On June 10, 1944, SS soldiers destroyed the village of Aradour-sur-Glans, killing 643 civilians. Nearly 80 years later, with the last surviving witness dead and the ruins crumbling beyond recognition, how should the memory of mass murder be immortalized?
The name of Aradur-sur-Glans, a village in central France, is etched in the collective memory as the largest massacre of civilians in France during the Second World War. In total 244 women, 207 children and 192 men were captured and shot or burned alive by members of the SS Panzer Division Das Reich.
It was a random massacre of everyone who happened to be in the village that day. Only six people survived.
The timing, however, was not accidental. Four days after D-Day, German troops were obsessed with terrorizing people in areas where the Resistance was active. So desperate that they targeted a village that was not known to be associated with Maquis.
“There was no active armed Resistance in Aradura,” says Robert Pike, author of The Silent Village, a book about the massacre. “It was a place of innocence, but also of ordinariness. It was in the wrong place and at the wrong time.”
Before leaving, the SS looted the village and set it on fire to erase it from the map.
But General Charles de Gaulle had other ideas. In November of the same year, his interim government declared Aradur a “village of martyrs”. And a few months later it was agreed that Aradur would be preserved in a state of ruin as a permanent reminder of Nazi barbarism.
Walls were built around the charred ruins, and the village was effectively frozen in time.
Listen to a report from the Village of Martyrs on the Spotlight on France podcast
Before the massacre, Aradour was a pretty country village with a tram link to the city of Limoges. Signs on some of the destroyed storefronts read names like quinqueillers (ironmonger), Charon (wheeled) or a saboteur (a clog maker) reflect its vibrant local economy at the time.
The decision to preserve this idyllic image of Aradour was deeply political.
“The whole idea of killing the village was very much part of the post-war Gaullist story,” Pike says.
“It was an example of the suffering of France under the German or Nazi boot – the idea of an idyllic France, the image of the republic as de Gaulle wanted to see it.
“U in those years and decades after the war, the word ‘martyr’ served its purpose.”
Ravaged by time
The tortured village became a living monument of death. About 300,000 visitors wander the ten hectares of ruins every year, a quarter of them from outside France.
“We were all saying how almost surreal it was, what a tragedy it was,” said Mark Greaney, a Briton who is exploring the cemetery with a group of friends from Hull in the UK. “But I think it’s beautiful that it’s being remembered, and the people in the village are being remembered, and it’s being looked after so well. It’s really touching.”
But visitors increasingly have to rely on their imagination. Destroyed by the elements and the passage of time, the ruined houses and shops are a shadow of their former appearance, while the rain has washed away most of the soot left by the burning inferno.
Rusty cars sink into the ground as their chassis fall apart and plants eat into the walls.
“I remember when I was a child the house still had a back wall,” says Benoit Sadry, head of the association of families of victims of mass murder, pointing to his aunt’s house in the central square where the roundup took place. She and six of the family’s seven children died during the massacre.
“The walls are crumbling and the vegetation is taking over,” Sadri notes. “It’s dangerous, something needs to be done quickly.”
Securing the site is important, but it is not the only problem: the physical memory of the massacre is lost.
Sadri points out that the bullet holes on the back wall of the Laudy barn, where many of the men were shot, are no longer visible. “And yet it’s a significant part of showing how, in just a few hours, a whole village was massacred.”
If Aradur is still going to be here 40 years from now, the money needs to be invested, he says.
Last year, the state agreed to fund work to consolidate the church – where 451 women and children were shot or burned alive – to the tune of around €500,000.
The Sadris and other families insist that the entire village needs to be preserved, and are launching a public fundraising campaign similar to that of Notre Dame.
“History with a human face”
There is still no talk of rebuilding the ruins of Aradur, but there is also no unanimity in fighting the passage of time. Is it possible to leave nature alone?
The question is easier to discuss, since 97-year-old Robert Hebras, the last of the six survivors of the massacre, died in February of this year.
Ebra tirelessly preserved the memory of Aradura, showing school parties on a ten-hectare site, holding conferences and writing books. He called for a moment of silence during the annual commemorations on June 10.
“This year, things will be different,” notes Sadri, “but Robert Ebra spoke to a lot of young people; as long as they can explain what happened, his voice will not be lost.»
As the ruins shrink, Aradura’s memory center takes on an even greater role. Opened in 1999, it houses the entrance to the Village of Martyrs and prepares visitors to make sense of the ruins.
Along the corridor leading to the village, there are hundreds of black and white photographs.
“It’s a story with a human face, not just numbers.» says historian Babette Robert, director of the memorial center.
“It’s not the 643 victims anymore, it’s that woman with that face, that child with that strand of hair in her eyes. iIt is very important that guests come to the village after seeing these faces.»
There are a few gaps in the lineup. “We still need to find 80 photos,” she says.
The memory center is working to go beyond the fallen village.
The new permanent exhibition, planned for late 2026, will shift the focus from the SS and the events of June 10, 1944 to “the victims, the residents, life in the village both before and after the massacre.” – says Robert.
Life in Aradura
The consequences of the massacre were really severe. The families of the survivors were housed in temporary wooden shelters nearby, and then between 1947 and 1953 the state built a new village in the shadow of its martyred sister – one new house for every house destroyed.
But despite indoor bathrooms and other modern conveniences, it took time for people to come back. And those who followed collective mourning – widows dressed in black, and residents refused to paint their houses in bright colors.
“It was not easy to live next to a destroyed village with such heavy mourning,” says Sadri, who is also the village’s deputy mayor.
It took 20 years to restore some social and economic life, he adds, and after losing a generation of children, it wasn’t until 1964 that they had enough young people to form a football team again.
But over the years, new people have moved into the village, and only 20 percent of Aradur’s current population, like the Sadri, are descendants of the victims.
“The perception of the martyr village has changed a lot with the newcomers who have settled here, which is very encouraging,” he says. – The generation of young parents says: “If we come to live in Aradur, we will become a part of that history, it is interesting.”
Local schoolchildren benefit from workshops with artists and writers. “It’s not always sad and dramatic,” notes Sadri.
Meanwhile, Babette Robert is multiplying projects with other European countries where mass killings took place during the Second World War, such as Lidice in the Czech Republic, Otranto in Italy and a few in Greece.
Mass murders may seem distant, but they still resonate, Cedry says, recalling Robert Hebras’s reaction when In March 2022, mass burials of civilians were discovered in Bucha, Ukraine.
He says the surviving Aradur told him, “Wwhat we see on TV is exactly what we saw in the village back then. It took me back 80 years.”