Column: A Norwich Expat Is Moved by French WWII Commemoration

Sunday, May 17, 2015
I’ve always been prone to crying. The Star Spangled Banner got me when I was a high school hockey player on the ice at Campion Arena before a game. My eyes have leaked during the Norwich Memorial Day Parade. It would be a lie to say that I haven’t welled up when I cross the river into my home state of Vermont after many moons away from the Green Mountains. Heck, I’ve gotten a little misty belting out the radio jingle, “You pick up the phone and call 643-6135 . . . it’s Everything But Anchovies.”

So I knew I was going to cry at some point during the weekend commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Arnay-Le-Duc, the town in rural Burgundy where I live nowadays, had planned three days of ceremony, parades and countless “friendship glasses” of wine.

So, as I grabbed my camera and notebook to cover a slew of events in my role as local press correspondent for Le Bien Public, the region’s newspaper, there was sure to be an episode of crying. I just didn’t know when it was going to come.

The official ceremonies on May 8 didn’t get me. I went to see mayors, children of resistance fighters, and other dignitaries place enormous wreaths at the base of the monument aux morts, the marker in every French village that lists the names of the young men who died in the two world wars. In the crowded “wedding room” of the town hall, I listened to a woman tell the tale of her mother’s experience in a concentration camp. My eyes were dry.

On Saturday, I sent my mother, here to visit from Norwich, on the ceremonial walk on the trail of the resistance fighters. In a “Is this really happening?” coincidence, my Hanover High School French teacher and her husband were also here, and swung by to pick up Mom. The three of them regaled me with stories of the walk, each of them sowing the seeds of Franco-American friendship in the soil of the French countryside.

Sunday dawned under bright sun and brilliant blue sky. Isn’t it a truth universally acknowledged that one of the advantages of small-town living is that you personally know the organizers of public events, so you feel relieved for them when the weather cooperates?

My wife got into her period garb, complete with a black floppy beret-style hat, and we were off to the rendezvous point in front of the garden store. It was a circus of old U.S. Army Jeeps, classic French cruising cars and people everywhere in costumes of the 1940s. A gaggle of women were decked out in nurses’ whites. Men had stuffed their 21st century frames into the slimmer threads of 70 years ago, some sporting suspenders and all wearing a period hat. Children had on knee-length shorts, berets and modern sneakers, little signs that there were limits when it came to the quest for authenticity. The women were in attire that my wife and mother called pencil and tulip skirts, skinny belts, pin curls and cloche hats. The ladies in my life informed me that women were drawing lines up the back of their legs to imitate the seams of nylon stockings, just like they did during the war when nylons were scarce. Arnay-le-Duc never looked so sexy.

At the first sign of an American flag, my mother was weeping. It happens. I continued to photograph the scene and record people’s thoughts and observations about the event, walled off from any emotion.

Eventually, we began to march. Smiles and good cheer were everywhere, from the parade participants to the curious observers leaning out their second-floor windows to check out what definitely qualified as a major event in this town of 1,700 people. Local actors portrayed a street scene about the end of the war, whooping in celebration. People carried signs saying “Vive Général DeGaulle!” and all the local elected officials sported blue, white and red sashes.

I greeted each moment with a smile and began to think I would escape the day without crying, my Man Card still intact.

But then the crowd surrounded the monument aux morts. And a group of elementary and middle school-aged girls in period costume began to speak into a microphone. It wasn’t their impressive calm in the face of a large crowd. It wasn’t their clear voices that refused to waver. It wasn’t even their remarkable courage and confidence that made me crack.

It was their words. Taking turns, one by one, they approached the microphone, each responsible for a specific village, and said, “From the town of . . .” and read out the names of the people who died in World War II. On what was possibly the most beautiful meteorological day in the history of planet Earth, little girls in a small town in France read names of people I had never met and would never know. At the end of each list, the girls said, “Morts pour la France.” Died for France. The reality of war hit me, and rivers ran down my cheeks.

Mark Lilienthal was a speechwriter for former Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick. He is currently working on a book about his experiences in France and posts regularly at

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