SAINT-BRIAC-SUR-MER, France — US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day with a personal touch in the small French seaside town that is home to his family’s ancestral estate.
A day after attending international ceremonies to mark the allied invasion of France in Normandy, Kerry traveled to Saint Briac in the neighboring province of Brittany, where his mother’s family has long owned property.
Three US soldiers were killed during the liberation of the town in August, 1944, and Kerry placed a wreath at a monument “To the Americans” that overlooks the harbor.
In remarks later at the town hall, Kerry paid tribute to the soldiers and to the people of Saint Briac. He credited them with helping to save heirlooms from his family’s estate, Les Essarts. The Nazis had turned it into their local headquarters during the occupation and destroyed it as allied troops approached after D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Kerry, who first visited Les Essarts after the war when he was 4, told a crowd gathered for Saturday’s ceremony that he remembered almost nothing being left of the house, “just a stone staircase to the sky and an old, brick chimney.”
“I can still hear the sound of the rubble and broken glass that was crunching under our shoes as we walked through what used to be her house,” he said from the mayor’s balcony. He was flanked by American and French flags and blowups of the famous “Kiss of Liberation” photograph depicting a U.S. sergeant kissing a young French girl in Saint Briac as the town celebrated the end of Nazi occupation.
The photographer, Tony Vaccaro, who was private in the unit, was present at the event. The mayor announced that the town hall was being named after Vaccaro, who cried when he heard the news.
Les Essarts was rebuilt in 1954 in an effort that Kerry said was symbolic of the strength and resolve of France to rebuild after the war.
“In a sense, that represents the story of France,” he said. “Certainly this country saw tragedy during World War II as very few others did. But France rebuilt itself, brick by brick, and today she is as strong as ever,” Kerry told the crowd.
“To me, Saint Briac’s World War II legacy isn’t just about loss and destruction,” he said. “It’s a legacy of strength. It’s a legacy of solidarity. Ultimately, it’s a legacy of good prevailing over evil — of freedom prevailing over tyranny.”
Kerry’s heritage also involves Jewish roots. One of his grandfathers was Jewish, born Fritz Kohn, in Moravia. Growing up in increasingly anti-Semitic Vienna, Fritz and his older brother Otto converted to Roman Catholicism and then, in 1901, Fritz Kohn changed his name, to Fred Kerry.
Fritz/Fred also married a Jew, a musician named Ida Loewe, and she too converted to Catholicism. Loewe was a descendant of Prague’s luminary Rabbi Judah Loew — one of Jewish history’s most eminent Kabbalists.
Two of Kerry’s grandmother Ida’s siblings, Otto and Jenni, were killed in concentration camps at around the same time that Kerry, the second child and first son of Rosemary and Richard Kerry, was born at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, in 1943.