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Beyond decency and the laws of war Add to ...

Jacques Vico leads us into a shady garden behind the 13th-century abbey, and points to a doorway.

"Here is where they led the Canadians," he says. "They told them that they were going to be killed now, and they made the soldiers hold hands and wait inside, and then they were taken one by one out the door and each of them was shot and left to die here."

The 81-year-old is quiet for a moment. The long mound of grassy earth and the pocked rear wall of the Abbey Ardenne are cast in a new light. Here, in this small village in Normandy, is where Canada suffered its share of Nazi atrocities.

Mr. Vico was right across the road at the time, aware of the killings and abuses taking place, but unable to do anything. Not then, anyway.

He was in hiding, a 21-year-old member of the French Resistance whose family had been divided and tortured to reveal his whereabouts. Now he was on the edge of a slaughter by enraged Hitler Youth soldiers, whose battle fervour had pushed them far beyond the bounds of decency or the laws of war.

In a few short days between the 7th and 10th of June, 1944, the Germans executed 156 young Canadians, most of them members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles who had been taken prisoner. Over a period of weeks, another 38 soldiers, already dead and possibly executed, were placed on the main road of the town of Ardenne and run over repeatedly by German tanks.

The events at Ardenne became the only major war crime of the Second World War to be tried in Canada. Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division, was found guilty and sentenced to death by a New Brunswick judge. A military tribunal commuted his sentence to 12 years in prison, and after his release he founded an SS veterans' organization.

For Mr. Vico, it marked the culmination of a long series of horrors.

He joined the Resistance when he was just 17, four years before the massacre of the Canadians, and that decision put him at odds with many of his mates. "They wanted Hitler; they welcomed him; they said that what France needed was order and discipline," he recalled in an interview.

The teenager did not tell anyone about his underground work, though he suspected that both his sister and his father, who had been mayor of Ardenne, were also working for the Resistance. So isolated were the movement's cells, and so fearful were the Vicos of learning things that might be extracted under torture, that the family would gather for dinner each night without saying a word about their clandestine work.

By the spring of 1944, the family's life had fallen badly apart.

Mr. Vico's father had been captured by the Gestapo, brutally interrogated and shipped to a concentration camp. His mother had also fallen into Gestapo hands, and her whereabouts was unknown.

Mr. Vico was forced to flee Normandy and was living on the run in France. Then he got word from Resistance contacts that Canadian, British and American troops had landed on the Normandy shore on June 6. He jumped on a bicycle and rode for two straight days back to the village.

He had to get back quickly: Only he knew where hundreds of tonnes of weapons, which had been dropped by the British in fields at night, had been stashed. Now the arms were needed by Resistance fighters behind the lines.

Initially, the weapons had been stored in the ancient abbey, but the Gestapo's interrogation of Mr. Vico's family and friends had prompted him to move the rifles, mortars and ammunition to homes throughout the village.

Now the Germans had taken over the abbey as their command post, and were using it and the surrounding village to hold Canadian troops taken prisoner during the D-Day fighting. The ranks of the Hitler Youth Division had been hit hard, and the survivors were out for revenge.

Don Learment, a Canadian major with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, was among the troops captured by the SS. "During the search," he later told the war-crimes court, "one of the Germans noticed a hand grenade hanging on the belt of the man next to me, Private Jack Metcalfe; . . . as Metcalfe turned toward me he was shot three or four times in the back and fell screaming at my feet. The German then stepped over him and, placing the machine pistol at Metcalfe's head, shot him again."

Several other prisoners were summarily shot as a group of about 50 Canadians were marched to the abbey. Mr. Learment also saw a German truck "swerve into the marching column, pull out and continue on its way," killing two Canadians instantly.

At the abbey, it quickly became apparent to Mr. Learment that they were going to be executed. During a march across a field that seemed certain to lead to death, Mr. Learment and another soldier ran, were shot and wounded, but managed to escape and report the atrocities to the Allies.

Mr. Vico was able to come out of hiding and meet Canadian soldiers when they finally overran the village. He was later captured by the Germans, escaped, and joined French troops who fought their way into Germany.

After the war ended in 1945, Mr. Vico was reunited with his mother, who had been released from Gestapo custody. His father also made it out of the concentration camp, but in terrible condition.

One day in mid-1945 Mr. Vico was helping his mother tend the gardens around the abbey. "We noticed an onion garden that we could not remember having planted," he recalled. "It seemed strange, right there, for no reason . . . I knew what it must be."

He and his mother dug into the ground, and found the bodies of 21 Canadian solders.

"It was terrible to make such a discovery, but it gave the proof that was needed of the stories we had heard about murders here," he said.

Sixty years after those grim days, Mr. Vico still lives across the road from the abbey, and is glad to take visitors to the little garden in the back.

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