By 8 am we were on a special bus for the start of a visit to Oradour sur Glane, a small village founded in 1563 which is France’s Lidice. The village was on the route north taken by German troops to reinforce Axis armies in Northern France in June 1944 after the Allied D-Day landing. At the time it had a population of fewer than 1,000. For no apparent reason, the Waffen SS Das Reich division, which had been killing Resistance workers on its way north, rounded up everyone present in the village. They forced all the Oradour women and children into the village church, locked the men in several barns, and set fire to these buildings with the inhabitants inside. After they were burned to death, they were shot and their bodies mutilated, so that afterwards, it was possible to identify only 40 of the 643 bodies of the villagers. It was not only a terrible loss, but proper mourning was impossible for the survivors. Before leaving, German soldiers systematically destroyed all the village shops and homes. An 8-year-old child who jumped out the church window and hid in the church grounds was one of the rare survivors. A woman and her infant who had jumped with her were discovered and shot when the baby cried. An 80-year-old French woman who had travelled by tram to Oradour that fateful day to visit relatives but was stopped at the edge by grinning German soldiers recounted the history of the village to us.
The ruins of the village remain as they were left in 1944, as a memorial to the Martyrs of Oradour (photo 1; photo 2). A new Oradour sur Glane was built between 1947 and 1957 next to the old village, and recently a memorial center was opened in Oradour by the Department of Haute-Vienne, recounting the history of the martyred villagers. We learned that soldiers of the Das Reich Division located and tried after the war were granted amnesty on the grounds that they were Alsatians who had been drafted into the German army, a source of lasting bitterness to the French of Limousin. It was a somber start to our 5-day visit.
We had the first of our huge French midday meals in a restaurant in the new Oradour. Enjoying the dinner-size plate of shredded carrots, lentils, beets, beans, and lettuce, not even touching the French bread, I thought "This is a lunch after my own heart.” Then the salad plate was replaced with the hot main course of meat, potatoes and vegetables, followed by dessert. As with all French meals, wine was at the table, as water would have been in London or New York. No, that’s wrong. More than once, we had to ask for water in a restaurant, but we never had to ask for wine.
In the afternoon we were taken on a guided walk through wartime Jewish Limoges. There were 5,000 declared Jews in Limoges in 1941. We learned that Limoges is the oldest Socialist city in France. Many working in the city administration during the war were in the Resistance and protected both workers and Jews. Actual cooperation between Jews and the Resistance began in 1942. When in January 1943 Germans asked Limoges for the number of Jews surviving in the City, the administration replied that there weren’t any. We visited a private house, which was used by OSE as a boarding house for Jewish children during the war; it was then called Cours Jean Penicaud. About 50 boys and girls lived or were sheltered in the house; 20 to 30 children lived in the house at any one time, and some classes were held there.
Then we walked on a downtown street that had held shops owned by Jews who came from Istanbul in the 1920s. Nearby in old Limoges were houses where Jews were fed and able to spend a night during the war. In every house on that street, there were some families feeding and helping Jews. Of most interest to me were two houses where Rabbi Abraham Deutsch, leader of Jewish Limoges during the war, set up classes for boys and girls. It was Rabbi Deutsch to whom my parents went after they came out of hiding in the mountains near Chateau Le Couret, who gave them money and told them where they could get food. Now I was walking where more than 60 years ago my homeless and destitute mother and father survived in October and November 1942.
In the evening we were invited to attend Shabbat services at the only synagogue in Limoges. It occupies a spacious building that had formerly been a garage. It is bright, airy, and attractive, and although all the facilities are on one level, the interior is two stories high. The synagogue was consecrated in 1967 and has a membership of 60 families. Usually about 20 people attend services, but on this special occasion the congregation swelled to over 75. A rabbi affiliated with Chabad came from Paris and officiated, conducting a Sephardic service. At the conclusion, instead of shaking hands on saying Good Shabos, the French kissed us and each other on both cheeks, which I found charming. Before Kiddush, everyone joined in singing Sholem Alechem. The Kiddush was long, sociable, and elaborate, with such a great number and variety of hors d’oeuvres that I mistook the convivial event for the meal we had been promised; then after a great while, tables were set and we sat down to a convivial cold supper.
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