10th June 1944
Not many of you will know what anniversary falls today – the 10th of June. I wonder how many of you have heard of Oradour-sur-Glane, in France? I have to admit that until several years ago, I hadn’t.
Oradour was a beautiful small town in southwest France. It was peacefully isolated in the Charente countryside and even during WW2 it remained relatively untouched by the horrors or war. Oradour had schools, a couple of hotels, a hairdresser, a baker, a butcher, a garage, a doctor’s surgery and cafés. It even had a tram system that carried townspeople to nearby Limoges. I list these things to clarify the scale of Oradour. This wasn’t a small hamlet; it was a thriving community as you can see from these old photographs.
As human beings we are capable of wondrous achievements and extraordinary kindness. The vast majority of us possess a conscience – a voice inside each of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. Occasionally however, either through self-preservation, fear or mental instability, some people perpetrate such violence that it leaves the rest of us breathless; incapable of comprehending the magnitude of malevolence humans are capable of inflicting on others. One of these occasions took place on a sunny afternoon on 10th June 1944 when the Nazis drove into Oradour. Six hundred and forty-two people were killed. The town was looted and set alight.
Charles de Gaulle declared that the ruins must stay as a permanent national monument to the townspeople’s suffering. I've visited Oradour-sur-Glane four times. The first time left me horrified and tormented. Tormented not just because of what had taken place there, but because seventy-four years later, the buildings are crumbling, rusting and disappearing. Will people still remember in another seventy-four years time?
In one very small way, I felt compelled to help keep the memory alive. I was desperate tell the story from a survivor’s viewpoint. I had to create a protagonist to lead her through her family’s war years, so I chose a twenty-year-old farm girl, named Arlette. I placed her in a farm environment because I wanted her to be just an ordinatry person from a hardworking, law-abiding family. France was, and still is, a huge participant in the agricultural world economy so it seemed fitting to set my story in a rural location on a farm.
I’ve walked the roads of this once quaint town many times in order to absorb the atmosphere and to witness first-hand the place that I’m writing about in my novel, Arlette’s Story. As you can imagine, I feel a weight of responsibility in writing about fictional characters living through a real atrocity, and rightly so. I wanted to honour the villagers' last hours with respect and honesty and knew that it was essential that I chose the right words and didn't glamourize this horrendous crime. The facts are true and based on first-hand accounts from several people who miraculously escape on that day.
Arlette’s Story isn’t solely a story about war. For several years Arlette feels its reverberations but she also builds friendships, laughs, falls in love, enjoys family life, experiences adventures and lives her life positively despite challenges placed in her way. That is until the day she helps her grandmother into the family’s horse and trap and takes her back to Oradour-sur-Glane …