Today two women enter the hallowed halls of the Pantheon mausoleum, the resting place of France’s greatest heroes, where over the magnificent entrance reigns the historical guiding principle that informed the choice of those who would be so honoured: Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante (“To great men, the grateful homeland.”).
With the exception of Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist whose ashes were interred there in 1995 (61 years after her death), Germaine Tillion (1907-2008) and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz (1020-20020, niece of Charles de Gaulle), will be the first women to be symbolically interred in the Pantheon.
(Their induction is symbolic with their coffins containing only earth from their gravesites because their families did not want the bodies exhumed.)
Heroines of the Resistance against the Nazi occupation in 1940 and the subsequent Vichy government, the two were captured and sent to the brutally cruel concentration camp in Ravensbrueck, Germany. From the moment they met in the camp, a friendship developed that lasted throughout their lives.
After the war, de Gaulle-Anthonioz dedicated her life to fighting poverty while Tillion, who became an internationally respected ethnologist, spent hers battling for the emancipation of women in the Mediterranean and vociferously arguing against the French use of torture in Algeria. In 2004, with several other French intellectuals, she spoke out against the use of torture in Iraq.
Yesterday their coffins and those of two other Resistance figures, Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay, were escorted through the streets of Paris with an honour guard on trotting horses. The four will be interred Thursday after today’s celebration of a sound and light show and a speech from French president, François Hollande who chose the newest entrants into the Pantheon.
Of course he is being accused of political motives for selecting two women and the French press reported last night that he has been labouring over his speech for weeks so that he finds the delicate balance between the past, the present and the future, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the killings inside a kosher grocery store in January.
Last night we were captivated in front of the television watching the documentary on the two women. This is yet another reason why I love living in France, not solely because these two remarkable women will enter the Pantheon, but rather that we are exposed to lives that made a difference, that when confronted with the unspeakable they not only survived, but came out on the other side and never stopped fighting for justice, ever searching out the good in human nature after they experienced the most vile and brutal.
In the documentary, de Gaulle told an interviewer that she didn’t hate the Nazis because she felt that was dehumanizing, but that she thought — “if it’s ever truly possible” — that justice should be sought on the public stage.
I feel that this regular exposure to history through magazine articles and television documentaries in France provides an education that can perhaps help us understand not only the evil, but also the good that we are capable of creating. I’m not sure that this exposure exists in other countries, or maybe living here has made me more aware and has developed my desire to absorb history and culture because I have often felt my education, my world view, was pitifully lacking in depth and understanding.
Isabelle Anthonioz-Gaggini, de Gaulle’s daughter, was quoted as saying: “The least we can do, their children, is to continue the work of our mothers because as they always said one must be a witness of the past for the future. The Nazism of the past could reappear any time, any place which is why their message must be a ‘live’ memory and not sealed inside a tomb.”
I think we should all be proud.