Ex-Westport WWII vet named to French Legion of Honor
Updated 7:55 am, Thursday, January 19, 2012
Nearly 70 years after he helped liberate France from Nazi occupation, a former, longtime Westport man has been named to receive France's highest national honor.
Kritzer lived for 50 years in Westport, where he was a merchant and home builder, before retiring to Florida about a decade ago with his wife, Lea.
He is among 20 World War II veterans who are scheduled to receive the insignia of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Consulate in ceremonies Thursday in Boynton Beach, Fla. Knight is the highest of five degrees in the legion.
"I'm very honored," he said in a telephone interview Monday. "I'll be accepting the award for all of the men in the 286th Field Artillery Observation Battalion."
Kritzer and his wife moved to Westport from Long Island in 1954 to open Country Casuals, a women's sportswear and country attire shop in the Compo Shopping Plaza. He later founded Kritzer Development Corp. and built 50 houses in Westport and Weston, he said.
He was a 19-year-old student at Brooklyn College in New York when he was drafted into the Army in 1944. A 6-foot-4-inch basketball player, Kritzer was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for training, then off to the war in Europe.
Serving under Gen. George S. Patton, he landed in France at Utah Beach about a month after D-Day and would remain in Europe for a year and a half -- much of it in harms way.
A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and three more battles, Kritzer spent most of his time at the front, he said, as a member of the so-called "sound-and-flash" unit that calculated the distance of enemy artillery based on the sound of the big guns. He often came under fire.
"I was 19 years old. When you're 19, you think your going to live forever," he said this week.
Perhaps. But he had close calls. Like the time his unit was being shelled and took refuge inside a building. "I was standing in a doorway, and a shell struck right over my head. Knocked me out cold," he recalled.
"Life is about luck," he said.
After France was liberated, his unit moved into Germany, and it remained there as an occupying force after the Germans surrendered. He was discharged in 1946.
In 1954, Kritzer and his wife, who was a buyer in New York's garment district, were living in Jamaica Estates on Long Island when a friend told them about a retail opportunity in Westport. With Lea Kritzer's knowledge of the clothing industry, they opened Country Casuals and ran it for 20 years.
As Len Kritzer moved on to build homes, Lea opened a real estate brokerage, Lea Kritzer Associates on the Post Road. In Westport they raised two children: a son, Harry -- who still lives in town with his wife -- and a daughter, Elizabeth.
The couple now lives in Boca Raton, where Len plays tennis every day. They visit Westport every summer.