A brief history of how Dunkirk came to the aid of its sister city and namesake in France
In light of the much anticipated premier of Christopher Nolan’s war film “Dunkirk,” the OBSERVER sought some historical perspective from a local expert regarding the relationship between the two port cities separated by 3,708 miles but joined together in name and historical context.
“To me the most important thing that one can say about the movie and our connection to (Dunkirk, France) is the spirit of generosity,” said Diane Andrasik, Dunkirk historian and former English teacher at Dunkirk High School and author of the book “Dunkirk” (published 2008 by Arcadia Publishing).
That “spirit of generosity” blossomed from the ruins of WWII, when Europe and much of the rest of the world was rebuilding from the deadliest military conflict in history (claiming the lives of over 60 million people). “Dunkirk France was practically obliterated,” Andrasik said.
The year was 1946, and the people of Dunkirk, New York “came to the idea that we should assist (Dunkirk, France) in some way, so the Dunkirk to Dunkirk Day event occurred on November 28,” said Andrasik.
People all over Dunkirk pitched in with “money, goods, supplies, all amounting to something like $100,000, which in 1946 was a lot of money. There were vehicles filled with donations: typewriters, medical supplies, material goods, all going to Dunkirk, France.”
The event put Dunkirk, New York on the map, as dignitaries — including the ambassador to France — and celebrities from around the world came to honor the generosity of this small, little-known western New York town.
Andrasik displayed a number of historical documents, including a letter written by one of the original editors of the Dunkirk Evening Observer, HK Williams.
The letter includes these words: “…as the national premier of a series of events designed to rehabilitate war-torned cities of France, the City of Dunkirk, New York has undertaken to play a major role in the rehabilitation of Dunkirk, France. Acting under the leadership of our mayor and common council and to properly publicize the program and provide a tangible souvenir of the occasion, we are publishing a special ‘Dunkirk to Dunkirk Day’ edition.”
Andrasik revealed a December 21, 1947 New York Times Magazine article titled “The Miracle of Dunkirk, A Christmas Tale”, by Meyer Berger. “It is a tale of two cities of the same name…at its heart lies mankind’s hope for peace.”
Andrasik recounted how Eleanor Roosevelt even wrote about the event in her column “My Day”.
“She talked about Dunkirk, New York and its spirit of generosity,” Andrasik said. “Here’s America recovering from a war and all the money that was spent and men who went and never returned. She spent a lot of time praising our efforts and hoping to inspire other people, other cities to do the same.”
Another OBSERVER article Andrasik unearthed from the museum archives read, in part: “The favorable mention which Dunkirk has received from coast-to-coast cannot help but be gratifying. It will take a lot of generosity in the next ten days to live up to our reputation. We’re glad to have Dunkirk and its location on Lake Erie known. No one is ever quite so irritating as those downstaters who have an idea that New York state ends at Buffalo.”
Andrasik explained that although some people still harbor the misconception that Dunkirk was originally named Chadwick Bay, the area by the bay wasn’t officially named anything until businessman Elisha Jenkins, recognizing a similarity in landscape between the burgeoning western New York village to the port town he had visited in France.
“He saw a comparison between our harbor and their harbor and suggested to the 50 to 60 people who lived here at the time that this might be a good name,” Andrasik said. “There was no name at the time, it was just an area. A guy named Chadwick lived on the bay so if it was time to move over to that area of land, someone would say ‘well let’s go over to Chadwick’s bay.'”
So, somewhere around 1818, Dunkirk was named for the port town in France, who’s first recorded mention occurred in 1067. The name “Dunkirk”, by the way, is derived from the Dutch and means “church in the dunes.”
This connection between the two Dunkirks was reborn in 1946, when Dunkirk came to the aid of her sister city in France. Perhaps the connection will be rekindled, inspired by a movie set to premier next week.
“The fact that we became a name on the lips of Eleanor Roosevelt says that even someone of her stature recognized the goodness, the generosity, the spirit of America, alive in Dunkirk, New York,” Andrasik said.