French, German leaders to make landmark visit to WWII massacre site

French, German leaders to make landmark visit to WWII massacre site
A picture taken on March 24, 2013 shows Italian president Giorgio Napolitano (L) hugged by German President Joachim Gauck during a ceremony commemorating the August 12, 1944 massacre of Sant'Anna di Stazzema. In September 2013, Gauck will be the first German president to visit Oradour-sur-Glane in France, where a Nazi massacre in June 1944 had wiped out almost the whole village.

ORADOUR-SUR-GLANE, France / Haute-Vienne - French President Francois Hollande and German counterpart Joachim Gauck will make a historic visit on Wednesday to a ghost village in west-central France where 642 people were massacred by Nazi soldiers in one of the worst atrocities during World War II.

Gauck is the first German leader to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, where ruins from the war have been preserved as a memorial to the dead. They include a church where women and children were locked in, before toxic gas was released and the building set on fire.

Some 205 children aged under 15 were among victims of the June 10, 1944 atrocity which left deep scars in France.

After the war, French General Charles de Gaulle, who later became president, decided that the village should not be rebuilt but remain a memorial to the barbarity of Nazi occupation. A new village was built nearby.

In 1999, French president Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum which includes items recovered from what became known as the 'Village of Martyrs'.

They include watches stopped at the time the owners were burnt alive, glasses melted from intense heat and other personal items.

Wednesday's highly symbolic visit follows a 1984 commemoration when then French president Francois Mitterrand and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl attended a memorial service for fallen soldiers at Verdun.

The Battle of Verdun (February-December 1916) claimed the lives of more than 700,000 soldiers and came to symbolise the horror of war for both the Germans and the French.

As they stood in front of the Douaumont Ossuary, which contains the remains of 130,000 fallen soldiers, Mitterrand and Kohl joined hands - a gesture of friendship marking the lessons learned from a frightful past.

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