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The Saulx Valley Massacre

What happened 70 years ago in the Saulx Valley (Meuse) is one of the least-known civilian massacres committed by the Nazis in France. Those who escaped the murders still think about it “every day.”

Although there is no memorial or museum to mark the atrocity, there are still a few monuments, commemorative plaques and street names that recall what happened on August 29, 1944. The villages, rebuilt in the 1950s, are found along the winding Saulx River and surrounded by forests and fields.

“Even today, the smell of fire reminds me of the village burning,” recalls François Reboulet. At the age of 19, he escaped by running through his yard and hiding in a ditch, hunted by German soldiers on a motorcycle that passed within a few yards of him.

91-year-old Georges Marandel remembers being in a “cold sweat” when German soldiers searched the shelter where he was hiding with family members. They weren’t discovered.

Lucette Purson, 84, remembers the last time she saw her father and 16-year-old brother. The Germans came to their house and took them away just as they sat down to eat.

Furious about repeated sabotage of rail lines in the previous days and a run-in with the resistance that morning, the Germans decided then and there to take reprisals: four villages in the valley were surrounded, the men were arrested and brought to the edge of town to be machine-gunned. Most of the houses in the area were burned.

Eighty-six people from 5 villages were killed. Robert-Espagne and Couvonges suffered the greatest losses. Some “Malgré-nous” (soldiers from Alsace and Moselle who had been forcibly enlisted in the German Wehrmacht) warned the inhabitants of Beurey-sur-Saulx, and allowed them to escape in time. A notary in Mognéville was able to persuade the Germans not to execute their hostages.

The same soldiers brought death to other villages in the Marne and Meurthe-et-Moselle. Approximately 120 civilians were killed, according to historian Jean-Pierre Harbulot, author of a study on the Saulx Valley massacre.

- It Wasn’t the SS –

The summary executions of civilians in the Saulx Valley, in Maillé (Indre-et-Loire), Tulle (Corrèze) and Ascq (Nord) are part of the “second string” of Nazi atrocities, and are often overlooked. They remain in the shadow of the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane (Haute-Vienne) and the 642 who died there.

Additionally, “Ordadour is so well-known” that for decades, the people of the valley believed that their suffering had been caused by the SS, according to the historian. Many continued to believe in that theory, despite proof to the contrary.

“In that line of thinking, an SS crime was the worst, much worse than crimes committed by ordinary soldiers,” M. Harbulot explains.

In 1952, the Metz military tribunal sentenced (in absentia) eight German soldiers for the massacre: four were sentenced to death and the remaining four to hard labor. The sentences were never carried out, because none of the soldiers was ever found.

The court’s judgment had no effect in the valley at the time, according to M. Harbulot’s research: “no one wanted to – or could – relive the horror.”

Even today, those who survived, their children and those of the victims take part in official commemoration ceremonies each August 29.

“The more time goes by, the more interest there seems to be” in the commemoration, says Mayor Daniel Poirson of Couvonges.

At the very mention of this massacre, which they did not even experience, two children of survivors, in their 60s, fall silent and start to weep.

AFP in “Liberation” Aug. 29, 2014 - Translated from French by Katherine Douglass