January 27th, 1945: the day of liberation for the largest and most notorious extermination camp of the Holocaust: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Because of this, the U.N. has designated this date as the day for all to pause and remember the victims of Nazi genocide. In commemoration of this day, I’m writing a long-overdue post about one of my last European excursions: my trip to Poitiers, France (there’s a connection, I promise).
It was a trip to go and visit family. I’ve testified time and again to my family’s incredibleness, and my first-cousin-once-removed is further evidence of this (not just because she’s fabulous and has lived in France for the past 15 years, but because I hadn’t seen her since I was quite young and she was still the most generous host and tour guide of the year.) Because the bonds of my mother’s family run incredibly deep, she not only invited me over for a weekend in her magnificent Poitiers, but she personalized the weekend for me with World War II ‘activities’. The first of which was meant to be a casual tea with two of her dear friends, professors at the University of Poitiers; a married couple, his father had been involved in the French Resistance during the war. But this visit wasn’t just confined to a casual tea; her friends had invited a local historian, who not only brought along props for discussion, but had created a CD chalk full of incredible resources for me, a person he had never met. On this CD were archival documents, a small book that this man had written, and many other pieces that spoke above and beyond of his generosity. To say that the entire afternoon was touching is quite an understatement (especially as the historian didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak French, and the entire extravaganza had to be translated). But the learning was not to stop there.
The next day, we loaded up in the car and headed to Oradour-sur-Glane. It was a quiet Sunday, with rotating sun and cloud cover that provided the experience with both illuminating and somber moments. For you see, this entire village was destroyed in WWII, and the only remains are crumbling walls scarred with blackened edges left from the flames set upon them on June 10, 1944. Four days before this massacre was the storming of the beaches at Normandy, which resulted in an order to ‘ “crush” the resistance “with swift and ruthless initiative,” and express the “expectation that the major operation against the gangs [i.e., partisans] in Southern France will be carried out with the greatest severity and without leniency”.’* Part of this ruthless initiative took place in Oradour-sur-Glane, with the murder of 642 men, women and children (almost the entire village population) in retaliation for the kidnapping of a German soldier by the French Resistance. The men of the village were killed in locked barns, but the women and children were herded into the church, which was then set on fire and bombarded with grenades. Most of those who managed to escape the fiery buildings were gunned down, though a tiny handful were fortunate to flee with their lives. The Waffen-SS then pillaged homes and businesses, and set the village on fire.
Upon entering what were once bustling streets, you are greeted with a sign that calls for ‘silence’. I was highly impressed by both the number of visitors and their vow of silence that day, as well as the museum that stands above the village remains. What were once thriving hair salons and doctors’ offices are now only distinguishable by descriptive plaques, and the only way to identity former houses are the charred remains of sewing machines and iron pans. One of the more iconic images that keep the empty walls company is the shells of cars whose metal has been warped and rusted from both flames and time. The tragedy there is still palpable, almost 70 years after this brutal event.
Oradour-sur-Glane is still in the news, as perpetrators are still being prosecuted:
Apart from this commemorative post, I have good news to report! On Friday, as I’ve already written about, I received my certificate for my master’s degree; so, I was pretty much on cloud 9 all day. And then, the day got even better. Several weeks ago, I submitted a proposal, alongside my amazing professor from UW, to present a portion of my dissertation at a Holocaust and genocide conference at Millersville University this April. Friday evening I received an email stating that our proposals had been accepted, and that we will indeed be presenting on the same panel. One of the biggest pieces of advice that the incredible professors from Poitiers had given me in their dining room back in November was to continue on in the academic world, and to try my hand at conferences. Challenge accepted, and I can feel loads better about the daunting process that is the job hunt with this acceptance sitting in my inbox! It was the boost of confidence I needed after last week, and I’m still so happy that I don’t even care that it’s still snowing outside (WHOA!). Stay warm, my friends!