Cur­rents

His­toric D-Day house faces un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Shelley Boettcher

The fu­ture of D-Day house. CPR’s Chi­nese labour­ers. Win­dows to the past in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town. Imjin Clas­sic brings Cana­di­ans and Kore­ans to the ice.

For ninety years, a house has over­looked the beach at Bernières-sur-Mer, France. A stately two-storey sum­mer home, it stands alone, look­ing to­ward Eng­land across the cold English Chan­nel.

It wasn’t built by Cana­di­ans, and Cana­di­ans don’t own it. But on a stormy morn­ing in June 1944 it be­came an un­for­get­table part of Cana­dian his­tory.

La Mai­son des Cana­di­ens — or Canada House, in English — is an iconic land­mark in this vil­lage on the Nor­mandy Coast. On June 6, 1944, it be­came the first house to be lib­er­ated dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Over­lord, the Al­lied in­va­sion of France.

Within twenty min­utes of land­ing on the beach, the Queen’s Own Ri­fles of Canada had opened fire, push­ing out the Ger­man sol­diers who had claimed the house as their own. A French-Cana­dian unit, Le Rég­i­ment de la Chaudière, joined the fight shortly after that. In 1944 the house was a ma­jor land­mark, ap­pear­ing in D-Day pho­tos and grainy film footage viewed across the coun­try. More than one hun­dred Cana­di­ans were killed on the beach in front of the build­ing dur­ing the first few min­utes of the bat­tle.

“Al­most ev­ery Cana­dian that landed on Juno Beach at that time saw the house,” said Gau­thier Hebbe­lynck, pres­i­dent of L’As­so­ci­a­tion la Mai­son des Cana­di­ens.

“To­day it stands for the Cana­dian sac­ri­fice in Nor­mandy. It’s a place ... where peo­ple can re­mem­ber the Cana­dian sac­ri­fice dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.”

This past year, how­ever, the house lost its staunch­est sup­porter. For more than forty years, Herve Hof­fer — who owned the house with his wife, Ni­cole Hof­fer — had wel­comed vis­i­tors and shared sto­ries of the fa­mous house.

But in early 2017 Herve died after a stroke, and a year later Ni­cole and their two grown sons are deal­ing with the com­plex his­tory and the up­keep that comes with own­ing a ninety-year-old home. “It costs a lot of money,” said Hebbe­lynck, an hon­orary of­fi­cer of the Cana­dian Army’s Bri­tish Columbia Reg­i­ment. “It’s an old lady, and it’s on the sea­side, so it suf­fers a lot from the wind and the wa­ter.”

The house was built in 1928 as a sum­mer va­ca­tion home for Leon Enault, a Parisian depart­ment store di­rec­tor. Enault had the house con­structed as a du­plex so that it could be split equally with his grand­chil­dren, Denise and Roger Vide­cop. And for years, be­fore the start of the war, the house was named after them, Villa Denise et Roger.

They had no in­ter­est in it, how­ever, and in 1936 both sides were sold. One was bought by Ed­mond Hof­fer, a doc­tor from Le Havre, France. His wife op­er­ated a tea­house around the cor­ner, and they dreamed of a fu­ture where their chil­dren’s chil­dren would one day en­joy the home.

But on Septem­ber 1, 1939, the Sec­ond World War be­gan. By June 1940, the Ger­mans con­trolled much of France, in­clud­ing Bernières-sur-Mer. The beach had be­come a mil­i­tary zone un­der Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. Civil­ians were for­bid­den

to en­ter the zone, and most homes (and the tea­house) were de­stroyed, giv­ing the Ger­mans a bet­ter view of the chan­nel.

No one knows ex­actly why the Hof­fer house was not torn down dur­ing those years. Some say it’s be­cause it wasn’t within the fir­ing lines of the Ger­man anti-air­craft guns. Oth­ers say it’s be­cause a Ger­man of­fi­cer took a lik­ing to the stately struc­ture and wanted to make it his base.

It took sev­eral years for the home to be re­built after the war, and Herve Hof­fer took it over after his grand­fa­ther died. As the for­ti­eth an­niver­sary of D-Day grew closer, the fam­ily no­ticed that more Cana­dian vet­er­ans were com­ing to re­visit the place that had been such a piv­otal part of their lives. The Hof­fers wel­comed them, ev­ery time.

Over the years, Hof­fer amassed myr­iad his­tor­i­cal pho­tos and me­men­tos, in­clud­ing a Nazi arm­band left be­hind dur­ing the re­treat and a blood­stained French franc given to Hof­fer by a Cana­dian veteran who had re­ceived it from a wounded Ger­man sol­dier in re­turn for spar­ing his life.

Cana­dian Terri Ku­bik was at the house in 2009 when Cana­dian veteran Ernie Kells stopped by.

“There stands this el­derly gen­tle­man who said, ‘Hi, I was here in 1944. I’m the one that threw the gre­nade in the base­ment. I’m so sorry about the dam­age I caused. Just send me the bill,’” Ku­bik re­called. “Herve said, ‘No, no, the bill has al­ready been paid.’”

Herve Hof­fer, Ku­bik ex­plained, be­lieved that his fam­ily may

not still have ex­isted to­day had it not been for the Cana­di­ans in 1944. Ku­bik, who is from On­tario, be­came friends with the Hof­fers in 2003 dur­ing the open­ing of the Juno Beach Cen­tre, Canada’s Sec­ond World War museum in Courseulles-sur-Mer. A board mem­ber of the L’As­so­ci­a­tion la Mai­son des Cana­di­ens, she now trav­els reg­u­larly to France, giv­ing tours when vis­i­tors — there are many — stop in. “It’s un­like any his­tory les­son you’ll get in school, un­like any­thing we learned about any kind of war, re­ally,” she said.

What will hap­pen now that Herve has passed away? The right-hand side of the du­plex is owned by a dif­fer­ent fam­ily and is not open to the pub­lic. Herve’s wife and sons hope to con­tinue the Hof­fer legacy of wel­com­ing vis­i­tors to the home, said Hebbe­lynck. Ul­ti­mately, they hope to turn their half of the build­ing into a museum.

The Hof­fers be­lieve many in the town sup­port their vi­sion; fol­low­ing Herve’s death, the street be­hind the house was re­named in his hon­our.

Hebbe­lynck re­calls an el­derly man who vis­ited a cou­ple of years ago. He was quiet, just look­ing out the win­dow to­ward the beach. “I asked him, ‘How did it feel to be here, al­most at the end of the war?’” Hebbe­lynck said. The old man turned around and stared. “I wake up ev­ery night and I see the faces of the men who didn’t make it,” he told Hebbe­lynck.

“For me, the war never ended. It’s been go­ing on for the last sev­enty years in my heart and in my head.”

HID­DEN HER­ITAGE

Op­po­site page: Cana­dian sol­diers speak to lib­er­ated French cit­i­zens at Bernières-sur-Mer, France, in June 1944. The house that be­came La Mai­son des Cana­di­ens is seen in the back­ground. Above: La Mai­son des Cana­di­ens to­day. Top right: A photo show­ing Ger­man pris­on­ers un­der guard fol­low­ing the D-Day in­va­sion. Bot­tom Right: The view of the beach from La Mai­son des Cana­di­ens.

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