Germaine Tillion died yesterday. Over her 100 year life, she fought in the French resistance during World War II, she survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp, mediated in the war between France and Algeria and wrote about the oppression of women in the Mediterranean.
She wept with Algerian friends over the French defeat, and immediately returned to Paris and joined the resistance–or rather, created it from scratch with her friends from the Musée de l’Homme, France’s anthropology museum. Betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death on five separate counts by a German military tribunal, she was deported to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in the chilly swamps of eastern Germany, in October 1943.
Upon her arrival in Ravensbrück, she was stripped of the big blue suitcase containing her ethnographic notes and thesis drafts. They would never resurface. But she already had a new subject in mind. In March 1944, while the SS woman guard of her work detail went off to chat up a boyfriend, leaving some friendly Polish prisoners in charge, Tillion seized the opportunity to lecture a group of newly arrived French prisoners, including her mother, on the operations of the “slow extermination camp.” Ravensbrück, she explained, was a hub from which women prisoners were rented out, in groups of 50 or 100, to German factories, at so much per day, minus the minimal cost to their jailers of food, clothing, and shelter. As long as the women could work, they were shunted about from one camp to another, depending on where the need for labor arose. Once they had lost the capacity to generate income for the system, they became candidates for extermination. Tillon provided precise figures on costs and benefits and named the chief beneficiary, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. She later learned that the very parcel of real estate, dismal swampland, on which the camp stood, belonged to Himmler. Before Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), Tillion had dismissed the SS as “paltry shopkeepers of death.” Perhaps her years with hospitable subsistence farmers in Algeria helped her to spot the perverted frugality, or avarice, that permeated the Nazi system.
Tillon meant her lecture to comfort the newly arrived prisoners:
To understand a mechanism that is crushing you, to dismantle its inner workings, to examine in full detail an apparently hopeless situation, is a powerful source of coolheadedness, serenity and moral force. Nothing is more terrifying than the absurd. Chasing away the ghosts, I was aware I had helped lift the spirits of the best of us, at least somewhat. Beyond that, there was our indignation, our passionate will that our outrage survive us, that such a mass of crimes not become a “perfect crime.” Yet it was already clear that few of us would survive. The thought of the truth that must be preserved , obsessed me from the day I arrived at Ravensbrück. And I was not the only one so obsessed. How can one say that there is no truth, when it is loved so universally and passionately?