80th anniversary of D-Day How the final years of the war shaped a Königswinter man

Siebengebirge · Gerold Hank is eleven years old when news reaches him from France: the Allied invasion of Normandy begins on 6 June 1944. The 91-year-old Königswinter resident tells the GA how the final months of the war shaped him – and why France played a very special role.

June marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day: a landing craft brings US soldiers to "Omaha Beach" in Normandy. Photo: DPA

June marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day: a landing craft brings US soldiers to "Omaha Beach" in Normandy. Photo: DPA

Foto: dpa/DPA

The day that went down in history as D-Day and heralded a decisive turning point in the Second World War will be 80 years old in less than two months. The Allied landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944 is one of the largest operations in military history, establishing a second front in the west against Germany: For Gerold Hank from Königswinter, it was the first news he had ever heard from France. The events surrounding 6 June and the months that followed motivated the Königswinter native to work for friendship between the two nations for the rest of his life.

The memories of those memorable messages from the country whose language he learnt off by heart and which he would later visit so often are still vivid. "That was the topic at the time and it interested me. It was obvious, I heard that the Allies had landed, they wanted to break through to Germany, to my home country," says Hank. He was eleven years old when the Battle of Normandy began. 1.5 million Allied soldiers arrived there in the weeks that followed; they fought against half a million Germans. The day after Gerold's twelfth birthday on 24 August, the Allies liberated Paris without a fight to the cheers of the population, where Charles de Gaulle formed a provisional French government.

Gerold Hank's brother missing

The war had not only moved even closer to home, but had soon reached the family in its worst form. Hank's older brother Walter went missing in Romania in August 1944, having already been in the field in neighbouring France. The family, which also included brother Günter, later mayor of Königswinter, feared for Walter's fate.

The memories of the war in all its facets were the key to the 91-year-old's commitment, which extended over many years in the service of Franco-German friendship. For 40 years, Hank searched for traces of his brother Walter, including in Romania, where he learnt that the Orthodox clergy had also blessed the fallen German soldiers: "I found that remarkable". In June 1940, as a radio operator in the 76th Infantry Division in France, his brother was involved in the heavy fighting in Esnes-en-Argonne against the 23rd Colonial Regiment. Through his research, Hank came into contact with the returnees, who invited him to reconciliation ceremonies in Rembercourt near Verdun.

In great demand as an interpreter

He also made such an impression as an interpreter that the French ambassador in Berlin sent Hank a letter of congratulations on his milestone birthday, recognising his commitment to Franco-German friendship and understanding, and also informed the government in Paris.

He always has his harmonica with him: Gerold Hank has been committed to Franco-German friendship all his life.  Photo: Repro: Roswitha Oschmann

He always has his harmonica with him: Gerold Hank has been committed to Franco-German friendship all his life. Photo: Repro: Roswitha Oschmann

Foto: Repro: Roswitha Oschmann

His love of France and the French language was instilled in him by a teacher at Ernst-Kalkuhl-Gymnasium, where Hank graduated in 1953. "He told us that he had been chief interpreter for the Vichy government, raved about France and rehearsed plays with us. He fascinated us as a teacher." Hank studied French, initially for several semesters in Bonn. Then he travelled to Montpellier by train. "I actually only wanted to stay for six weeks, but it turned into a whole year.“

He completed his studies at Friedrich Wilhelm University in 1961. "He could speak French, but with a southern French accent," he says today with a laugh. Hank taught at various schools, most recently as a senior teacher at the Schloss Hagerhof grammar school from 1968 to 1995. Student exchanges were important to him - he built up a partnership with the Collège Gibraltar in Marseille, which ended after his retirement. In his private life, he maintained friendships with teachers. He was invited to a wedding with his wife Irene - and played "Freude schöner Götterfunken" on the harmonica.

The harmonica has accompanied Hank ever since he found the first instrument of its kind under the Christmas tree during the serious time of the war. The harmonica also opened hearts on the former battlefields. Until the Covid pandemic, Hank always attended the commemoration events in Rembercourt. He travelled to Metz by train, where one of the soldiers from the German delegation picked him up. This included a memorial service, wreath-laying ceremonies at the French cemetery and at the memorial to the German fallen by representatives of the Bundeswehr and the French army and a friendship dinner in the Rembercourt community centre.

Building bridges with the harmonica

The man from Königswinter spoke for the German comrades in French. And when German and French music could also be heard, the interpreter proved that he could also contribute to understanding between the peoples without words: with the harmonica. The many graves - a terrible sight. He was touched by the hospitality of the people of Rembercourt. At the memorial service at the village cemetery, the residents asked Hank to play the song of the good comrade.

It was a poignant moment for the lover of France and friend of the country, who heard the first news of his life from France when the Allies landed in Normandy. "In March 1945, the Americans came to us in Königswinter from Honnef. Mum was supposed to make them coffee. I packed my four chickens and the cockerel into a basket and put them on the boiler in the next room. I drummed it into them: 'Don't make a peep, keep quiet or you'll get it'. They didn't make a peep." The war lasted a few more weeks: The Normandy landings had hastened the end of the Third Reich.

(Original text: Roswitha Oschmann; Translation: Mareike Graepel)

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