Paris: A long-forgotten operetta composed by a French resistance fighter during her imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp gets its world premiere in Paris this weekend, as the author herself celebrates her 100th birthday.
Germaine Tillion, who after the war became a renowned ethnologist and now lives in a Paris suburb, wrote “Le Verfugbar aux Enfers” (The Camp-Worker goes to Hell) in October 1944, as she struggled to live through the horrors of the Ravensbruck camp in northern Germany.
The three-act musical revue was conceived as a survival mechanism for Tillion and her fellow inmates, but it was never put on and after the war the manuscript, 104 pages of smuggled note paper, languished in a drawer until its rediscovery and publication in 2005.
Today it is being resurrected for two performances at the 2,500-seat Theatre du Chatelet in central Paris, with a cast of six professional singers and 60 teenage schoolgirls as the chorus of female slave labourers.
Tillion, who celebrated her centenary earlier this week, is too frail to attend. However when the cast sang to her recently in her home, she was able to hear the audio performance for the first time since she penned them more than 60 years ago , in an attempt to keep despair and death at bay, struggling to survive despite the trauma of the holocaust and war.
“She was terribly moved,” said the operetta’s music director Helene Bouchez. “It was an incredibly emotional moment -- both for her and for us.”
The revue takes its name from a category of workers at the virtually all-woman Ravensbruck camp, where some 50,000 out of 132,000 inmates died from fatigue and disease as well as lethal injection and gassing. Among those killed in the gas chamber set up in 1945 was Tillion’s own mother.
“Verfugbar” means “available” in German, and the name was given to prisoners who were not assigned to major projects and thus free for menial ad hoc tasks.
The play is introduced by the only male character, the “Naturalist,” who embarks on a quasi-scientific analysis of the life-form known as the “verfugbar” - a phenomenon “which appeared in the fourth decade of the 20th century ... the product of a male Gestapo and a female Resistance member.”
Periodically the cast breaks into song. Tillion was not a trained musician, so she used snatches of well-known tunes - opera, popular “chanson” and even advertising jingles, and set them to words combining burlesque, black humour and bitter irony.
The brutality of camp-life is ever-present, as are the worse horrors elsewhere: the inmates clearly know of the death camps to which many have been sent. But overall the tone is of desperate frivolity. As one woman says: “For the truly terrible things, it is impossible to cry.”
“At first the humour seemed out-of-place in such an appalling setting. But as we worked on the piece, it became clear that she was using art, theatre and even laughter to overcome horror. That is what makes the play so overwhelming,” said director Berenice Collet.
Born to a prosperous family in central France, Tillion trained as an ethnologist in the 1930s and began a life-long interest in Algeria. After the German occupation she was a founding member of the “Museum of Mankind network” an underground group so called because many of its members were researchers and academics.
In 1942 she was betrayed by a priest working for the Gestapo and arrested at the Gare de Lyon. At the same time her mother who was also in the group was picked up for hiding a British airman, and the two were sent to Ravensbruck in late 1943.
Tillion used her academic training as a tool for survival, treating the camp as a case-study for observation and after the war bringing out the definitive book on Ravensbruck. In late 1944 she was hidden by friends in a packing-crate, where she avoided the work-roster and composed the operetta.