivors ensured that the name lived on.
By Robert Pike