Updated: Apr 20, 2018
My Swiss-French friend and I were sitting in Whole Foods several years back, when a woman asked if she could share our table. Immediately this woman and my friend began speaking French, and the three of us became very comfortable together. Her name was Antoinette West. We met her in St. Louis, Missouri.
As we ate lunch, Antoinette's casual conversational tone shifted to a dramatic, emotionally-charged personal memory after I told her about my book, The Resistance Between Us.
She told us she had lived in Paris as a toddler. After the French defeat and Occupation in 1940, the French were forced into food rationing—when the Germans took over French agriculture to feed the German army. Her parents worried because they never had enough food for her. They sent her to live with her grandparents in the countryside, where food was more plentiful.
She was only seven-and-a-half years old on 10 June 1944, just four days after the D-Day invasion. That day her grandpa suddenly felt compelled to take Antoinette and her Grandmere to visit people he knew at Oradour-sur-Glane.
Antoinette remembered that as they approached the town, the odor of burning (flesh) was so overwhelming her Grandmere pleaded with her husband to turn around and go home. She was terrified of what they would find—and how it would affect little Antoinette. But after their argument, her Grandpere became even more troubled, and insisted on going forward.
As they approached the town, "My Grandma covered my eyes with her hands so I could not see," Antoinette told me. (She said she was as curious as any child told not to do something by an adult, so she looked.) "Even so, I saw it, watching between her fingers. You never forget a sight like that."
I was deeply impressed that this woman could share such a horrific experience from her childhood. One can only imagine the ghastly smell and smoke: the town still smoldering, and the deadly quiet.
Oradour-sur-Glane was the site of this, the worst French reprisal in World War II. Its 642 people were murdered as punishment for the death of one Nazi, Sturmbannfuehrer Helmet Kampfe, commander of Der Fuehrer Battalion III.
Adolf Hitler had personally commissioned Adolf Diekmann, Der Fuehrer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich, to kill French Resistants. German forces fleeing Normandy after the Allied landing were increasingly vulnerable to sudden Resistance attacks.
Diekmann had been highly decorated for bravery with two iron crosses and other medals. He had sustained a bullet in his lung during fighting in France in 1940. Three weeks before Oradour, Diekmann committed notorious reprisals—ten Frenchmen killed for one German—in several towns near Oradour.
The violence in Oradour-sur-Glane was more than brutal. The men were shot in the legs, and not able to move. Their women and children had been locked in the town church. The men were forced to listen to them scream in terror as they were burned to death.
Then the men were doused with petrol, and they were set aflame. The whole village burned to the ground.
And the nightmarish, concluding irony was: Diekmann had chosen the wrong town for the carnage!
The Resistance had held Helmut Kampfe in Oradour-sur-Vayres, which should have been the Nazi target.
A twenty-year-old American eyewitness, Raymond J. Murphy (a B-17 navigator downed nearby) recorded the massacre. He saw a baby who had been crucified.
In The Resistance Between Us, Ingrid's mother, Mathilde, apprises her of Oradour, because Mathilde has learned about it through the underground grapevine.
The story haunts Ingrid.
Escorted by a regional Obersturmfuehrer, she attends a soiree held at the home of wealthy members of her upper caste. No one mentions a word of it, even at the dinner table.
Ingrid sadly concludes these former acquaintances-turned-collaborators are no longer French.
It's hard to imagine how the grownup child who is Antoinette West could manage to share her story with two women who knew about, but could not nearly imagine such a sight, such an extraordinary memory. A mu-tual friendship grew that day, sharing a table, and a story of the French Resistance come to life at, of all places, Whole Foods in St. Louis, Missouri.
Phyllis Kimmel Libby
copyright March 2018; all rights reserved