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(WOMENSENEWS)–Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle, French members of the Resistance and political prisoners in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp during World War II, have been named to be interred in the Panthéon in Paris. They will become only the third and fourth women to be so honored by a parliamentary act for "national heroes."
The motto above the door of the Panthéon, built in 1790, states: "To great men, a grateful country." In 2014 two truly great women and selfless heroines of France, Tillion and de Gaulle, have finally been accorded a similar honor. President François Hollande announced Feb. 21 that their remains will be interred at this secular mausoleum reserved for people who have provided a great service to France.
The other two women already interred in the Pantheon are Marie Curie and Sophie Berthelot, who was buried alongside her husband, chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot. The remains of more than 70 men are interred there, and two more men were just named along with Tillion and de Gaulle.
Germaine Tillion, who died in April 2008 at the age of 100, joined the Resistance in 1940, eventually becoming one of the leading members of the Groupe du Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man Network), a group of anti-Nazi intellectuals and academics. She was arrested on August 13, 1942, in Paris, after a traitor had penetrated the resistance network. Accused of five acts that resulted in a death sentence, including harboring English agents, she was deported from France to Ravensbrück on Oct. 21, 1943. Designated a "Nacht und Nebel" (Night and Fog) prisoner, she was destined to be exterminated. Emilie Tillion, her mother, arrived in February 1944 on the transport of 958 French women known as the "twenty-seven thousands," because of the numbers they received on arrival. She died a year later in the camp.
An accomplished ethnographer before World War II and afterward, Tillion managed to secretly record information and hide her notes during her time at the camp, coding and disguising as recipes the identities of the principal SS personnel. When she was rescued in April 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross, she smuggled out a roll of film with photographs of the maimed legs of the Polish victims of medical experiments.
Her record of daily life at the camp, including information on Jewish inmates, was published in its first version in French in 1946 and serves as one of the earliest and most detailed eyewitness accounts. This book of her scientific observations about Ravensbrück had several editions in French, and was translated into English and published as a popular paperback entitled "Ravensbrück" in 1975.
Tillion also wrote a play in Ravensbrück, entitled "Le Verfügbar aux Enfers: Une opérette à Ravensbrück" (roughly translated, the lowest-class worker goes to Hell). Written under almost impossible circumstances and with the threat of severe punishment, her ironic and creative play was intended to lift the spirits and morale of her comrades in Ravensbrück. Written in a tiny notebook, the play survived intact, was published as a book in French, and had a full-scale production in Paris in 2007.
Most likely, Tillion read the play to her barrack mates after they came back from work in the evening. The English language world premiere of Tillion’s play will be presented as "In the Underworld" by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre under the direction of Meghan Brodie, a professor in the university’s theatre department. The English-language translation was done by Annie and Karl Bortnick.
Himmler Targeted de Gaulle
Geneviève de Gaulle, the niece of Charles de Gaulle, was born in 1920 and died in 2002. She was also part of the Museum of Man Resistance Network, and was arrested on July 20, 1943. She was first imprisoned in Fresnes and was later deported to Ravensbrück in February 1944. In October of that year, she was placed in isolation in the camp bunker. This decision was taken by Heinrich Himmler, who chose several prisoners with family ties to important figures for use as hostages for possible exchanges of prisoners. (Another such political hostage at Ravensbrück was Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of then New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.)
De Gaulle was released in April 1945 and, the following year, married Bernard Anthonioz, a fellow Resistance member and art editor, with whom she had four children. De Gaulle-Anthonioz wrote a book 50 years after her release from Ravensbrück, detailing her life in the concentration camp and the mutual help among the women. It was translated to English and published as "The Dawn of Hope: A Memoir of Ravensbrück."
After World War II, de Gaulle became president of Aide à Toute Détresse, which became known internationally as ATD-Fourth World. She was also active in the ADIR (Association of Deportées and Internées of the Résistance) and filed lawsuits against Nazi war criminals. In 1988, she became a member of the French Economic and Social Council and fought for the adoption of an anti-poverty law. She was the first woman to receive the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Tillion and de Gaulle will be interred along with fellow Resistance fighter Pierre Brossolette and former Minister for Education Jean Zay. (For their photographs please see this Le Figaro article.) The remains of the four–to be transferred in May 2015— will rest alongside such notables as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Braille and Jean Jaurès.
Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute, is the author of "The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp" and co-editor of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.
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