Serge Martin, president of Maille's Association for the Remembrance, and one of the massacre's survivors, poses next to a period press article describing how 124 of the town's inhabitants were slaughtered by the German army on August 25, 1944.
A German prosecutor was visiting a French village Tuesday to try to uncover secrets about one of the most vicious massacres perpetrated on French soil during the Second World War.
As the world rejoiced at the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation on Aug. 25, 1944, mere hours to the southwest, German troops were committing a horrific atrocity in Maillé. An estimated 80 soldiers entered the village of 600 in the Loire Valley, and that morning killed 124 residents, including 46 children under age 14 and 42 women.
Seven of the victims were shot. The rest were bludgeoned, bayoneted and burned to death.
The village was then bombed until it was in ruins.
Survivors later found a handwritten message on several corpses: "This is punishment for terrorists and their assistants."
Massacre's cause a mystery
Six decades later, it is not clear exactly what prompted the outburst.
German soldiers might have been reacting to an attack on them the previous day by French resistance fighters north of the village. Local residents were also known to be safeguarding an American pilot who had crash-landed in the area.
And six decades later, only one person has ever been held accountable for the atrocity. In 1952, a former German army lieutenant, Gustav Schlueter, was tried by France in absentia and found guilty. He remained at large in Germany until his death in 1965.
The Maillé massacre was the second worst by France during the war, coming two months after an SS company killed 642 villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane, to the south.
But it has remained largely unknown to history, with many questions unanswered: Who were the other soldiers who partook in the slayings? Did Schlueter order the killings by his Wehrmacht company, or was the local SS branch involved as well? Why such cruelty?
"Maillé is the forgotten massacre. It has been completely overlooked by France, which preferred to celebrate Paris's liberation," historian Sébastien Chevereau told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
A good part of the incentive to examine the incident has been lost in France, which has a statute of limitations of 30 years for war crimes. Not so in Germany, which has no such limits and which could still bring any living perpetrators to justice.
So on Tuesday, Ulrich Maas, a German prosecutor from Dortmund, began a weeklong visit to the village, trying to unearth the facts from crimes committed generations ago.
Along with two other investigators, Maas was scheduled to question survivors about which German troops were in the community on that day in 1944 and about where they were stationed.
French gendarmes have pitched in, interviewing 60 people about their recollections. Maas's team will also go over French archives to try to piece together Germany's troop movements in the summer of 1944.
Documents shed light on case
The Maillé massacre remained shrouded in historical anonymity for so long because so little was known about it.
In 1988, the United Nations unveiled a trove of war-crimes documents that shed light on the case, but German authorities were still hobbled by a lack of evidence and closed their investigation in 1990.
Then, in 2004, Maas read about the killings in a newspaper and undertook to seize what will likely be the last chance to bring the aging perpetrators to justice.
"We would like to know which troops did this and why," Maillé resident Serge Martin, whose parents, brother and sister were killed in the slaughter, told Agence France-Presse.
"We would like to be able to tell the truth to our youth. Not a day goes by that I don't think about Aug. 25, 1944, and the massacre of my family."