Monday, 6 January 2014

Tragic WWII Crime Inspires Historical Novel

By Liza Perrat

Once upon a time the peaceful village of Oradour-sur-Glane sat deep in the Limousin countryside of softly folding hills, of lakes, forests and lush fields dotted with russet-coloured cows. The people farmed the land, fished the lakes and gossiped on the village square. They drank in the cafés, playing cards and pétanque, and it seemed they almost existed in ignorance of World War 2 raging around them.

Typical French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, pre-War

But on the sunny afternoon of June 10, 1944, Das Reich’s SS soldiers marched into Oradour-sur-Glane and gathered the inhabitants on the village square. “For a simple identity check,” they claimed. They then took the men to the barns and herded the women and children into the church. The women and children must have heard the gunfire, as the SS machine-gunned their menfolk in the barns. They must have smelled the smoke as the soldiers covered the bodies –– many still alive –– with fuel and set the barns on fire.

The soldiers then detonated a box of explosives inside the church, but the roof did not collapse as hoped, so they finished off the job with machine guns and hand grenades. Again, they spread straw over the dead and wounded and set the church ablaze.

Oradour-sur-Glane church
Only two women and one child escaped the inferno. One was 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche. Her daughter dead by her side, Madame Rouffanche managed to climb out from a sacristy window, the stained glass of which had been blown out. She fell to the ground, but was uninjured. The second woman followed through the open window, carrying her baby.

All three fled, but the child’s cries attracted the attention of the SS, who shot and killed mother and baby. Madame Rouffanche crawled away and hid in a garden behind the church, where she remained until she was rescued the following morning by another group of villagers who’d fled when the soldiers had first appeared.

Later that night, after looting the village and setting it alight, the SS fled the village. In an unbelievable violation of a serene, rural village, 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane had been murdered in a few hours.

When the SS guns fell silent, Oradour-surGlane was no more.


After the war, the then French president, Charles de Gaulle, decided to maintain the original site as a permanent memorial and museum; it was to be left as it was the day of the Das Reich soldiers’ murder and torching rampage.

Several years ago I visited these ruins, staggering about in horrified disbelief at the remains of what was once the village of so many living, laughing and loving families: a rusted sewing machine, plates set at a table for the midday meal, the charred remains of a child’s doll, the blackened, crumbling façades of their homes. The car from which the village mayor was hauled and shot rusting on the roadside. Tram tracks running everywhere, but to nowhere. A squashed and rusted pram littering the church floor in front of the altar –– all of it telling the sad tale of people cut down in the midst of their normal, usual, daily routine.

The eerie silence begs the visitor to stop walking, and if you listen hard enough it seems you can hear their ghostly sounds: the banter and laughter of adults, the playful shrieks of children, the barking of dogs, the cries of the village artisans. The echoes of a village obliterated.

Sign at the entrance to the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane

Stunned beyond words, I left the ruins, knowing that one day I would write a story about Oradour-sur-Glane, and, many years later, this tragedy became the basis for my second novel the historical L’Auberge des Anges series, Wolfsangel, published under the TriskeleBooks label in October, 2013.

Why the massacre? Why Oradour-sur-Glane?

On 10 June 1944, four days after D-Day, the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich was getting ready to leave for Normandy to fight the Allied landing. On the orders of Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, about two hundred of them surrounded Oradour-sur-Glane. Many theories abound, such as reprisal for the shooting of an SS officer, or punishment for Resistance fighters, though historians are not certain why the unassuming little town of Oradour was singled out for such a terrible massacre. The most likely explanation is that Das Reich was keen to make an example of a French community, and Oradour happened to be close at hand.

What became of the murderers?
Many were killed in Normandy during the following weeks. Those men of the Alsace-Moselle region who had been forcibly enrolled into the SS –– the Malgré Nous –– were sentenced to prison terms after World War II, but later pardoned. Their involvement though, still seems to cause ill feeling within France.

Obersturmführer Heinz Barth was sentenced to death in absentia by a French Court, but managed to hide in what was then East Germany under a false identity. Finally captured in 1981, he received a life sentence and was paroled in 1997 with a pension as a “war victim”.

Recently, with the release of Stasi files bringing fresh evidence against the surviving ex-SS men allegedly present at Oradour, German authorities have reopened cases against them:

Also inspired from dramatic fact, though on a far smaller scale, was my first novel in L’Auberge des Anges historical series –– Spirit of Lost Angels –– published under the Triskele Books label in May, 2012.

On a walk along the banks of the Garon River, in the French village in which I live, I stumbled upon a small stone cross, named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly).

Engraved with a heart shape, it was dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried? From the local historical organization, I learned a little about them, and their tragic drowning inspired me write the story of these lost little ones; to give them a family, a village, an identity. Thus was born the Charpentier family, the village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, the Vionne River and the family farm –– L’Auberge des Anges (The Inn of Angels).

Even before I had finished writing Spirit of Lost Angels, I knew the characters had more tales to tell, and I wanted to continue the story of this family, their farmhouse and their village, and what might have been their lives during different historical eras and upheavals. The characters already had strong bonds: their village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, L’Auberge des Anges (Inn of Angels) farmhouse, and their bloodline. The women also shared the same profession: healer, midwife and angel-maker.

Wolfsangel follows the descendants of the Charpentier family a hundred and fifty years after the French Revolution, when Lucie-sur-Vionne comes under the heel of the German occupation, and I am currently working on the third novel in the series, Midwife Héloïse – Blood Rose Angel, set in the same French village, and following the same family, during the Black Plague years of the 14th century.

Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years.

When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator and as a novelist.

Several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.

She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

Liza is a co-founder and member of the exciting new author collective, Triskele Books.
For more information about Liza, please visit her website.

Spirit of Lost Angels: Available as eBook and paperback at all Amazon stores, Kobo, and Smashwords.
Wolfsangel: Available as eBook and paperback at Amazon stores, Smashwords and Kobo.
Friends, Family & Other Strangers From Downunder: A collection of fourteen humorous, horrific and entertaining short stories about Australians, for readers everywhere. Available as eBook at all Amazon stores.

The Triskele Trail:
Once upon a time, there were five writers.
They believed there was a third way of publishing, somewhere over the rainbow.
So they packed their books and set off to explore.
This is what happened on the journey.
The Triskele Trail is a true story.
About a writers' collective who made some mistakes and some smart decisions; who discovered opportunities, found friends and dodged predators in the independent publishing jungle.
Fourteen books later, here are the lessons we learned.
This is not a How-To book.
This is How-We-Did-It.
This is The Triskele Trail.
Available as an e-Book at all Amazon stores.

Contact and Other Information
Twitter: @LizaPerrat
Author Collective:
Twitter: @TriskeleBooks
Oradour-sur-Glane photographs courtesy of Dennis Nilsson 

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