The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Hébras, last survivor of infamous massacre in France, dies at 97

He became a memory keeper for the martyred town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where Nazis killed 642 villagers in one of the worst civilian massacres in Western Europe during World War II

Robert Hébras was the last survivor of a Nazi massacre in the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944, the year he is photographed here. (National Association of Families of the Martyrs of Oradour-sur-Glane)
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When Robert Hébras wandered through the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, the bucolic village in central France where he grew up playing marbles in the street and marking time by the tolling of the church bells, he saw “faces, people,” he said, “not ghosts.”

In his memories, Oradour lived on as the place it had been before June 10, 1944, when German troops of the Second Waffen-SS Panzer Division entered the village and killed 642 men, women and children in one of the worst civilian massacres in Western Europe during World War II.

Only seven villagers survived. The last of those still living was Mr. Hébras, who was 18 at the time of the attack and withstood a spray of bullets buried under the corpses of his neighbors. His mother and two sisters perished in the church, where the SS soldiers had assembled the women and children of Oradour before setting the building afire with grenades.

Mr. Hébras, 97, died Feb. 11 at a hospital in Saint-Junien, near Oradour. His granddaughter Agathe Hébras confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

In the aftermath of the war, Oradour became, in 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 symbol in his own right, a memory keeper for his martyred town and a champion of reconciliation and peace in Europe and beyond.

“It’s always difficult for me to come here,” Mr. Hébras told the London Guardian in 2013, referring to what remained of Oradour, a scene of devastation left essentially untouched since 1944 in an eternal memorial to the dead. “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 town’s location on the River Glane — on June 29, 1925. His father, Jean, a veteran of World War I, was an electrician for the local streetcar company. He also delivered telegrams. Mr. Hébras’s mother, Marie, a homemaker, sewed leather gloves for a factory in Saint-Junien.

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

The German invasion came the following year. Mr. Hébras found work during the occupation as an apprentice mechanic in the city of Limoges. He had planned to work on June 10, 1944, but stayed home at the urging of his boss, who had recently argued with a German officer over work on requisitioned vehicles. Mr. Hébras had best not be in the vicinity, they decided, in case of a retaliatory roundup.

It was a Saturday, and for all the deprivations of the war, the mood in Oradour was light. Four days earlier, the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy in the D-Day invasion.

“Word had been coming in all week about the successful Allied landings,” British historian Robert Pike wrote in the book “Silent Village” (2021), an account of the massacre 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 were his mother 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 another town.

After lunch with his mother and sisters, Mr. Hébras was outside talking with a friend about an upcoming soccer match when the German convoy arrived. Troops from Das Reich, as the elite Panzer division was known, surrounded the town and gathered the villagers in the square.

Among them were 240 women and 205 children, who were corralled into the church, according to the Holocaust museum. The men, 197 in all, were separated into smaller groups and ushered into several barns.

“Two machine guns were set up in front of us,” Mr. Hébras recalled years later, according to 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.”

Mr. Hébras was wounded in the gunfire but said 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 under and over the dead bodies, he left the barn and found refuge in a stable. By about 8 p.m., the Germans were gone. As they left, they burned Oradour to the ground.

Within weeks, news of the massacre reached the international press. On July 14, 1944, The Washington Post published a front-page article about the event. From those early reports and into recent years, rumors have swirled about why, exactly, the Nazis visited their horrors upon Oradour.

According to one theory, the Germans had intended to attack the town of Oradour-sur-Vayres, the site 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 much too organized, he said, for such a fundamental error.

According to another theory, the French Maquis, as the resistance fighters were known, provoked the attack by storing arms in Oradour’s church. That story, in Pike’s view, is “complete nonsense.”

He characterized as “fantasy” another idea, propounded by British author Robin Mackness in the best-selling 1988 book “Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath,” that the Nazis attacked Oradour in search of gold stolen by the resistance.

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

Mr. Hébras, for his part, regarded it as a “crime gratuit,” a gratuitous crime, and one that drove him to join 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 said. “I wanted revenge.”

After the war, Mr. Hébras returned to his work with automobiles, repairing and selling cars in the new town constructed outside Oradour and later in Saint-Junien.

Mr. Hébras’s marriage to Yvonne Debelleix ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Christiane Christophe, died in 2020 after four decades of marriage. Besides his granddaughter, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Richard Hébras of Saint-Junien; two other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Hébras offered one of his first public testimonies of the massacre in court in 1953, when 21 members of Das Reich, including more than a dozen ethnic Germans from the French region of Alsace, were prosecuted at a French military tribunal. Twenty were convicted but none spent more than five years in prison.

Three decades later, Mr. Hébras testified in what was then East Germany against Heinz Barth, an SS sergeant who had participated in the massacre at Oradour. Barth was convicted in 1983 and received a life sentence but was released in 1997 because of his failing health. He died in 2007.

In recent decades, Mr. Hébras devoted himself to honoring the dead of Oradour. He used his platform, as one of the vanishingly few survivors of a vanished place, to promote reconciliation between France and Germany. He was decorated over the years by both nations.

But he found that his work as a witness remained unfinished. After everything that Oradour had lost, when all that remained was its memory, even that came, at times, under attack.

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

“It drives me mad that he denies the history,” Mr. Hébras told 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 last survivor of Oradour dies, Mr. Hébras added, “who will be here to keep alive the memory, to bear witness?”