It had been some twenty years since I visited France, so when I was invited to the 33rd annual St. Just le Martel Cartoon Festival, I had to find a way to go. St. Just le Martel is a village east of Limoges, about four hours south of Paris by train. I traveled with four other American editorial cartoonists, plus spouses and significant others. Every year the village hosts hundreds of cartoonists, most from France, many from around the world. The entire town volunteers, with a sense of community that I have rarely seen elsewhere. A troop of chefs (French, of course) prepare amazing meals, served in a big tent by the village teenagers (with astonishingly cheerful, cooperative attitudes).
Many residents house cartoonists in their homes. My friend Steve Sack was hosted by one such retired couple, Irene and Michele. We spent hours in their living room one day, enjoying a delicious lunch and eroding the language barrier with a translation app on my iPhone.
The next day Michele asked if some of the Americans would like to visit the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where, in 1944, a company of German Waffen SS had massacred 642 inhabitants, because they had allegedly captured an SS officer. SS soldiers rounded up the residents, shot and burned the men, and burned the women and children alive in a church. Later, the SS discovered they had the wrong village. The grim details of this event can be found on the Internet at Wikipedia. Today, the preserved ruins of the village cover many acres, including a cemetery, an interpretive center and an underground memorial where the names of victims are etched in granite. Personal effects are displayed in glass cases. SPRING 2015 23 This was a neck-wrenching change from the high spirits of the cartoon festival. We walked the abandoned streets of the village in a daze. Crumbling buildings still display signs for dentists, bakeries, cafés and grocery stores. Burned-out hulks of 1930s and 40s cars sit exactly where they had in 1944. In the church, the rusty steel frame of a baby buggy melts into the stone floor.
My first thought was—how could God allow this to happen? Of course this was only a tiny sample of the atrocities and suffering that took place in World War II—and atrocities that continue today all around the world. My second thought was—what were the men of the Waffen SS thinking and feeling as they shot and incinerated the villagers?