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February 8, 2002
Words can't express (Gail)

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Making lunch on the road

While the first four months of this trip were planned with great care, these last few months are more, ah, free form. Arriving in France with no plans gave us the freedom to go where we wanted, when we wanted. It also gave us some anxiety, especially over the holiday season, while we looked for accommodations for the four of us at a price we could afford. We have been lucky.

While we are aware that our days of long haul travel are fast approaching, we weren't too sure about doing big trips just yet so had contented ourselves with shorter day trips. However, because our time in France is fast running out we decided to make a few more major excursions to explore the area. So out came the maps, the tour guidebook and our best hopes. We decided to try for the Languedoc and Dordogne regions. These were two places that we had never considered because they were so far and we really had very little idea about what there is in the regions to see with two kids. We made our plans and were not disappointed.

The Languedoc region was beautiful, very enjoyable. It was a bit of a drive but closer than we thought. I would very much like to return there someday. Though I do not like the edges, the rock formations and history are compelling. Russell and I rediscovered our mutual love of rough landscapes first realized on a cross-country trip we took with the boys years ago. We were also very lucky with the weather while we were in Languedoc and that always makes travel more enjoyable. We decided that we would like to be on the autoroute as little as possible. So on the way to our destination in Dordogne we took more northerly side roads through high country, and on the way home drove a more southerly route through part of the Massif Central, the mountainous center of the country. In doing so we saw pasturelands and the old volcanic regions with the high rock volcanic cones rising out of the valley floors. Breathtaking.

We had thought our trip there would take about 6-8 hours and had decided to head right for the hotel. But at 3:00 we were already at Oradour so we decided to stop and tour the town that day instead of driving two hours back up two days later. We had read a bit about the history and destruction and thought we were prepared. We weren't. As we approached the new Oradour, the old was clearly visible from the main road. We have seen many ruins in France but nothing like this. This was modern, this happened within personal memory of people who still live in the area.

The museum was extremely well done, giving all the details about the atrocities that took place here. There were timelines, photos and testimonies. The most moving thing for me was the home movies that were playing. One set was of the people of Oradour going about their daily lives. They were pushing strollers, walking down the streets and fishing in the river. The movies looked like family had taken them in better days. The other set of movies was taken by the German SS showing the destruction, fires and deaths. These were in the same area and the comparison was overwhelming.

Entering through the gate was eerie. It felt appropriate that the day was gray and cold. We were just about the only people present adding to the lonely feeling about the town. Many of the shops had signs on the walls to let you know what type of business was there. There were bullet holes in the shop walls lining the streets. There were rusted cars in the yards, bicycles in shops. But it was all the sewing machines in all the different shops and homes that really affected me. They really underscored the fact of the women and children who were caught in this horror. Unlike the Jews, resistance fighters and those who were hiding Jews, these people had absolutely no reason to fear, no reason to believe they would ever be singled out for this type of action. Some were just visitors passing through who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of them were completely innocent and unaware.

This happened in the middle of the day when most men were probably out of town working. Those left were probably the older men, those who worked in the town, and the women and the children. At one point Russell and the boys had walked ahead of me. I was completely alone. Standing in front of a small shop my anger at the useless deaths here became very real, and I felt so powerless. What would I have done in the same circumstances? I wanted to sit down and cry for them all.

Later we walked up to the Church. It was so moving to stand there with my boys and think of the women and children who had died so violently. The idea of the church as sanctuary must have occurred to them, making them feel safe until they heard the first gunshots, realizing only then that they had been herded there to die. The bullet holes in the wall, the stroller left near the altar, and the window were one woman either overcome by fear or bravery escaped. The fire was so hot that the bell in the tower fell and melted. It still sits on the church floor where it fell.

In 1953 there was a trial with the court handing down verdicts of death and hard labor. However, not one person was ever punished for this. One week later the verdicts were overturned. Amid much national debate the government of France gave the French Alsace participants who had been forced into the German Army amnesty. One SS officer did escape and lived for years in Eastern Germany a free man until the mid 1980s when Germany reunited.

Periodically throughout the town there are signs that describe what happened in that particular spot inscribed with the words "gather here". The one word upon entry is "Remember."

I will never be able to forget.

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