This imposing house overlooking the sea is right in the centre of Juno Beach, the Canadian landing zone on D-Day. It is a very special place and it holds many stories waiting to be retold. The first building to be liberated on D-Day was the Gondree Café beside Pegasus Bridge but this house was the first to be liberated from the sea. The Queens Own Rifles of Canada did the job. The house was built in 1928 as a summer vacation home for the owner of a large department store in Paris but was sold a few years later to Edmond Hoffer and it remains in his family to this day. By June 1940, France was under German occupation and most of the houses around here were torn down to make way for concrete, barbed wire and observation platforms to scan the English Channel.
No one really knows why the house survived the cull but it was probably because a German officer took a liking to it. He was in charge of the gun on the beach that formed part of the so called Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s grand plan to protect Nazi occupied Europe from a seaborne invasion. Millions of conscripted workers from already occupied nations were deployed for its construction. The Atlantic Wall ran for 2,800 miles coast to coast from Norway to the Spanish border. 15,000 bunkers, gun batteries and machine gun nests, rarely more than 100 yards apart were manned by 300,000 men. It took 3 years to build but it was breached in 3 hours on D-Day.
Erwin Rommel, the celebrated German officer and veteran of previous military campaigns was given the responsibility for defending the Atlantic Wall. In the weeks leading up to D-Day he told Hitler that if an amphibious landing were to take place here on the Beaches of Normandy, that couldn’t be repelled back into the sea, then Germany would lose the war. Prophetic words indeed from a highly respected and decorated soldier with sharp military instincts. The occupying army that forced its way into this house and thousands of others like it were despised for what they were doing. Families were brutally evicted, many never to return after war had taken its toll. History rightly condemns those who were behind the vicious Nazi attempt to overthrow Europe and the world. But the individuals who were caught up in these battles all had their own story to tell.
Standing beside, what is now famously known throughout the world as Canada House, I’m reminded of another liberated house many miles from here. It was back in the days when Jesus walked the streets as one of us, rubbing shoulders with those who were living under the oppression of a different occupying army, the Romans. The Bible tells the story of the day when Jesus went to eat at the house of a man called Zacchaeus. Now, this fella was also despised by everyone and Jesus took some flak that day for his choice of dinner guest. Zacchaeus is described in the Bible as a tax collector but if the truth was known he was probably more of a tax creator, a con artist of significant proportions.
So why on earth was Jesus interested in going to the home of somebody like that? It’s an interesting question for sure. The answer lies, probably, in something else Jesus said. He told the people who didn’t much like the company he kept that it’s the sick who need the doctor, not the healthy. In other words, those of us who have real struggles, a sack full of issues and a dubious back story are the very ones that Jesus targets the most. So how does the story play out as Jesus boldly enters a house whilst clearly on a mission to put right a wrong that has been committed? Well, Zacchaeus fesses up and tells Jesus he would repay everyone he’s ripped off 4 times the amount and also give half of his possessions to the poor.
OK, so, what’s the connection with Canada House on the Beaches of Normandy and the home of the guy who worked for the Revenue 2,000 years ago I n Jericho? It’s a good question and hear’s the answer. When the Canadian troops entered this house on June 6th 1944, it was a place of oppression and they switched the lights back on. When Jesus went into the home of Zacchaeus the taxman, he did the same. These are the famous words that came from his lips that day “Today, salvation has come to this house!”
After the war, the house was returned to the Hoffer family in a fairly desperate condition. Slowly, the Canadian veterans started coming to revisit the house that was such a big part of their memories of that day when the freedom of the world rested on their young shoulders. The stories of what happened that day began to emerge. 200 of the men had taken a bullet in the first minutes of the invasion from the machine gun positioned in the front room window. Their names are listed on the plaque in from of the house. Bullet marks on both the inside and outside of the house reveal the scars of war.
The Hoffer family welcomed the veterans and invested time and energy into making the house a place of honour and memorial to the Canadians who fought to free it from occupation. The mementos included photographs, a Nazi armband that was left behind and a bloodstained French bank note given to Hoffer by a Canadian who had received it from a wounded German soldier in return for sparing his life. One particular Canadian veteran who came back here for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June 2014. Ernie Kells, who had thrown a hand grenade into the basement where the Germans were hiding, was here on the 60th anniversary in 2004. This is what he said to Herve Hoffer the owner of the house “I was here on D-Day and I’m so sorry about the damage I caused. Just send me the bill” Herve said to him, “No, the cost has already been paid.”
What Herve meant was that the men who fought and died here paid the cost with their lives for the freedom we all enjoy and far too often take for granted. I thank God for them and live with a huge sense of responsibility to tell the story of their sacrifice. They truly gave their todays for our tomorrows. There’s something immensely powerful in the sacrifice of one person for another. I think it’s the reason why days like Remembrance Sunday and Armistice commemorations are such powerful and even spiritual moments for so many of us. It also resonates strongly with the mission of Jesus.
He ventured out into the Nomansland of humanity’s separation from God and with his arms outstretched he cried “It is finished!” The announcement from the Son of God at the climax of his 33 years of life on earth echoes throughout time and eternity ‘The cost of freedom has been paid in full’ Accepting that truth is what defines someone as a Christian or a follower of Christ.
“I shall never forget those moments. I am sure that during that time I was drawn very close to God.”