Robert Hébras, final survivor of notorious bloodbath in France, dies at 97

When Robert Hébras wandered by way of the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, the bucolic village in central France the place he grew up taking part in marbles on the street and marking time by the tolling of the church bells, he noticed “faces, people,” he mentioned, “not ghosts.”

In his reminiscences, Oradour lived on because the place it had been earlier than June 10, 1944, when German troops of the Second Waffen-SS Panzer Division entered the village and killed 642 males, girls and youngsters in one of many worst civilian massacres in Western Europe throughout World War II.

Only seven villagers survived. The final of these nonetheless residing was Mr. Hébras, who was 18 on the time of the assault and withstood a sprig of bullets buried below the corpses of his neighbors. His mom and two sisters perished within the church, the place the SS troopers had assembled the ladies and youngsters of Oradour earlier than setting the constructing afire with grenades.

Mr. Hébras, 97, died Feb. 11 at a hospital in Saint-Junien, close to Oradour. His granddaughter Agathe Hébras confirmed his demise however didn’t cite a trigger.

In the aftermath of the warfare, Oradour grew to become, within the description of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “an iconic symbol of German crimes against civilians in occupied Europe.” Mr. Hébras later emerged as a logo in his personal proper, a reminiscence keeper for his martyred city and a champion of reconciliation and peace in Europe and past.

“It’s always difficult for me to come here,” Mr. Hébras informed the London Guardian in 2013, referring to what remained of Oradour, a scene of devastation left basically untouched since 1944 in an everlasting memorial to the lifeless. “But it’s important to preserve these ruins and keep telling the story so it can continue to be passed down when we’re no longer here.”

Robert Roger Hébras was born in Oradour-sur-Glane — so named for the city’s location on the River Glane — on June 29, 1925. His father, Jean, a veteran of World War I, was an electrician for the native streetcar firm. He additionally delivered telegrams. Mr. Hébras’s mom, Marie, a homemaker, sewed leather-based gloves for a manufacturing unit in Saint-Junien.

In a memoir, Mr. Hébras recalled the sounds of his city because it had been in his youth — “the church bells and the anvil of the blacksmith shoeing cows and hobnailing our clogs.” A extra ominous sound that echoed in his reminiscence was that of the city crier, beating a drum in 1939 to announce that France was at warfare with Germany.

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The German invasion got here the next yr. Mr. Hébras discovered work throughout the occupation as an apprentice mechanic within the metropolis of Limoges. He had deliberate to work on June 10, 1944, however stayed house on the urging of his boss, who had not too long ago argued with a German officer over work on requisitioned autos. Mr. Hébras had finest not be within the neighborhood, they determined, in case of a retaliatory roundup.

It was a Saturday, and for all of the deprivations of the warfare, the temper in Oradour was mild. Four days earlier, the Allies had landed on the seashores of Normandy within the D-Day invasion.

“Word had been coming in all week about the successful Allied landings,” British historian Robert Pike wrote within the guide “Silent Village” (2021), an account of the bloodbath at Oradour. “Everybody knew that there was still a long way to go, but an end might finally be in sight.”

In Oradour that day with Mr. Hébras had been his mom and two of his three sisters, Georgette, age 22, and Denise, 9. His father was away working, and his eldest sister, Odette, was married and lived in one other city.

After lunch together with his mom and sisters, Mr. Hébras was exterior speaking with a good friend about an upcoming soccer match when the German convoy arrived. Troops from Das Reich, because the elite Panzer division was recognized, surrounded the city and gathered the villagers within the sq..

Among them had been 240 girls and 205 youngsters, who had been corralled into the church, based on the Holocaust museum. The males, 197 in all, had been separated into smaller teams and ushered into a number of barns.

“Two machine guns were set up in front of us,” Mr. Hébras recalled years later, based on the London Daily Telegraph. “The senior officer gave the order to fire.”

“We fell upon one … another,” he continued. “I found myself under bodies. Soldiers finished off the dying with a coup de grâce. I didn’t move or speak. Blood was flowing on to me. Then they covered us with anything which could burn and set it alight. When the flame got close to me, I had no choice: either I was to be burned alive or I would try to flee.”

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Mr. Hébras was wounded within the gunfire however mentioned that “the bullets had passed through the others and by the time they reached me they no longer had the power to go in deep.” Climbing out from below and over the lifeless our bodies, he left the barn and located refuge in a secure. By about 8 p.m., the Germans had been gone. As they left, they burned Oradour to the bottom.

Within weeks, information of the bloodbath reached the worldwide press. On July 14, 1944, The Washington Post printed a front-page article concerning the occasion. From these early stories and into current years, rumors have swirled about why, precisely, the Nazis visited their horrors upon Oradour.

According to 1 concept, the Germans had meant to assault the city of Oradour-sur-Vayres, the positioning of a resistance cell about 20 miles to the southwest, and struck Oradour-sur-Glane by mistake. Pike, the historian, rejected the notion out of hand; the operation was a lot too organized, he mentioned, for such a elementary error.

According to a different concept, the French Maquis, because the resistance fighters had been recognized, provoked the assault by storing arms in Oradour’s church. That story, in Pike’s view, is “complete nonsense.”

He characterised as “fantasy” one other thought, propounded by British writer Robin Mackness within the best-selling 1988 guide “Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath,” that the Nazis attacked Oradour in quest of gold stolen by the resistance.

Oradour was “a perfectly ordinary place” with “certainly no Maquis,” Pike mentioned in an interview. The bloodbath, he mentioned, was “a general strike to pacify the population.”

Mr. Hébras, for his half, regarded it as a “crime gratuit,” a gratuitous crime, and one which drove him to hitch the resistance. “In a way the Resistance came to save me,” Pike quoted him as saying. “I did not have a home to go to,” he mentioned. “I wanted revenge.”

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After the warfare, Mr. Hébras returned to his work with vehicles, repairing and promoting vehicles within the new city constructed exterior Oradour and later in Saint-Junien.

Mr. Hébras’s marriage to Yvonne Debelleix led to divorce. His second spouse, the previous Christiane Christophe, died in 2020 after 4 a long time of marriage. Besides his granddaughter, survivors embody a son from his first marriage, Richard Hébras of Saint-Junien; two different grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Hébras provided one in all his first public testimonies of the bloodbath in courtroom in 1953, when 21 members of Das Reich, together with greater than a dozen ethnic Germans from the French area of Alsace, had been prosecuted at a French navy tribunal. Twenty had been convicted however none spent greater than 5 years in jail.

Three a long time later, Mr. Hébras testified in what was then East Germany in opposition to Heinz Barth, an SS sergeant who had participated within the bloodbath at Oradour. Barth was convicted in 1983 and obtained a life sentence however was launched in 1997 due to his failing well being. He died in 2007.

In current a long time, Mr. Hébras devoted himself to honoring the lifeless of Oradour. He used his platform, as one of many vanishingly few survivors of a vanished place, to advertise reconciliation between France and Germany. He was embellished over time by each nations.

But he discovered that his work as a witness remained unfinished. After the whole lot that Oradour had misplaced, when all that remained was its reminiscence, even that got here, at occasions, below assault.

In 2005, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right French politician, was broadly denounced after he mentioned publicly that the German occupation of France had not been “particularly inhumane” and instructed that the Gestapo had tried to avert civilian deaths in episodes together with the bloodbath at Oradour-sur-Glane.

“It drives me mad that he denies the history,” Mr. Hébras informed the New York Times. “It’s terrifying to see that even after 60 years, I still have to fight for memory, to be vigilant, to justify, to prove.”

When the final survivor of Oradour dies, Mr. Hébras added, “who will be here to keep alive the memory, to bear witness?”

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