WHAT FOLLOWS WAS PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES. IT IS MS. TILLON’S OBITUARY WRITTEN BY DOUGLAS MARTIN AND PUBLISHED ON APRIL 25, 2008.
Ms. Tillion, an anthropologist, lived through moments of high drama, including being arrested by the Gestapo on Aug. 13, 1942, for her role in the formation of the French Resistance. The charges against her included five that could have led to the death penalty.
At Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women in eastern Germany where she spent three years, she learned that she had been designated to disappear without a trace, with the label NN, under Hitler’s Nacht und Nebel (night and fog) decree on the fate of Resistance workers. She survived, but her mother, who was picked up for hiding a British airman, died in a gas chamber at Ravensbrück in 1945. She was selected for death for having white hair.
After the war, Ms. Tillion was drawn into the biggest controversy in France in the 1950s, the Algerian demand for independence from France and the French opposition. In the summer of 1957, Saadi Yacef, a leader of the Algerian forces, asked to meet with her. After two and a half hours of conversation, Mr. Yacef said, “You see that we are neither criminals nor murderers.”
As described in her book “France and Algeria: Complementary Enemies,” printed in English in 1961, Ms. Tillion “sadly, but firmly” answered, “You are murderers.”
Ms. Tillion emerged as an important public intellectual in the 1950s and ’60s, when thinkers like Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre passionately debated the issue of Algeria. She argued that the French had a responsibility not to allow Algerians to sink into poverty, and that they therefore should retain some kind of ties with what was then their colony.
But she delved into her past to recall “specters of the Gestapo” in becoming one of the first and loudest voices to protest French torture of Algerian prisoners.
As quoted in The New York Times in 1958, Albert Camus, a native Algerian, wrote of Ms. Tillion: “No one, either in Algeria or throughout the world, can henceforth discuss the Algerian problem without having read what an understanding and cultivated woman has written about my misunderstood, desperate native land, now stirred by a heart-rending hope.”
Ms. Tillion mined her experiences to write two books on Algeria, three versions of her book on Ravensbrück and an influential study of the condition of women in the Mediterranean world, among many other works. At her death, she was honorary director of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.
In recent years, as France still wrestles with ghosts from past wars, she has been the subject of biographies, exhibitions, conferences and films. Her moral authority and clarity of intellect eventually gave her “the status of a sage,” wrote Tzvetan Todorov, a philosopher and student of 20th-century totalitarianism.
In an interview with French Politics, Culture and Society in 2004, Mr. Todorov said that whenever he faced a thorny question, he asked himself, “What would Germaine do?”
Ms. Tillion was one of France’s most decorated people. Her awards included the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, which only four other women have received. On her 100th birthday, President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote her a letter expressing “the affection of the entire nation.”
Germaine Marie Rosine Tillion was born in Allègre, France, on May 30, 1907. Her father was a judge and her mother was a writer. She studied anthropology at the University of Paris and other schools, and in the 1930s conducted four research missions to study Berbers and other groups in northeastern Algeria.
She returned to Paris after Germany invaded France in 1940. She quickly fell in with intellectuals at the Museum of Man who were forming one of the first underground groups to resist the Nazis. Of the four leaders, she was the only one who was not killed.
Denounced by a priest, she was deported to Ravensbrück. During short breaks from building a road, she taught other prisoners a course on the history of man. She also painstakingly figured out the precise economics of how the SS profited from slave labor. “Paltry shopkeepers of death,” she called the SS.
At night, she scratched into the wall her plan to reform primary education in France after liberation, David Schoenbrun wrote in “Soldiers of the Night: The Story of the French Resistance” (1980).
Among Ms. Tillion’s great sorrows was the Nazis’ confiscation of a suitcase with years of anthropological research notes when they arrested her, according to published reports.
A greater sorrow was seeing mothers being made to watch the drowning of their babies in buckets, she wrote. When liberated by Russian soldiers in April 1945, she carried undeveloped photos made with a smuggled camera, which she had hidden for years, showing women’s legs scarred by Nazi medical experiments.
After the war, Ms. Tillion became a strong spokeswoman for the heroism of Resistance fighters in the face of evidence that many French had collaborated with the occupiers. Two groups of former Ravensbrück prisoners chose her to be their representative at trials of camp administrators.
In an interview with the journal History and Memory in 2003, she said criminal trials could not address the acts of those living in a society in which crimes were not an aberration. She said she saw “the deepening of the abyss being dug between what really happened and the uncertain re-presentation we call history.”
Ms. Tillion’s biographer, Jean Lacouture, called her a “major witness of our century,” but she was more than a witness. She appealed to François Mitterrand when he was minister of the interior to send her back to Algeria to be an advocate for the people she had studied in remote areas.
Her political role grew after unnamed people asked to speak with her about a brochure she had written. Their leader turned out to be Mr. Yacef of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. After they met a second time, the violence stopped, as he had promised, and did not resume until he was arrested.
Ms. Tillion, who did not marry or have children, wrote an operetta, “A Camp Worker Goes to Hell,” while in the concentration camp. It was first performed in Paris last year by a professional troupe. She had kept it in a drawer for 60 years because she worried that “people would get the wrong idea and think we were enjoying ourselves.”
The sheer darkness of the humor makes that unlikely. A character joked that the camp offers “all the creature comforts — water, gas, electricity — especially gas.”
GERMAINE TILLON – YOU ROCKED