Saturday, September 5, 2015

Germaine Tillion (1907-2008)

Germaine Tillion, daughter of Lucien and Emilie Tillion, was born in Allegre, France on 30 May 1907.

She spent her youth with her family in Clermont-Ferrand and left for Paris to study social anthropology. Four times between 1934 and 1940 she did fieldwork in Algeria, studying the Berber and Chaoui people in the Aures region of northeastern Algeria, to prepare for her doctorate in anthropology.

As she returned to Paris in 1940, France had been invaded by Germany. As her first act of resistance, she helped a Jewish family by giving them her family's papers. She became one of the leading commanders in the French Resistance in the network of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Her missions included helping prisoners to escape and organizing intelligence for the allied forces from 1940 to 1942.

Betrayed by the priest Robert Alesch who had joined her resistance network and gained her confidence, she was arrested on 13 August 1942. On 21 October 1943 Germaine and her mother (also a resistante) was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. From her arrival on 21 October 1943 to the fall of the camp in spring 1945, she secretly wrote an operetta comedy to entertain fellow prisoners. "Le Verfügbar aux Enfers" describes the camp life of the "Verfügbar" (German for "disposable", the lowest class of prisoners who could be used for any kind of work). At the same time she undertook a precise ethnographic analysis of the concentration camp.

Female Prisoners at Ravensbruck
Her mother was killed in the camp in March 1945. Germaine escaped in the spring of that year with a rescue operation of the Swedish Red Cross that had been negotiated by Folke Bernadotte.

In 1973, she published Ravensbruck: An eyewitness account of a women's concentration camp, detailing both her own personal experiences as an inmate as well as her remarkable contemporary and post-war research into the functioning of the camps, movements of prisoners, administrative operations and covert and overt crimes committed by the SS. She reported the presence of a gas chamber at Ravensbruck when other scholars had written that none existed in the Western camps, and affirmed that executions escalated during the waning days of the war, a chilling tribute to the efficiency and automated nature of the Nazi "killing machines."

She documented the dual but conflicting purposes of the camps; on the one hand, to carry out the Final Solution as quickly as possible, and on the other, to manage a very large and profitable slave labor force in support of the war effort (with profits reportedly going to SS leadership, a business structure created by Himmler himself).

Finally, she gave chilling vignettes of prisoners, prison staff and the "professionals" who were central to the operation and execution of increasingly bizarre Nazi mandates in an attempt to explore the twisted psychology and outright evil behavior of often average participants who were instrumental in allowing, and then nurturing the death machines.

To celebrate her 100th birthday, her operetta "Le Verfügbar aux Enfers" premiered in 2007 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Germaine died at Saint-Mande, France on 18 April 2008.

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