One of the regular readers of my blog asked a question, in a comment on my previous Oradour-sur-Glane post, about how a German soldier managed to put a fire bomb inside the Oradour-sur-Glane church without burning himself up, or allowing the women inside the church to extinguish the fire.
The question is
Were the strings (wicks) short, and the soldiers were blown up with their victims?
or were [the stings or wicks] long enough to give them time to escape the church for safety — and allow people inside to extinguish them?
The only person, who could answer this question, would be Madame Rouffanche, the lone survivor of the Church, who is now dead. However, she did testify in the trial of the SS soldiers after the war.
The answer, according to the testimony of Madame Rouffanche, is long and complicated, so bear with me, while I explain the story with words and pictures.
Madame Rouffanche was over 50 years old, and overweight
The photo below shows the front of the Oradour-sur-Glane church, where women and children were burned alive on June 10, 1944 by SS soldiers, including some soldiers from the French province of Alsace.
The front of the ruined church in Oradour-sur-Glane
The photo above shows the front of the Oradour-sur-Glane church. On the left side, there is an open doorway, with no door, which is the entrance into the sacristy, sometimes called the vestry. The sacristy was the room that contained the ceremonial clothing of the priests, called the vestments. In the photo above, the main door into the church is on the right, at the top of the steps into the church tower.
Madame Marguerite Rouffanche, the only survivor of the fire in the church, said that SS soldiers entered through the front door, and placed a “smoke bomb” near the choir, which was in the back of the church.
Damage inside the Oradour-sur-Glane church
The photo above shows the damage to the floor of the church near the communion rail which was in the front of the Oradour-sur-Glane church. You can see a bit of the remains of the Communion rail on the right in the photo. This photo contradicts the testimony of Madame Rouffanche who said that a smoke bomb was placed in the back of the church.
The photo below shows that the location of the floor damage is close to the altar of the church, not in the back of the church, as Madame Rouffanche testified in court. The damage might have been caused by a hand grenade, or something else thrown into the church, as there is no smoke damage.
Damage to the church floor was in the front of the church
Madame Rouffanche testified that the women and children rushed to the front of the church and tried to escape through the sacristy door. The women broke open the sacristy door and some of the women entered the sacristy, but were gunned down by SS soldiers who were standing guard outside.
The photo below shows the inside of the damaged sacristy of the church. Soldiers were standing outside this door, shooting the women who tried to escape.
Door to the outside of the sacristy
The photo above shows the inside of the sacristy. The original door, which probably burned in the fire, has not been replaced, but you can still see the enormous hook that once fastened this door from the inside. The room is filled with rubble and the stair on which Madame Rouffanche said that she sat is no longer there. Through the doorway you can see the courtyard of the church.
Door to the sacristy from inside the church has been nailed shut
The door to the sacristy, from inside the church, has been replaced with a wooden door that has been nailed shut. Note the child’s pram that has been placed strategically inside the church. The heartless German soldiers were killing babies in their prams inside the church.
Window inside the sacristy was too high up for the women to escape
The sacristy was an unfamiliar place to the women in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. In those days, women were not allowed to go beyond the communion rail, unless they were cleaning the church. They were not allowed near the main altar unless they were placing flowers there or decorating the church. The sacristy was a private room that only the priests and the altar boys could enter; it was off limits to women.
The following testimony was given by Madame Rouffanche in the 1953 Military Tribunal at Bordeaux, as quoted in the Official Publication:
“Shoved together in the holy place, we became more and more worried as we awaited the end of the preparations being made for us. At about 4 p.m. some soldiers, about 20 years old placed a sort of bulky box in the nave, near the choir, from which strings were lit and the flames passed to the apparatus which suddenly produced a strong explosion with dense, black, suffocating smoke billowing out. The women and children, half choked and screaming with fright rushed towards the parts of the church where the air was still breathable. The door of the sacristy was then broken in by the violent thrust of one horrified group. I followed in after but gave up and sat on a stair. My daughter came and sat down with me. When the Germans noticed that this room had been broken into they savagely shot down those who had tried to find shelter there. My daughter was killed near me by a bullet fired from outside. I owe my life to the idea I had to shut my eyes and pretend to be dead.
Firing burst out in the church then straw, faggots and chairs were thrown pele-mele onto bodies lying on the stone slabs. I had escaped from the killing and was without injury so I made use of a smoke cloud to slip behind the altar.
The altar inside the Oradour-sur-Glane church had 3 windows behind it
In this part of the church there are three windows. I made for the widest one in the middle and with the help of a stool used to light the candles, I tried to reach it.
The widest window was the one in the middle
The wall underneath the window where Madame Rouffanche climbed up
I don’t know how but my strength was multiplied. I heaved myself up to it as best I could and threw myself out of the opening that was offered to me through the already shattered window. I jumped about nine feet down.
Madame Rouffanche jumped out of the window on the left side; note the plaque under the window
Madame Rouffanche jumped out of the middle window and stuck the landing
Note that the ground underneath the church windows slants down to a retaining wall that is 10 feet high. The window, where Madame Rouffanche jumped is 9 feet from the ground.
From there, she crawled around to a garden behind the church and hid between the rows of peas until she was found the next day at 5 p.m. and taken to a hospital.
Madame Rouffanche checked into the hospital under an assumed name, just in case the SS soldiers should try to track her down and kill her. After all, she was the only witness to what happened in the church, so her life was in danger.
Many accounts of her escape from the church say that Madame Rouffanche used a “ladder,” but it is more likely that it was a stool, as Madame Rouffanche mentioned in her testimony. The space between the back of the altar and the wall under the window is only about two feet wide, hardly wide enough to use a ladder.
Strangely, the bodies of 15 to 20 children were found piled up behind the alter in the narrow space where Madame Rouffanche said that she had used a stool to climb up to the window, according to the Bishop’s Office report. Why didn’t the children climb up and jump out of the window? They didn’t need a stool; the children could have stood on each other’s shoulders and climbed out. But for some reason, they didn’t.
The bottom edge of the middle church window is around 9 feet from the floor of the church. The wall under the window is about six feet straight up and then it is an additional three feet up a slanted section of the wall. Apparently, Madame Rouffanche shoved the children aside and climbed out by herself, leaving the children to burn to death.
The stool or ladder, which Madame Rouffanche used, apparently burned up in the fire in the church, as it is no longer there.
Madame Rouffance said that she picked the middle window for her leap to freedom because it was wider than the other two; her photo shows that Madame Rouffanche was not skinny, so thankfully, there was a window wide enough for her leap.
In her court testimony, Madame Rouffanche said that she did not climb up to the window until after the church had been set on fire by the SS soldiers. By this time, most of the women in the church were already dead. She had survived the gas bomb that was set off in the church and the shots fired into the sacristy, as well as the grenades tossed through the doors and windows and she had not been wounded by the hundreds of shots fired by the soldiers inside the church. She testified that she went behind the altar, hiding behind a cloud of smoke, and found a stool that had been used to light the candles on the altar.
Back in 1944, when I used to go to Mass in a Catholic Church in a small town in America, the altar boys used a long stick to light the candles; they did not climb up on a stool.
The bars which are on the Oradour-sur-Glane church window today were not there when Madame Rouffanche made the leap from the window, according to a staff member at the Center of Memory.
The staff member at the Center of Memory also told me that Madame Rouffanche was not injured when she jumped from the window because shrubbery near the building broke her fall. The shrubbery might also have prevented her from rolling off the ledge, since the ground under the window slants down to a retaining wall. Today this area has been closed off and there is no access to the spot where she landed after leaping from the window.
The bodies of 23-year-old Henriette Joyeaux and her 7-month-old son, Rene, were identified after they were found buried near the church. According to Madame Rouffance, another woman had also climbed up to the window and had called out to her to catch her baby which she then threw out the window. Meanwhile, there were 15 to 20 children cowering behind the altar, while Madame Rouffanche and the other woman completely ignored them, and only tried to save themselves.
Madame Rouffanche didn’t manage to catch the baby. The baby fell to the ground and began crying, which alerted soldiers nearby, and they began shooting. Madame Joyeaux and her baby were both killed. Their bodies were buried, and were only found later.
Madame Joyeaux was from Soudanas, part of the commune of Panazol; her maiden name was Hyvernaud. In her story, Madame Rouffanche referred to the other woman as Madame Hyvernaud. Madame Germaine-Marie Hyvernaud, a resident of Oradour-sur-Glane and probably one of her relatives, was also among the 52 victims whose remains were identified.
These were the final words of Madame Rouffanche to the court:
“I ask that justice be done with God’s help. I came out alive from the crematory oven; I am the sacred witness from the church. I am a mother who has lost everything.”
In my humble opinion, Madame Rouffanche was not “the sacred witness from the church,” but a woman who lived near the hamlet where German soldiers were burned alive in an ambulance.
Here is the real story of Madame Rouffanche:
Just outside the southern entrance to Oradour-sur-Glane, in the tiny hamlet of La Ferme de l’Etang, the SS soldiers came upon the horrible scene of a recent ambush of a German Army ambulance. Four wounded German soldiers had been burned alive inside the ambulance; the driver and another soldier in the passenger seat had been chained to the steering wheel and burned alive.
Before entering the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, the SS rounded up all the residents of the farming hamlets near the southern entrance of the village, where the ambulance was found, and took them in trucks to Oradour-sur-Glane, including family members of Madame Marguerite Rouffanche.
Madame Rouffanche, who lived in the hamlet of La Ferme de l’Etang, allegedly survived the massacre by jumping out of a window in the church; she testified under oath that the SS soldiers had set off a smoke bomb in the church in an attempt to asphyxiate the women and children, and had then set fire to the church, burning some of the women and children alive.
What really happened? Did Madame Rouffanche hide when her relatives were taken to Oradour-sur-Glane. Did she survive because she was never inside the church?