They died for their beliefs
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Living and dying for their beliefs
Peter DUFFY tells the story of a brave French family that was decimated by the nazis in WWIIJacqueline JEUNON died 60 years ago, on April 1945,after three years in nazi work and concentration camps. She was 22 years old, the youngest of four members of the family to die in the camps. Only her mother returned, in broken health and prematurely old. Her father was executed by the nazis.
The JEUNONS were an ordinary French working-class family, except from being highly politicised.
Today, two of Jacquelines sister still live in the family home that their grandfather built near the River Seine in Vigneux-sur-Seine-, 25 km south of Paris.
Claude JEUNON, a bargee, moved to the area at the end of the 19th century to work on the construction of a new lock. He was able to buy a small plot of land near the lock, which he paid for in instalments. On this, he built the family home.
Claude was an active trade unionist. In 1935, he was elected as a Communist Party municipal councillor in Vigneux, when the Communists gained control of the council for the first time. Jacques, one of his sons, was an active trade unionist and communist, prominent in the 1936 strikes.
His wife Reine and her sister-in-law Eliane were active members of the Union of Women Against War and Fascism and in the support movement for the defenders of the Spanish republic.
Jacques and Reine went on to have five children the eldest, Jacqueline, followed by Helene, Lisette, Madeleine and a son, Maurice.
In a household versed in politics, it was natural that Jacqueline became a member of the Communist Partys Jeunes Filles de France. She began her active political life at 13, collecting food and clothes for the children of Spanish republicans.
The, after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the outbreak of war, the French Communist Party was banned and many communists arrested, among them the mayor of Vigneux. The party began organising clandestinely.
Today, Vigneux is a Paris overspill town scarred by ugly tower blocks and high unemployment. But, in 1939, it was a small working-class town in the country with little to do with Paris, despite its proximity.
The JEUNONS isolated family home was 2 km from town and at that time could only be reached by boat or footpath.
The house was ideally placed for clandestine activity and became the partys local printing centre. A typewriter and press were installed in the cellar.
Madeleine, the youngest daughter, who was 11 et the time, still lives in the family home. She recalls : « Party literature was printed here, for the region, workers at the nearby boat building yards and railway workers at Villeneuve St Georges.
« We children werent aware of this at first and were forbidden to go into the cellar. But we soon became aware.
« When the tracts were printed, grandfather, who worked in the garden during the day, wrapped them up, dug holes in the garden and put each in its proper place, then placed a cabbage stalk on top. Some people came by bike to collect, others walked, a few by boat.
« Eugenie DUVERNOIS, a nurse and wife of the local party secretary, came every day on the pretext of giving injections to Aunt Eliane. In reality, she came for different reasons. »
Jacqueline, a trained secretary, typed tracts and stencils for different comrades. Several editions of the underground LHumanite were produced there. Her father built a special trailer for his bicycle to fetch and deliver material.
But, in November 1941, this clandestine activity was discovered when the collaborationist police raided the house.
Madeleine explains : « Jacqueline was in the middle of typing a stencil. In a cupboard, they found an old pistol dating from the first world war.
« Everyone was arrested grandfather, grandmother, my aunt, my parents and the children. Everyone was taken to the police station, including us children.
« My sister Helene was sent to St Cloud. My brother and I, the youngest, were held for eight days in the police station.
« Jacqueline, my parents, aunt and grandparents were imprisoned. The French police used the pistols as a pretext for handing them over to the Germans.
« At the end of 1941, we received a letter from our father. He was about to be executed. It was the period of hostages.
« Gabriel PERI (the great French communist leader, foreign editor
of LHumanite and a parliamentary deputy) was executed on December
15, our father on December 17, at Mont Valerien, just outside Paris ».
Madeleine and her brother were looked after for a short while by an elderly great aunt, before being sent by the Red Cross to separate families in Switzerland which were sympathetic to the French cause.
After almost a year, they returned to France and were looked after by a family in Ablon, the other side of the river from Vigneux.
Helene, just 15 years old, lived alone in the family home without heating. Lisette worked and lived in a bar in Vigneux. « But my family was very well respected in Ablon and a lot of people helped out », recalls Madeleine.
A German court sentenced Jacqueline and Eliane to death and they were interned with the rest of the family until January 1942, before being deported.
Madeleine and the other children were brought to the court to hear the sentences handed down.
Grandmother Marie-Madeleine died in Ravensbruck on March 1 1945. Her husband Claude lied in the nazi fortress of Diez-Lhann on April 25 1945.
Aunt Eliane spent time in various camps, including Ravensbruck, Lubeck, Cottbus, Anrath and Mauthausen. She died in Bergen-Belsen on April 12 1945.
The mother Reine spent time in several nazi camps and prisons and was subjected to a forced march of 200 km through the snow. She was liberated from Aichach on April 25 1945, in broken health.
Jacqueline also spent time in many different German camps. It was in Lubeck that she met Denise REYDET-GINOLIN, who was elected as a Communist Party parliamentary deputy after the war, dying soon after as a consequence of ill treatment in the camps. Following Lubeck, they were both moved to Janer, in occupied Poland.
Shortly after the end of the war, REYDET-GINOLIN wrote a tribute to Jacqueline in the party magazine Femmes Françaises.
Denise wrote : « Janer ! A small provincial town with a large
prison. It was dark, cold, dreadful this prison.
« A committee was elected. We decided to refuse to work making arms or munitions. We were taken to the factory in fact, we had to make coils for radios.
« A small group decide to refuse to work until we were given the assurance that this work was not destined for the war. Jacqueline was one of those.
« The chief engineer swore that the radios were for civilian use. We werent convinced, but there was one thing we could do put a break on production by all means.
« Hunger was a bad counsellor for a few people, but they werent numerous. The agile fingers of my little Jacqueline suddenly became clumsy.
« We had to produce 120 coils (a day), we never exceeded 52. Wires broke, the conveyer belts jumped off. The coils we made were of poor quality.
« Threats rained down on us, they deprived us of food. On Monday, we produced even less ».
Then, new deportees arrived at Janer, replacing those too ill to work. And from these 30 women, they learned that production of civilian radios had been banned in Germany fora year. Denise remembered that Jacqueline had become very serious and said : « We must stop work ». A whole group of women followed her example, despite the reprisals.
« Jacqueline spent three-and-a-half months in a cold cellar without heating, wearing only a tin dress with, for food, water and a slice of bread each meal, sleeping on boards, without fresh air, light or hygiene facilities but she didnt give in they had to take her to the hospital in Janer. She had tuberculosis. It was in Janer that she died.
« On her death bed, she told her comrades that she regretted nothing and would do the same again if it was necessary ».
But the JEUNONS story did not end with these deaths. In 1944, Helene joined the Free French Army, serving in the signals corps as it advanced through France, Alsace and into Germany.
A lifelong communist, Helene married a young communist survivor of the concentration camps and lives today, like her sister Madeleine, in the old family house in Vigneux.
As for Madeleine, she too is a life-long member of the French Communist Party. In 1950, she was apprenticed as a cigar maker.
A CGT activist « from day one », as she says, she rose to become a member of the executive committee of the Tobacco and Match Workers Union, participating in all the unions struggles.
In particular, she was part of the action committee during the 18-month occupation of the Pantin tobacco factory, which began in 1982, fighting the planned closure.
This struggle achieved national fame even a play was based on it not least because of the imaginative actions of the occupiers.
These included making the famous Gauloises Rouges cigarettes from tobacco and paper « liberated » in the factory and giving them away in return for donations to raise money for the strike fund.
Madeleine followed in her grandfathers footsteps and was a communist councillor in Vigneux from 1959 to 1977.
Like Helene, she is an active member of the association of deportees and their families and took part in post-war delegations to the Soviet Union, Poland and the German Democratic Republic. She is an internationalist to the core and participated in clandestine party missions to fascist Portugal and Spain.
In 1958, at the time of de Gaulles semi-coup detat, she met a representative of the illegal West German Communist Party to make arrangements in case the French Party was banned.
She is a great supporter and defender of the Cuban revolution and has visited the country on four occasions. Until recently, she gave refuge to a young Moldovan, a government legal officer in the time of socialism, who, unemployed and blacklisted at home, was working illegally on building sites in Paris and sending money back to his family. Madeleine was devastated when he was arrested by French police and deported.
Two anecdotes illustrate Madeleines humanity and that of her family.
Talking to her recently to prepare this article, I naively asked her how she had felt when she had visited the young GDR shortly after the war, imaging that, perhaps, she may have wondered if each German man she saw might have been someone who had tortured her family.
« It was sad to see so much destruction still. But you could sense the pride of people as they built a new, socialist Germany », came her reply. And, several years earlier, the first time that I talked to her about her familys sacrifices, I happened to say something to the effect that « you must dislike Germans ».
She looked at me for a moment puzzled and, I think, a little disappointed in me, replied : « No, Peter. I hate nazism and fascism », going on to tell the story of how, about a year before sister, parents, aunt and grandparents had been arrested, the French police had found copies of the illegal LHumanite under the counter of the bar and had searched their house.
« Two Germans were there in the cafe and they took part in the search, their faces expressionless. They were the Germans who were guarding the lock. After the search, they came back and told us that one of them had just come out of prison, the others brother-in-law was still in prison. They were German communists. They told us to be careful.
« I remember at Christmas, my aunt bought a doll to send to the child of the father who was still in prison and my sister Jacqueline knitted something to dress the doll. Internationalism is also little things like that », say Madeleine.
© Soleils en chantier 2004-2016
Mise à jour : 21 octobre 2015