Every year at the beginning of June, Hervé Hoffer lit a paraffin lantern and hung it from the balcony of his summer house overlooking the coast of Normandy, France. After sunset on June 6 – the anniversary of D-Day – crowds watched Mr. Hoffer carry the flickering lantern down to the beach and wade, fully clothed into the sea, where he tossed the lantern into the English Channel.
Speaking in French, he called it “a symbolic gesture to the Canadians who came from the sea, to give us back our freedom.”
Mr. Hoffer’s lantern ceremony grew in popularity over the years, faithfully attended by residents of the village of Bernières-sur-Mer, young members of the Canadian regiments that stormed Juno Beach in 1944, and even surviving veterans of the battle. Afterward, they assembled at Mr. Hoffer’s famous beach house, drinking beer and calvados liqueur, and remembering those who died in the war.
It was the place to be on June 6 for any Canadian on Juno Beach.
This year, no one knows who will carry the lantern when pilgrims gather again for the ceremony. Mr. Hoffer – one of the principal keepers of Canada’s remembrance flame in Normandy – died suddenly on Jan. 13, at the age of 65.
His family’s summer home is the famous “Canada House,” the large, half-timbered house that looms conspicuously behind the seawall at Bernières-sur-Mer, one of the first French homes liberated by Allied forces on D-Day, in this case by soldiers of the Queen’s Own Rifles regiment of Toronto.
On Jan. 9, Mr. Hoffer suffered a stroke while replacing a light bulb in his house. His wife, Nicole, found him on the floor at the foot of a ladder. He died in hospital four days later – leaving behind a shocked community on Juno Beach and many friends in Canada.
“He’s a hero to many Canadians, even though he’s a proud Frenchman,” says retired Major-General Clive Addy, the former president of the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, who attended Mr. Hoffer’s funeral on Jan. 18, along with more than 500 other mourners.
“Hervé was absolutely dedicated to the idea of service to your country, the importance of democracy and the idea of education – especially educating young people about the war.”
Hervé Hoffer was born on March 4, 1951, the only child of Georges and Christiane Hoffer. He grew up in the French town of Enghien, near Paris, before moving with his parents to the city of Caen, in Normandy.
After finishing school, Hervé joined his father as an optometrist, working in the family eye clinic. He sold the practice in later years, preferring to distribute optometry supplies to shops and clinics across northwest France.
The Hoffer house in Bernières-sur-Mer is typical of the large, imposing holiday homes that were once common along the Normandy coastline. The Germans razed many of these beach houses during the Second World War, fearing they would be used as location landmarks for an Allied invasion force approaching from the sea. The Hoffer house – purchased by Mr. Hoffer’s grandfather in 1933 – was somehow spared the destruction, although the family was evicted from it during the Nazi occupation.
The house also miraculously survived the bombardment of the Allied invasion in 1944, despite the presence of German soldiers firing a machine gun at Canadian troops from the home’s front porch. In black-and-white photos of the time, the house is clearly visible, battered but still standing behind the seawall of what was code-named Juno Beach.
“This house was liberated at first light on D-Day, 6 June 1944, by the men of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada,” says a plaque in front of the building today. “Within sight of this house, over 100 men of The Queen’s Own Rifles were killed or wounded, in the first few minutes of the landings.”
Mr. Hoffer and his wife inherited the house – one half of what is actually a duplex owned by two French families – from Mr. Hoffer’s parents in the 1970s. Remembrance of the war had dropped out of favour by then, in both France and Canada. Mr. Hoffer’s mother and father, who had survived the Nazis as children, preferred to forget.
In 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Canadian veterans first began returning in sizable numbers to Normandy. Mr. Hoffer
noticed the Canadians stopping outside his house and pointing at the building. Curious, he invited them inside and heard their stories – becoming aware for the first time that he owned the most historic home on Juno Beach.
“The veterans were still young and healthy then, and many of them stopped to chat and have a beer,” Mr. Hoffer once said. “Some asked if they could see inside the house. I made many friends, and it just grew from there.”
So began his 30-year obsession to preserve and honour the memory of Canada’s sacrifices on the strip of sand where he had spent his summers since childhood.
He made contact with veterans who had come ashore in Bernières-sur-Mer, particularly members of the Queen’s Own Rifles and Le Régiment de la Chaudière, of Quebec. He collected photos and war memorabilia and displayed it inside the house – which he dubbed “La Maison des Canadiens” or “Canada House.”
Today the private home more closely resembles a museum, festooned with Canadian flags, regimental insignia and wartime maps and artifacts. On one downstairs wall, there is even a framed, bloodstained 500-franc note given to a Canadian soldier in Bernières-sur-Mer on D-Day, by a German soldier who pleaded for his life in exchange for the money. After surviving the war, the Canadian veteran presented the note to Mr. Hoffer years later on a pilgrimage back to Juno Beach.
Mr. Hoffer also made several trips to Canada, each time visiting veterans at home or in hospital, and once bringing a group of French schoolchildren with him. He also served as vice-president of the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, an organization of historians and veterans that promotes remembrance.
Every year brought a parade of Canadians to the Hoffers’ door – tourists, school groups, visitors on battlefield tours. All were invited inside by Mr. Hoffer and his wife, if they were home.
Rebecca Grimes, a French and history teacher at Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ont., made several trips to Juno with students and fellow teachers. She says their visits to Canada House, and Mr. Hoffer’s stories about what Canadian soldiers did for his family and his country, personalized the war “in a way that no textbook ever could.
“The French talk about the ‘devoir de souvenir’ – the responsibility to remember,” Ms. Grimes says. “He embodied this value.”
Christiane Avrard, who knew Mr. Hoffer since childhood and lives down the beach from his house, says she was surprised when he and Nicole first opened their home to Canadian strangers.
“When we were younger, he was a shy person, very reserved,” she says. “But he was also kind and generous. And as an only child, he had no family other than his wife and his two boys. I think that’s one reason why he became so interested in meeting and welcoming others.”
Ms. Avrard says Mr. Hoffer had three great joys – his family, sailing on the Channel, and socializing with friends. He was known to be fond of a drink, but especially fond of sharing one with veterans. As the priest said with a smile at Mr. Hoffer’s funeral mass: “Hervé is probably closer now to Saint-Émilion [a popular French wine] than to St. Peter.”
As the popularity of Canada House grew over the years, so did the burden of maintaining the building and its collection of artifacts, and of keeping its doors open. Two years ago, Mr. Hoffer established the Canada House
Association, a volunteer group, to help with the work. It will now assume responsibility for the house, along with Mr. Hoffer’s wife.
Nathalie Worthington, director of the Juno Beach Centre, a privately run Canadian museum in Normandy, calls Mr. Hoffer “one of the pillars” of the remembrance community on Juno Beach, and his warmth was legendary. She says the Hoffers could have easily guarded their privacy and shut the doors of their famous house.
“But over the years Hervé realized what the house meant to others, what it meant to Canadians. As somebody who was so generous, it became his life.
“That house became what it is, only because Hervé and Nicole shared it, and built so much friendship with people in
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