Robert Hébras, Last Survivor of the 1944 French Massacre, Dies at 97

Robert Hébras, who was sheltered under a corpse, survived the infamous 1944 massacre in which members of the SS Panzer division killed nearly everyone in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France, died on 11 February in a hospital in Saint-Junien, not far from Oradour. He was 97 years old and was the last survivor of the massacre.

President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the death on Twitter, saying that Mr Hébras had “dedicated his life to passing on the memory of the victims.”

Hébras was 19 years old on June 10, 1944, when soldiers from the Second SS Panzer Division, known as Das Reich, overran Oradour, western-central France, ordering its inhabitants to gather regrouped and slaughtered 643 of them. The men were herded into the warehouse and shot, then the warehouse was set on fire. Women and children incarcerated in a church, and Germans throw grenades at the building and set it on fire.

“Three or four generations of families were murdered,” writes Robert Pike in “Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France” (2021), which reports on the massacre, “and also students are not spared.”

As the shooting began, Mr. Hébras, like everyone else in the warehouse where he was being held, fell to the floor. He was hit by bullets, sustaining several serious injuries, although he later had his injuries mitigated.

“The bullets went through the others,” he said, “and when they reached me, they didn’t have the strength to go any deeper.”

He made a harrowing escape through burning buildings and eventually into the countryside, narrowly avoiding hostile soldiers. He was one of the few survivors. His mother and two sisters were killed.

The massacre, which occurred a few days after the D-Day invasion, hurt France. The ruins of the village were originally declared a memorial, left in a burnt state as a reminder of the brutality.

Why the Nazis chose Oradour to destroy has been a subject of debate. Some say that the village is suspected of somehow supporting the Maquis, the French resistance. Others said that the Germans were looking for a kidnapped SS officer. A 1988 book by Robin Mackness, “Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath,” claimed that the Germans were searching for a treasure trove of stolen gold. (Mr. Hébras, in an interview that year with The Associated Press, dismissed that theory and the book. “People make money from the name Oradour-sur-Glane,” he said.)

In a 2019 interview for Mr. Pike’s book, Mr. Hébras said that while other Nazi atrocities in France were clearly retaliation, nothing that happened in Oradour could lead to to such an attack.

“If there is one small thing,” he said, “we, the people, did not arrive at the gathering point like a flock of sheep.”

“Among all the others,” he added, “there was an attack on the German Army and retaliation. In Oradour, that is not the case. It is a ‘crime without cause’” — a crime without cause.

Mr. Hébras was born on June 29, 1925 in Oradour. His father, Jean, a World War I veteran, led a team in charge of maintaining the local tramway and earning extra money delivering telegrams. His mother, Marie, learned to sew.

“As I Walk the Streets,” he writes in his 2014 memoir, “Avant Que Ma Voix S’Éteigne” (“Before My Voice Fades”), about strolling through the ruins. memorial, “I can still hear the church bells and the anvil of the blacksmiths shoeing our cows and nailing our clogs.”

In June 1944, Mr. Hébras got a job at a garage in the nearby city of Limoges. But the day before the massacre, his boss got into a dispute with a German officer, and Mr. Hébras was asked to stay home in case the store became a target for trouble. When the Germans arrived at Oradour the next day and ordered the townspeople to assemble to check their identification, Mr. Hébras was among those who were initially unconcerned – since working in Limoges he had familiar with such demands of the Nazis.

After the war, Mr. Hébras opened a car dealership in a newly built village near the ruins. For decades, he rarely spoke of his experience, although in 1953 he testified at the trial of 21 men accused of participating in the murders. (Even though faith of all but one of the men, less long in prison.)

He testified again 30 years after Heinz Barth, an SS officer who was one of the commanders of the massacre, was found guilty of war crimes. (Mr. Barth is sentenced to life in prison in prison but was released in 1997 because of poor health; He lived 10 years later.)

At the time of Barth’s trial, Mr. Hébras began to speak out more, telling his story to preserve the memory of the massacre. He also became a voice of reconciliation and appeared at memorial services. At his funeral on February 17, Benoit Sadry, president of the National Association of Martyrs’ Families d’Oradour-sur-Glane, called him “ahead of his time, a visionary. and a shrewd analyst.”

“Finally,” he said, “everyone joined him in defending the European ideal – humanism and democracy – of cooperation between peoples to avoid reliving the sufferings of the past.”

Mr. Hébras was present in 2013 when for the first time a German official, President Joachim Gauck, join the celebration of the massacre.

Mr. Hébras left behind a son, Richard, and three grandchildren.

He has received several honors from France and Germany for his efforts to secure remembrance. Those efforts include speaking out in 2005, when French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen implied that the Gestapo somehow managed to save lives at Oradour, and in 2020, when vandals destroyed the memorial.

Mr Hébras told Agence France-Presse after the 2020 incident: “What shocks me is that we don’t realize that children and women have died in great pain.

“What I fear is now people will talk about Oradour for 48 hours,” he added, “and then we stop and then we forget.”


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