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Robert Hébras, Last Survivor of 1944 Massacre in France, Dies at 97

Robert Hébras, who by being shielded under dead bodies survived the infamous massacre of June 1944 in which members of an SS Panzer division killed almost everyone in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in west central France, died on Feb. 11 in a hospital in Saint-Junien, not far from Oradour. He was 97 and the last survivor of the massacre.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, announcing the death on Twitter, said that Mr. Hébras “devoted his life to transmitting the memories of the victims.”

Mr. Hébras was 19 on June 10, 1944, when soldiers from the Second SS Panzer Division, known as Das Reich, rolled into Oradour, ordered its residents to assemble, and slaughtered 643 of them. Men were herded into barns and shot, then the barns were set on fire. Women and children were confined in a church; the Nazis threw grenades into the building and burned it.

“Three or four generations of families were murdered,” Robert Pike wrote in “Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France” (2021), a detailed account of the massacre, “and whole classes of schoolchildren were not spared.”

When the shooting started, Mr. Hébras, like others in the barn where he had been confined, dropped to the floor. He was hit by gunfire and had several serious wounds, though he later played down his injuries.

“The bullets had passed through the others,” he said, “and by the time they reached me, they no longer had the power to go in deep.”

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

The massacre, which occurred days after the D-Day invasion, traumatized France. The ruins of the original village were declared a memorial, left in their burned-out condition as a reminder of the atrocity.

Mr. Hébras in 2011 walking through the original village that was burned in 1944. The ruins are now a memorial.Credit…Jean-Pierre Muller/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just why the Nazis chose Oradour for destruction has been a topic of debate. Some say the village was suspected of somehow aiding the Maquis, the French resistance fighters. Others say the Nazis were looking for a kidnapped SS officer. A 1988 book by Robin Mackness, “Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath,” claimed that the Nazis were looking for a stolen cache of gold. (Mr. Hébras, in an interview that year with The Associated Press, dismissed that theory and the book. “Everyone makes money from the name of Oradour-sur-Glane,” he said.)

In a 2019 interview for Mr. Pike’s book, Mr. Hébras said that, while some other Nazi atrocities in France were clearly reprisals, nothing going on in Oradour would have warranted such an attack.

“If there had been the least thing,” he said. “we, the people, would not have gone to the assembly point like a flock of sheep.”

“In all the others,” he added, “there was an attack on the German Army and reprisals. In Oradour that was not the case. It was a ‘crime gratuite’” — a gratuitous crime.

Mr. Hébras was born on June 29, 1925, in Oradour. His father, Jean, a veteran of World War I, led a team in charge of upkeep of the local tramway and made extra money delivering telegrams. His mother, Marie, took in sewing.

“When I walk in the streets,” he wrote in a 2014 memoir, “Avant Que Ma Voix S’Éteigne” (“Before My Voice Fades”), speaking of strolling through the memorial ruins, “I still hear the church bells and the anvil of the blacksmith shoeing cows and hobnailing our clogs.”

In June 1944, Mr. Hébras had a job at a garage in the nearby city of Limoges. But the day before the massacre, his boss had gotten into a dispute with a German officer, and Mr. Hébras was told to stay home in case the shop was targeted for trouble. When the Nazis arrived in Oradour the next day and ordered the townspeople to assemble for a check of identity papers, Mr. Hébras was among those who was not initially alarmed — from his work in Limoges, he was used to such demands by the Nazis.

After the war, Mr. Hébras eventually opened a car dealership in a newly built village near the ruins. For decades he rarely spoke about his experience, although in 1953 he testified at the trial of 21 men accused of participating in the killing. (Despite the convictions of all but one of the men, few stayed in jail long.) He testified again 30 years later when Heinz Barth, an SS officer who was among the commanders at the massacre, was convicted of war crimes. (Mr. Barth was sentenced to life in prison but was released in 1997 because of ill health; he lived another 10 years.)

Mr. Hébras in 1953, the year he testified at the trial of 21 men accused of participating in the massacre. Credit…Keystone-France, via Getty Images

By the time of the Barth trial, Mr. Hébras had begun speaking out more, telling his story to keep the memory of the massacre alive. He also became a voice for reconciliation and appeared at various remembrances. At his funeral on Feb. 17, Benoit Sadry, president of the Association Nationale des Familles des Martyrs d’Oradour-sur-Glane, called him a man “ahead of his time, a visionary and a wise analyst.”

“In the end,” he said, “everyone joined him in defending the European ideal — humanist and democratic — of cooperation between peoples to avoid reliving the sufferings of the past.”

Mr. Hébras was on hand in 2013 when, for the first time, a German official, President Joachim Gauck, joined in a commemoration of the massacre.

Mr. Hébras is survived by a son, Richard, and three grandchildren.

He received a number of honors in his life from France and Germany for his efforts to ensure remembrance. Those efforts included speaking out in 2005, when the far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen implied that the Gestapo had somehow tried to save lives at Oradour, and in 2020, when vandals defaced the memorial.

“What shocks me is that we do not realize that children and women lost their lives in excruciating pain,” he told Agence France-Presse after the 2020 incident.

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

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