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'The other Dunkirk': French article sparks hope of new Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque link

More than 70 years ago, when Dunkerque, France remained devastated in the aftermath of World War II, the little American city of Dunkirk, N.Y. — a city named for its waterfront similarities to the French community — stepped in to help.

The release of the Warner Brothers film, "Dunkirk," has put a new spotlight on that once-passionate bond, which gradually faded away. Last month, we did a piece in the News in which Dunkirk Mayor Willie Rosas spoke of the deep meaning of that connection and dreamed out loud about renewing it.

That hope is now echoed by Patrice Vergriete, mayor of Dunkerque, France, in a new article about Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque by journalist Olivier DuFourg in "La Voix du Nord," or "The Voice of the North," a French newspaper.

The article is called "L'autre Dunkirk," or "The Other Dunkirk." Vergriete told DuFourg he intends to contact officials in Dunkirk this autumn, once school resumes, "to try to organize an exchange."

As for Dunkirk, N.Y., Hector Rosas — the mayor's brother and the city's director of special events — said the city will soon mail a gift to Vergriete and the residents of Dunkerque, along with an invitation to take part in a conference call as a first step toward reviving the international kinship.

Sean Kirst: As film opens, recalling when Dunkirk, N.Y. helped Dunkerque, France

Here is a translation of DuFourg's article:

The other Dunkirk

By Olivier DuFourg

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Dunkerque was no more than ruins. A devastated city, wounded. Thousands of miles away, residents of a small town in the United States located on the shore of Lake Erie, also named "Dunkirk," decided to help.

Why such an outpouring of solidarity? Because in the 19th century, the name of Dunkerque had inspired an American businessman passing through the city. He observed similarities between the ports of the two cities. Around 1818, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the state of New York, the city of Dunkirk was born.

15 million in humanitarian aid

Clothes, food, animals, pharmaceuticals, furniture, children's cars, blankets, etc., or humanitarian aid estimated at 15 million francs (a colossal sum at the time): That was the result of the collection organized by the inhabitants of Dunkirk for the benefit of Dunkerque, and which gave rise on 29 November 1946, in the United States, to a "Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque Day."

It was a high-profile moment, broadcast on TV and on radios across the country. The French ambassador and the actors Charles Boyer and Simone Simon — whose father had been killed by the Germans — attended. "That day in Dunkirk, the streets were crowded," recalls Albertine Jakubowicz, a native of Omez, now 91 years old and settled in Dunkirk, N.Y., since 1946.

The only problem today is that since 1962 — and the visit of a delegation from Dunkirk, N.Y., to attend the tricentenary of the acquisition of Dunkerque by Louis XIV — this strong bond that united the two cities has, for reasons that are unknown, gradually faded into oblivion.

But since the release of Christopher Nolan's film, Dunkirk's current mayor, Willie Rosas, aspires to re-establish this link, which he calls a"a symbol of peace and brotherhood." Mr. Rosas asked Warner Bros. to send him posters of the film, wrote Sean Kirst, a journalist with a regional newspaper, The Buffalo News.

Kirst adds: "I am 57 years old and I grew up in Dunkirk. When I was a child, the memory of the 'Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque Day' remained very strong. Residents of the two cities continued to visit each other! It is a pity that this bond, so powerful and based on a shared love of freedom, is now forgotten."

Will it be born again from the ashes? On the other side of the Atlantic, they are dreaming about it.

Towards a new connection?

There has been no official contact, no ceremonial link, between Dunkirk and Dunkerque for decades. This does not mean that the city of Jean Bart (a famed naval commander) has forgotten the immense generosity shown by the inhabitants of Dunkirk, its sister city, in the aftermath of the Second World War.

As Patrice Vergriete, mayor of Dunkerque, suggests, it is very likely that the two cities will renew an official link: "We recently had contact with Dunkirk. We will let the summer period go by, but as soon as we get back to school, we will resume this contact to try to organize an exchange."

And ultimately lead to a twinning (a "sister cities" relationship)?

"Yes, this is a possibility that is being considered".

Albertine, 91, remembers

On November 29, 1946, the day of Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque Day, she was 21 years old, and she was there ...

"She" is Albertine Jakubowicz, née Omez, 91 years old. Born in Tourcoing on 28 November 1925 (she celebrated her 21st birthday on the eve of the event!), she regularly came to spend her weekends on Malo Beach as a child. And in 1946, she married an American soldier based in her hometown.

Albertine Jakubowicz has lived in Dunkirk, N.Y. since 1946. In 1962, she attended the last rally between the two cities. A resident of in Dunkirk since her marriage, Albertine, now a widow and mother of four children (including one deceased), had just arrived in Dunkirk when she attended the Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque Day.

"How could I forget? All New York and all Dunkirk were there! All this solidarity, it made me all the more happy because before coming to the United States, I had been to Dunkirk. All that I had seen — apart from the statue of Jean Bart, who remained standing — was a city completely destroyed. How sad. ... "

Like all the inhabitants of Dunkirk, Albertine, who participated in several exchanges between the two cities, wants only one thing:

"That this link can be renewed."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Contact him at skirst@buffalonews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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