Today’s post is a tribute to one of my heroines, Simone Veil. Since I started blogging in January 2015, it’s been a huge pleasure, an indulgence really, to write mostly in light-hearted vein about the things that interest me with no constraints of time or choice of subject. But occasionally topics would intrude that had to be treated more seriously, and today’s post has given me, to be frank, a major headache. How to reduce to 2000 (and a bit more) words a piece that conveys, in the best possible way, all the million things that needed saying about a woman who has been an inspiration for more than 50 years, not just to me, but to millions?
After 15 highly unsatisfactory drafts, here goes. Today would have been her 90th birthday. Tomorrow is le quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, the Fête Nationale here in France. As a very minor part of the celebrations, I’m happy to say you can download my book of blogs, A View From The Tarn, free from 14 to 16 July (details at the end of the post).
Bonne fête, bonne lecture and vive la France!
‘Nous vous aimons, Madame.’
With the three simple words ‘we love you’, Jean D’Ormesson, welcomed Simone Veil* to the ‘temple of the French language’, the French Academy, in March 2010.
On June 30th this year as news of her death broke in France, his sentiment was echoed in the tributes of an entire nation. In a world of political tarnish, Simone Veil gleamed gold. She was respected, adored, revered even. In the outpouring of emotion on June 30th, many said they were ‘in mourning’ for one who will remain ‘immortal’. Today, July 13th, would have been her 90th birthday.
Who was this extraordinary woman with an extraordinary destiny, a woman who, for the space of a few days, achieved the miracle of uniting a country renowned, particularly of late, for its bitter quarrels and divisions? The woman whose beauty left admirers lost for words, and who, with one look from her turquoise eyes could make grown men tremble and inspire adoration in those who had lost hope?
We all need role models, examples, people who set a standard, who inspire us to do our best. Heroes and heroines. Open any magazine and you’ll see the latest contenders. Personalities from the world of arts and culture, from popular entertainment. How many come from the world of politics? And how many will stand the test of time?
The Panthéon, in Paris, is the resting place for many who have left their imprint on French history: Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Marie Curie, Jean Moulin…The latest to join them is Simone Veil, who, growing up as Simone Jacob, youngest of four children in a secular Jewish family living in Nice, could hardly have imagined that one day she would be laid to rest in their company, an inspiration for both men and women, a true French heroine.
Back to March, 2010. In the solemn ceremony marking the election of a new member to one of France’s most august institutions, Simone Veil, like those before her, wore the traditional costume of the Academy, ‘l’habit vert’, and carried the traditional sword. But her sword was engraved with a number: 78651. It was the same as that on her left arm, the tattoo she received on April 15th 1944, arriving at the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. She was 16. Although she would survive and go on to become a great stateswoman in the country from which she was deported, her mother Yvonne, her brother Jean, and father André would never return to their homeland. They were part of the six million murdered simply because they were Jews.
Two striking characteristics of Simone Veil were her humanity and her passion for justice. In her lucid and moving biography, Une Vie**, she says that her experience as a deportee gave her ‘an acute sensitivity to everything that, in our human relations with one another, leads to the humiliation and abasement of others.’ This awareness gave her a special perspective which rejected all extremes and aimed at reconciliation between often contradictory concepts. Nicolas Sarkozy, protégé and close friend, described her as ‘adhering to no ideology, having paid too high a price herself for the madness of ideologues.’ In a television interview she talked about ‘being on the left’ for some issues, ‘on the right’ for others. She was a traditionalist who believed in progress, a woman whose past was overshadowed by tragedy but who looked to the future with hope; in the words of D’Ormesson ‘la tradition même, et la modernité incarnée’ (the embodiment of tradition, and the incarnation of modernity).
Recalling that first terrible day at Auschwitz, she describes how she, her mother, and sister Milou, along with other women, were herded into the showers, then dumped onto benches, naked, while the ‘kapos’ paraded up and down in front of them, laughing, making humiliating comments about their appearance and prodding their bare flesh like housewives choosing meat at the butcher’s. ‘We were comic figures for a jeering audience,’ as another survivor put it. In an image which conveys the nightmare of those hours Simone Veil says it was like ‘the horror of suddenly finding yourself in a medieval painting, one of those where you are in the group of people who have fallen into hell.’
She never forgot the smell of Auschwitz–‘fetid, made up of rot and mud and the smell of the smoke from the crematorium…We lived enveloped in the permanent stench of burning’. (In a tragic parallel, my last post was about the Cathars who, 800 years previously, also paid the price of being different through relentless persecution and burnings.) What impression must all of this have made on a young girl who grew up ‘in a paradise’, breathing the perfumed air and sea breezes of Nice, that vibrant, beautiful city on the dazzling Riviera? As they were stripped of their possessions by the guards, one of her friends hung on to a small bottle of perfume. ‘They’re going to take it,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going to give it to them.’ And the young women splashed themselves from head to toe in Lanvin’s famous perfume, Arpège, a last gesture of defiant femininity before they would have to put on the rags of the dispossessed.How did she, and others like her, manage not just to survive such a hell, but to find a way to go on afterwards, more victors than victims? This is a major theme of two outstanding novels written in 2016 by authors Paulette Mahurin and Anita Nasr***. It’s echoed in W. E. Henley’s poem of 1875, Invictus**** with its mantra ‘I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul’. Writing about the carefree ‘joie de vivre’ of her childhood, the warmth and unity of family life, her education in civic values, Simone Veil concludes ‘we received the best arms with which to face life.’ Elsewhere she talks about the human capacity to preserve the will to live, the strength to live. Her mother, who died of typhus on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen one month before the liberation of the camps, remained an eternal role model for her daughter. ‘She was,’ she says, ‘good and generous…’ Simone was younger, harder, more of a rebel. She defended her mother from those who tried to steal her food and, on the terrible march through the snow, from those who tried to hang on to her for support. She only remembers crying twice, once when she was reprimanded by Milou, the second time when she found out her other sister, Denise, was still alive*****. What we experienced she says, was ‘beyond tears’.
The flint and the fire. It was this toughness and this baptism of fire that reinforced the ideals that would guide her through life, a respect for others and their differences, and a desire to create a better world where what she and millions had suffered would never be repeated. She would demonstrate time after time in her future career that her aim was not to please, not to follow a party-political line, but to listen to her conscience. And in a life of battles, the year 1974 would stand out, as she prepared one of the most controversial laws in French history.
But that was still in the future. In 1945 Simone Jacob returned to France where she discovered with bewilderment that many simply did not want to talk about what had happened. Even worse was the reaction in some quarters that, because she and other had survived, this was obvious proof that ‘things weren’t as bad as all that.’ For months she experienced a feeling of unreality and disconnection. Fortunately she was soon to meet the man she married, and who would remain her rock and companion for 67 years, Antoine Veil. With him she founded a family, and after the birth of her third son, she made the decision to return to her studies and a future career. (This was against her husband’s wishes, but Simone had a way of persuading people round to her ideas…)
The Simone of legend was on the move. Her initial fight, after becoming a magistrate, was to obtain better conditions for prisoners. But as she rose through the ranks to the post of Minister of Health in the new government of Giscard D’Estaing, she approached the first of the truly important battles that would stand out as landmarks in her personal career and in the history of France.
The country was changing. It had gone through the social upheaval of May 1968; the woman’s movement was gaining momentum. In 1971, a shock manifesto hit the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. Written by Simone De Beauvoir, it was signed by 343 women who all admitted to having had abortions. Their aim was to pressurise the government into legalising a risky procedure undertaken every year by thousands of women, those who couldn’t afford the price of a legal abortion abroad. In 1972 events took an even more dramatic turn when human rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi defended a 16-year-old girl charged with having an illegal abortion after being raped by one of her schoolmates.
Something had to be done. Giscard, and his Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, knew the topic was highly controversial for the majority of their party members. Who to entrust with the unpopular job of trying to change the law?
‘We can no longer close our eyes to the 300, 000 abortions which, every year, mutilate the women of this country’. These were Simone Veil’s words to a packed National Assembly consisting of 481 male deputies and 9 females on November 26, 1974.
There followed a marathon debate of unprecedented violence lasting three days and two nights. Melodramatic speeches and demonstrations took place. A recording of the heartbeats of a foetus was passed round the chamber, with the prophecy that the law, if passed, would produce twice as many victims every year as the bomb on Hiroshima. Simone Veil herself was subjected to abuse and insults with references to embryos ‘thrown into ovens’, abattoirs piled with the corpses of ‘little men’, ‘Nazi barbarity’ and even ‘genocide’. She was insulted in the street, her children were threatened and her home and car daubed with swastikas.
Yet she continued to plead her case with unflagging courage and lucidity. ‘No woman undertakes an abortion lightly,’ she told the Assembly. Refusing to descend to the level of insults of her opponents, she reiterated her faith in the younger generation: ‘they are courageous, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifices like anyone else. Let us put our trust in them…’******
It’s tempting to imagine that, after facing humiliation from the female kapos at Auschwitz, the insults of a bunch of bigoted men didn’t count for much in the grander scheme of things. But the ordeal took its toll. In a 2004 interview she admits she never imagined being the object of such intense hatred, and one famous clip shows her with her head in her hands. For many, however, the enduring image of that time is of an erect, dignified figure in trademark Chanel and pearls, hair swept back in an impeccable chignon, looking for all the world like the person she was, a wife, a mother, a member of the middle classes, ‘la tradition même’ yet, at the same time, ‘la modernité incarnée.’
On November 29th, 1974, the Loi Veil was adopted by 284 votes to 189. Bloody, but unbowed, Madame la Ministre could breathe for a while before getting caught up in the two other major tasks that awaited her: the vital preservation of the past, a memorial to the Holocaust, the Foundation for the Memory of Shoah, of which she would be president for five years, and the creation of the new: the re-unification of Europe, and Franco-German reconciliation.
In Une Vie she writes that she never really got over her mother’s death. ‘Every day she is with me, and what I have done is thanks to her.’ In 1945, as Yvonne lay dying, she said ‘Ne veuillez jamais de mal aux autres, nous savons trop ce que c’est’ (never wish harm to others, we know what that means only too well). When, in 1979, Simone Veil was elected first President of the brand new European Parliament, it was the memory of her mother that spurred her to battle for the dignity and freedom of future generations, and their right to a world of ‘never again’.
Her disappearance comes at a time when the European dream has dimmed for many initially carried along by the wave of optimism she symbolised in 1979. On the wider political scene, with its posturing narcissists and vulgar brawlers, it’s hard to think of anyone who comes near the standards set for more than half a century by this modest woman, number 78651, who once said ‘I have the feeling that, the day I die, my last thoughts will be of the Holocaust.’ In the moving eulogy given by her son, Pierre-François, he recounts that her last word to those gathered by her bedside was ‘Merci.’
On social media following her death a prayer was taken up by hundreds of voices: ‘Simone Veil sur nous’ (Veil being pronounced the same way as the word ‘veille’ = watch over).
‘Simone, watch over us.’
In memory of Simone Veil, and the victims in the attack on her native city of Nice, July 14th 2016.
*Not to be confused with the philosopher Simone Weil
** Translated into English as ‘A Life’:
*** see my blog December 2016
****see blog January 2017
***** Denise Jacob joined the French Resistance. She was captured, tortured and sent to Ravensbruck. Simone and Milou, with no news of her, believed she was dead.
******The full text can be found here:
A View from the Tarn: Slow Blogging in a Fast World, free download July 14th-16th