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France is a pretty country full of pretty little villages. But Oradour-sur-Glane is not pretty.

On June 10, 1944, the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 1st Battalion, stormed this village in the Limousin region of southwestern France, sealed off every exit, and then systematically dragged every man, woman, and child to the village square for what they termed an “identity check.” They separated the men from the women and children, shooting anyone who resisted. Then they killed the women and children in the church by asphyxiating them with a smoke bomb. Those who did not die quickly enough were shot. In other buildings, they mowed down the men with machine guns. The Nazi troops trampled over the prostrate bodies, shooting at close range any who moved; then they burned the buildings and bodies. Oradour-sur-Glane had been wiped out.

Wiped out, but not forgotten. Just a few months later, France was liberated, and when Gen. Charles de Gaulle visited the site he declared that Oradour-sur-Glane should be left as it was. The ruined village remains unreconstructed today, its burned buildings and rusted automobile remnants serving as a memorial to the victims.

Though Oradour-sur-Glane is well known among the French, not many tourists are aware of it. You’ll find few American honeymooners there; nor will you see the typical youth hostel crowd. What I did see were busloads of French students, for whom a visit to Oradour is a rite of passage. Like them, I started my visit at the Centre de la Mémoire, a museum featuring displays on the rise of Nazism and a short film. Most of the information is in French but some of it, including the film, is translated into English.

The museum is informative, but the destroyed village speaks for itself. A large sign reading “Silence” greets visitors at the entrance to the town. Even the nervous French students obey this command; we are too shocked by what we see to talk.
The streets of Oradour-sur-Glane are lined with building after burned-down building. There are roofless stone structures with broken-down walls, wires hanging limply from leaning telephone poles. Charred car remains, their metal frames twisted, tires burned off, and insides burned out, litter the ground.

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