May 3, 2023 marks the 78th anniversary of the bombing of the prisoner ships in the Bay of Lübeck. For this occasion, we interviewed Bernard Jeune. His father was among the nearly 7,000 people who lost their lives on May 3, 1945, when the prisoner ships sank. As a member of the French resistance movement, Eugene Jeune, a doctor, had been arrested on April 20, 1944, by the infamous Gestapo chief of Lyon, Klaus Barbie. At the end of July 1944, he was deported to Neuengamme concentration camp, where he worked as a prisoner doctor in the infirmary. We spoke with Bernard about the influence of his own family history, how he deals with it, and the importance of memory in general.
Maren Degener: I am interested in how your father’s life and his work, his imprisonment and of course also his death have influenced your own life.
Bernard Jeune: I am in Denmark. And I am Danish now. If he had returned I would have stayed in France and would have never become Danish. My mum married a Danish friend of my father who was also in the concentration camp. Therefore, it has a very fundamental influence on me because I changed nationality. I came here to Denmark in 1949 and have been in school, then university and so on. I am French born but I am a Dane. So that’s a very fundamental influence.
Maren Degener: Are there any connections to France now?
Bernard Jeune: Yes, yes. I have a big family with many cousins. And I go there twice a year. Last May we had a get-together with about 15 of my cousins. I see them very often and I also call them. So yes, I have a connection to France. That’s mainly because my mother kept the relations with my French family. And we went to France every summer. I have never learned to write French correctly. I still make some grammatical mistakes and so on. But I am bilingual you can say. My mother tongue is French and then I learned Danish after.
Maren Degener: Have you ever considered to move to France?
Bernard Jeune: Yes, I tried. My mother would have liked my brother and me to return to France. And my stepfather also. He was much older than her, 25 years. Just like my father, he was also a physician. And he knew my father from the concentration camp. After my stepfather had proposed to my mother and married her we came to Denmark. But he also accepted that we had to return to France. In 1962 I started studying medicine in Lyon, my home town. But I knew already back then I was doing it for my mother. Because she would like it. But I knew that I would return to Denmark. I was already to much of a Dane. I started studying in France but my best friend for example, he started studying medicine in Aarhus. So I returned to Denmark, attended university and also finished my medical studies there.
Maren Degener: And has the subject of your studies had something to do with your father or your fathers?
Bernard Jeune: I think so, yes. Both with my father and my stepfather. My stepfather was a general practitioner in the south of Denmark. In Augustenborg, close to Sønderborg, close to Flensburg. And I grew up there as a child. It was in my DNA if you will that I had to start studying medicine. But maybe it was a mistake because I was already at that time very much interested in literature and philosophy. And I always have problems with focusing on one subject only. I like to read too much and too broad. It is hard to find time to read that much literature while studying medicine. I grew up as a child in this environment of being engaged in the anti-fascist movement. So I think due to this engagement I have something to say about that. I was also very interested in theatre. I thought about being a director in a theatre. I already did that in the high-school. But I think that was too much inward. I had to do something outward. Being more engaged. And medicine was the right field there because I was able to do something for human beings. So, yes, in this way, both my father’s and stepfather’s profession had a big influence.
Maren Degener: But it wasn’t that you did it just because your fathers were physicians? Was it more of an unconscious decision that you didn’t think about?
Bernard Jeune: No, no. It was… You know, in many ways, life is determined by coincidence. It was a bit of a coincidence that I became a Dane because my father had been involved in the resistance. If he would have never been taken to prison by Klaus Barbie I would have never become a Dane. In this way, life is a series of many, successive coincidences. But at the same time there is also a kind of destiny in this coincidence. You see, becoming a physician was in my DNA. And in a third way I decided to do that. So it was also my free choice if you will. Life is a combination of this destiny, ‘coincidences’ and free personal choices. It is very difficult to say what was the most decisive aspect that made me become a physician.
Maren Degener: I have read that you have gone to the Lübecker Bucht. I think it was last year?
Bernard Jeune: That was last year. I was invited to do a presentation at the ‘Denkmal’ in Neustadt. I was also there in 2010. I think it was the third time that I was on the boat in the Lübecker Bucht. I have also been in Neuengamme a couple more times – at least five or six times.
Maren Degener: Aside from these visits, is there anything else you do in memory of your father?
Bernard Jeune: No. Because I was a half year old when he was taken by Klaus Barbie. I do not remember him. I have never been close to him. But of course, every time I see his side of the family I am thinking about him. He has two brothers and two sisters. One sister died before I was born. But the two brothers and the sister, my aunt, I know very well. I have been very close to my aunt. She was his little sister and five years younger than him. And I was also very close to his older brother who was a physician as well. He was a professor in paediatrics in Lyon. He was born seven years before my father. These two I met every year. Sometimes two times a year. So in this way I was close to him because I was close to his little sister and to his older brother.
Maren Degener: Do you have any special things or rituals that you do for example on the 3rd of May? For example, do you gather as a family and remember your father?
Bernard Jeune: No, not really. My uncle, the physician – professor in paediatrics, Mathis, his older brother – he has his birthday on May 3rd, the day my father died. And he never celebrated his birthday because of that. Never! And so in this way we remembered him when my uncle had his birthday. We could say “Hello” and felicitations and so on. But we knew that it was a sorrow for him. And I remember when I was a child in the fifties we always drove in cars with my stepfather to France for holidays. Once we were in Neustadt in the beginning of the fifties. There was not a ‘Denkmal’ as in Neuengamme. Nothing was there. We went to the beach where some who escaped ‘Cap Arcona’ swam to. And we saw that there was only a camping site. This was the only time we went there when my stepfather was still alive. The only time! My stepfather never went to Neuengamme. Not even after they started to make the ‘Denkmal’. And I remember in the fifties when we drove to France we had to go immediately to the Netherlands because my stepfather would have never slept in Germany in a hotel. He had a good friend in Arnheim, in the Netherlands, who had also been in the Neuengamme concentration camp. So we went immediately from Augustenborg/Sønderborg to Arnheim in order to avoid having to stay in Germany.
Maren Degener: Did your stepfather speak with you about your father at that time?
Bernard Jeune: No. When I married my wife in 1966 he gave a speech to congratulate us on our marriage. And in this speech he mentioned my father and what they experienced in Neuengamme. He cried a little when he remembered this. This was the only time as I remember that he spoke about my father. And I did not ask him because he did not like to be asked about his experiences in Neuengamme. This generation did not like to speak about it. And with my mother it was more or less the same. Of course later I spoke with my mother but not very much. I regret not pushing harder at the time. But I experienced this many more times. I have a French family and also a Danish family with family members who had been in Neuengamme, in Ravensbrück, in Buchenwald. And we never spoke about that. They did not like to speak about it. I remember my mother’s cousin was in Ravensbrück. She was in the resistance in Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne. Like my mother in her youth. I visited her very often when she was old. She died at the age of 95. And during the last year I tried to speak with her about it. She tried a little but it was too hard for her to speak about it. She was too old to talk about it anymore. And the same with my mother. It was too late. I should have pushed more when I was younger. But when you are younger you live your life. You have to be a little bit older to be someone who wants to know more. And when I pushed them to get to know more it was too late. They were too afraid to speak about it. I regret that I do not really know what he precisely did in the resistance movement. He was a member of a network called ‘Perikles’. And ‘Perikles’ was part of the big resistance movement ‘Combat’ in France. When I was a child in the fifties we visited Lise Lesèvre several times. She was a French resistance fighter who witnessed against Klaus Barbie. My mum was also invited to witness against Klaus Barbie. But she did not want to do that. She said: “I will not go there.” I read Lesèvre’s little book. So this and the conversations with her are the only sources I have. And other small books which were written by one called Rendu and a younger physician who was in Buchenwald. So, I found out a little bit what my father did. But not enough in my opinion. I regret it a little bit that I did not ask these people more about the details of his work for the resistance. That is one thing that I remember from time to time. Another thing I often think about is how he died on the ‘Cap Arcona’. It is not something that I have bad dreams about. But in dreams I often think about it. Rendu, one of the other resistance fighters who survived and wrote a little book about Neuengamme, wrote a letter to my mother where he wrote that he saw my father on his way up the stairs on the ‘Cap Arcona’ before Rendu jumped into the sea. He saw my father treating some patients who were burnt. There was a little ‘revier’ upstairs on the ‘Cap Arcona’. Rendu saw him there and said good-bye to him. And of course, my father could not swim. So, he could not jump. But he was also a physician. So, he could not jump. If you are a physician, you have to treat those who are in need. I think that is why he stayed. And maybe also the fact that he could not swim contributed to the decision to stay on the sinking ship. I often think about how he died. Has he drowned or was he burned or something? And where is his corpse now? Was it washed up in Neustadt or on the other side near Lübeck? These are some of the things I wonder about from time to time. But this is not something what disturbs me very much. It is just something I would have liked to know.
Maren Degener: Is the story of your father something that you share with your children? I think your grandchildren are still too young?
Bernard Jeune: My grandchildren know that I was in Neustadt last year to give a speech. That’s also when they started asking about it. I had sent the speech to my children. And they talked about it with their children. My children have asked me of course. They know what I know. And all what I wrote and told a Danish newspaper. And they also spoke with my mother about it. They knew my mother very well. Some details I know from them. She was a little bit more open with them. But not very much. They also did not get precise information from her.
Maren Degener: I am also interested in what you generally think about sharing memories. Not only within the family but also with the public. To remember the past. Why is it so important?
Bernard Jeune: I think my children have never been in Neuengamme until now. However, they say they would like to go there. But you know, they have their own life also. For many years I was not very open about sharing my thoughts on this topic. In 2015, in the context of many refugees arriving in Germany and Denmark, a journalist asked me if I would like to share my story. In the beginning, I said no. But then one of my colleagues from the University of Southern Denmark who is doing research about the Holocaust asked me and another one from the university to speak about our stories in one of his seminars. We were the only sons of resistance fighters at the university at that time. So I gave a talk there, a very long one. And then this journalist learned about my talk and this seminar from somebody who had participated in this seminar. He told me, how my story is relevant for refugees coming from Syria and other parts of the world in 2015. This argument convinced me. I agreed to share my story with him. The situation with the war in the Ukraine now reminds me of this as well. When they bombed Mariupol it reminded me of the bombing in the Bay of Lübeck. So, in this way remembrance is very important because it is more relevant than ever because of the war in the Ukraine.
Maren Degener: Do you think it is important in this case to talk about the past? Does it help us to understand the present or the future if we know about the past and remember it? You have mentioned the war against the Ukraine. Do you think there is a relation between these things?
Bernard Jeune: I do not really know what to answer. I do not know if it helps. It is just something you think about. History never repeats itself in the same way. But it is there, a form of remembering along the lines of ‘now again’. It shows us that human beings do not learn from history. In this way it is just a remembrance of how foolish we are. It is not so much about helping us to understand but more about the question “why can we not learn from the past?”. Maybe it could be helpful in a family like mine where you have members who have been through that. You have a lot of families in the Ukraine which have grandparents who remember the Second World War. In this case it could be very helpful to speak about the past. It is barbaric what is now happening in the Ukraine. You can compare it with the time when the Nazis were there. War crimes are being committed there. But you know in the Ukraine you also have many Ukrainians who were sympathizers of the Nazis and the Nazi regime. And who collaborated with the Nazi regime. I remember one of the reasons why my mother did not want to go to the process against Klaus Barbie and be a witness there: She said that also within the resistance movements there were problems. Like in the case of Jean Moulin, the leader of the French resistance, who was betrayed by one who was a member of the committee. Klaus Barbie knew about these problems. And a part of the resistance movement in France did not like this process because he could have revealed a lot of conflicts in the resistance movement. I do not think that my mother knew about some of these betrayers. But I think that also played into the fact that not everyone liked it. This could also be a problem in the Ukraine. So it can be helpful, but it can also have negative consequences.
Maren Degener: I often give guided tours with school classes through the concentration camp memorial in Neuengamme. For them it is long ago. What do you want me to tell them? Why it is so important to visit Neuengamme and learn about the history?
Bernard Jeune: I think it is important to know that. Everywhere. All the time. For all people and in any environment. We know that bad things can happen at any time. You can build up a system which is very barbaric. This is possible at any time. We have seen that in Serbia, in Yugoslavia. We now see it in the Ukraine with the war going on. So in this way it is important that the children always know that things can happen. Things can change. And things can change very, very much for the worse.