By Tom Infield, Inquirer Staff Writer
In France, a near-exact Liberty Bell replica tolls.
CAEN, France When the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, the city of Caen, 12 miles inland, was the main target of the British divisions that stormed ashore. News of the attack broke with the thunder of artillery.
Thirty-six hundred miles away, in Philadelphia, the milkman was making his rounds when the long-awaited offensive against the Nazi German occupiers of France was announced on radio.
That day, Mayor Bernard Samuel went to Independence Hall, where he gently tapped the Liberty Bell with a rubber mallet. Because of the crack in its side, the bell had not been sounded in a century. A clear, clarion call was impossible.
Now, the sound the bell might have made, if it hadn't fatally fractured while being rung on George Washington's birthday in 1846, can be heard at least in France for the first time in more than a century and a half.
This past weekend, as France celebrated the 60th anniversary of its liberation by American- and British-led forces, the people of Normandy dedicated a near-exact, 2,077-pound replica of the bell made with the same alchemy of copper and tin as the original in 1753.
"Do you hear that? That is a very special sound from the 18th century," said Paul Bergamo, of the Cornille-Havard foundry, which cast the replica bell. "That is the sound Benjamin Franklin heard when he was working on the Constitution of the United States."
The bell, which was financed with a grant of about $60,000 from the Regional Council of Lower Normandy, sits outside the Abbey of the Women (l'Abbaye aux Dames) in Caen. The city of 115,000 was heavily damaged in World War II.
Eventually, the replica may be moved to the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where in a 1984 speech marking the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan had remembered the reactions of America to invasion news: "... in Georgia, they were filling churches... in Kansas, they were kneeling on their porches and praying... in Philadelphia, they were ringing the Liberty Bell."
Patrick Doudon, who helped conceive the Normandy Liberty Bell and saw it through to completion, got the idea while on a business trip to Philadelphia in 2000. He liked the city and was surprised to learn that Philadelphia was losing population at among the fastest rates of big American cities.
The founders of the American republic, he learned, had taken many of their ideas from French philosophers of the Enlightenment. He went to Valley Forge and absorbed the story of the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought with American troops in the Revolutionary War. Standing at the Liberty Bell Pavilion, he could look west on Market Street and see that Philadelphia City Hall bore the same grandeur and architectural style of the city hall in Paris.
The Normandy Liberty Bell, he said yesterday in Caen, honors the United States in general, and Philadelphia in particular.
"There is so much common history between Philadelphia and France," he said.
Mayor Street and Gov. Rendell were invited to the dedication events over the weekend, but they sent a representative: Walter Cichacki, president of the Normandy Liberty Bell Club of America.
Cichacki, a French teacher in Sidney, N.Y., noted in an interview that the only significant difference between the original bell and the replica was that the raised-letter inscription from the biblical book of Leviticus "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" had been changed from English to French.
This July 4, in connection with the Let Freedom Ring celebrations across the country, bells will be rung across America at 2 p.m. to celebrate the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence.
At that hour 8 p.m., in France the Normandy Liberty Bell will let loose its deep, reverberating voice.
Winchell Carroll of Wayne, vice president of the Pennsylvania Sons of the Revolution, which sponsors Let Freedom Ring, said he was excited the event was going transcontinental.
"Now we can say it is all over the world," he said.