Earlier this month, the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck, and his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, traveled together to the Limousin, a small region in central France, to visit a place of awful sadness and shame.
Their destination was what once had been a living village, Oradour-sur-Glane, beside a little river in a peaceful countryside of meadows and forested hills.
But on a June afternoon in 1944 — just days after the Allied landing on the Normandy coast — the Oradour of that time ceased to exist.
Adolf Hitler’s Waffen SS “Das Reich” Division swept into the village, assembled the population in the market square, confined the men and women and children in separate groups, and murdered them all — the men by shooting them with machine guns and the women and youngsters by burning them in the village church.
Forty-one years later, in 1985, I was living in France with my family when President Ronald Reagan made a controversial and ill-advised visit to the Bitburg war cemetery. Among the German soldiers buried there were some who had participated in the martyrdom of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Reagan’s presence was meant to symbolize U.S.-German friendship. But many French people and others found it deeply offensive.
The event drew much notice by the U.S. and European media. News people flocked to Bitburg. But I wanted no part of that circus.
Instead, I took a train south to Oradour. And I cannot recall ever being as profoundly moved as I was during the long day I spent there.
The village had been left exactly as it was after that afternoon of unspeakable evil. Only the stone walls of the houses, the shops and the church remained. All else had been burned.
Plaques at various points throughout the ruins identified locations at which mass killings had taken place. Often, reading those, I found myself in tears. Great silence ruled those streets that once had been filled with music and childish voices.
I believe the hardest task of my career as a journalist was an interview I undertook in my broken French with a man who had been away, fighting with the Resistance, when the SS descended on Oradour, and who returned to find he no longer had a family.
Late in that day, shortly before I left for the train to return to Paris, I witnessed a shocking incongruity.
An enormous motorbus swung off the rural roadway and came rocking into what had been left of the village. It braked on the main street. Its doors opened with a hiss.
And out bounded a noisy load of 30 or so German sightseers — robust women in short, bright dresses, the men in knee socks and lederhosen.
A shrine to unspeakable inhumanity, it seemed, has become a tourist destination.