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The forgotten French village massacre

A wartime massacre in a small French village is going to be examined by a German prosecutor. Emma Jane Kirby has been to Maille, in the Loire valley, to meet the survivors.

War memorial in Maille
The Maille massacre was the second largest in France during WWII

A thick fringe of heavy, yellow sunflowers borders Maille on all sides, and in the village itself, there is barely a bench or a hanging basket which is not bursting with a lavish floral arrangement.

The houses are all uniformly white. None looks lived in enough to boast of any history.

Manicured, painted and polished, the streets here seem intent on putting up a good show.

But put your head round the door of the village cafe and the staircase - pock marked by bullet scars - immediately lets slip that Maille has another very different face.

Underneath the lacquered, surface display, lies a festering mass of sores and black secrets.

'Unlocking memories'

On the morning of the 25 August 1944, scores of German soldiers stormed into the village and began to kill every living creature they found in their path.

Children were slaughtered like chickens, babies butchered in front of their mothers and grandfathers hacked down like weeds.

Map of France

Nearly every house, barn and farmyard was set alight and within a couple of brutal hours, Maille was almost obliterated, with 124 of its villagers massacred.

Ironically, at the same moment that the people of Maille were screaming in terror, the people of Paris were cheering with joy at their liberation.

For the past 64 years, Maille has kept silent.

But now a German prosecutor has promised to shed light on what happened here and slowly, painfully, memories are being unlocked.

Childhood loss

As she waters the pansies in her meticulous garden, her arthritic hands shaking, Gisele Bourgoing gives me brief flashes into her experience on the day of the massacre.

Gisele Bourgoing, survivor of the massacre
Gisele Bourgoing was nine when the massacre happened

I am able to picture her hiding with her mother in a cellar, cowering at the thundering of black boots overhead, and I can hear her calling for her missing daddy when the firing finally ends.

The memories are staccato, quickly cut off before they can blossom further.

"We never spoke about it," she whispers. Parents said nothing to children and children knew never to ask questions."

In total, Gisele lost 17 members of her family in the massacre, including her father.

'Hue of sorrow'

A few hundred metres up the road, her slightly older cousin Gilbert keeps a pristine farm where the geese are clean enough to have hopped from the pages of a Beatrix Potter book.

Gilbert looks at me with soft and faded blue eyes which somehow seem to embody both the colour of gentleness and the hue of sorrow.

Gilbert holding a picture of his father
Gilbert Chedozeau's father was one of those executed

I wonder if the colour has been wept away.

I tell him he has a beautiful house and he shrugs off the compliment quickly explaining no, this is is not the real house. That was burned down 64 years ago and this is just a replacement.

In the corner of the field he points to a dark wooden barn which is the only original part of the property. They burnt the rest, he tells me and they shot all the cows.

His blue eyes look confused briefly.

"No," he corrects himself, "the Germans shot three cows in the morning and then in the afternoon when we thought they'd gone, they suddenly came back and shot seven more."

Quietly he adds that the soldiers also murdered 37 members of his family.

"My little cousins," he says, "I still can't forget the little cousins you see, I used to play with them and they were so..."

But then his voice trails away and I can see him pushing the memory back under.

Instead he tells me his story of survival, how for two nail-biting hours his mother, sisters and the two sheep dogs hid silently in a stream under a bridge while unsuspecting German officers yelled orders above them.

"Why didn't they discover us?" Gilbert asks. "Why didn't the sheep dogs who always barked at loud noises, give us away?"

He's not sure what good will come of the German prosecutor's inquiry into the Maille massacre but he says: "Maybe it's a good way to honour the victims, for my cousins who were..."

Flower of choice

The memorial in the cemetery fills in the blanks that Gilbert and Gisele cannot voice.

Eliane Guitan, aged six. Gerard Guitan aged four, Jackie Guitan, aged two, Hubert Menanteau, aged three months.

Gisele's house is built on the site where several villagers lost their lives.

She treasures a photograph of the original building that stood there and has marked the exact spot where the front door would have been with a bed of clustering pansies. She is crying as she waters the flowers, telling me she cannot look at them without remembering.

It is so painful, she says to me, but it is so important to keep the pansies alive.

On the train home I suddenly remember with a jolt that the word for pansy in French, "pensee", also means thought.

It is only then I understand that Gisele and all the other villagers are not covering anything up with their garish flowers. They are simply saying: lest we forget.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 July, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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