Simone Veil, grande dame of French and European politics, Holocaust survivor and champion of women’s rights, died 30 June 2017. At her funeral at Les Invalides on July 5th, President Macron announced she would be interred in the Panthéon, one of only five women thus far to be granted this rare distinction.
Veil was originally from Nice which is not far from where I live. When she died, I realised I knew only the headline facts about her, despite the fact she is probably the most celebrated and revered women from this city. To correct this lack on my part, I read as much as I could find about her. And what I discovered was both inspiring and terrible, and fed several of my obsessions as a writer.
She was born Simone Jacob on 13 July 1927 into a well-to-do, secular Jewish family.
‘When I think about those happy years before the war, I’m filled with a profound nostalgia. That happiness is difficult to render in words, because it was made up of a tranquil atmosphere, of little things, of confidences between ourselves, of bursts of shared laughter, of moments lost forever.’
These tranquil times were not to last. By the time Simone was 16, Nice was under German occupation and she was living under a false identity in the house of one of her teachers at the Lycée Massena. And on the day that she was celebrating the end of her exams for the Baccalaureate, she was stopped in the centre of town by a plain-clothed member of the Gestapo and arrested for having false papers.
She was taken immediately to Hotel Excelsior which was the headquarters of the occupying force and the centre for deportation. Her father, mother, brother and older sister Madeleine were also arrested. Only her younger sister escaped. A few days later, along with her mother and Madeleine, she was transported to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Remarkably, both she and her sister survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and the ‘March of Death’ to Bergen-Belsen. Their mother died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Nothing more was heard of her father and brother but they are presumed to have died in the death camps. Her younger sister joined the Resistance, but she was later captured and deported to Ravensbrück, although she managed to survive.
Here, Simone recounts an episode that probably saved her from the gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
‘One morning when we were leaving the camp to go to work, the camp boss, Stenia, a former prostitute, who was terribly hard with the other deportees, pulled me out of the ranks. “You are really too pretty to die here. I’m going to do something for you, send you somewhere else.” I replied, “Yes, but my mother and sister. I can’t accept going elsewhere if they don’t come with me.” To my enormous surprise, she acquiesced.’
After liberation, Simone went to study law in Paris at the elite political science school, Science Po, where she met and married a fellow student. As a lawyer and a judge, she became known for her tireless commitment to human rights, especially those of prisoners. Her political life began when she was named Minister of Health in Jacques Chirac’s government under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. As a parliamentarian, Simone Veil became an outspoken advocate for women’s right to contraception, and was charged with pushing through a change in the law to legalise abortion. The resulting law, passed in 1974 after 25 hours of parliamentary debate and insults likening abortion to the Holocaust, is known in France as ‘La loi Veil’. Listening to the recordings of her presentation to parliament is inspiring. Shouts of dissent try to derail her as she speaks but she is unperturbed.
Veil went on to become the first President of the European Parliament after which she returned to French politics, remaining in public office until 2007. Her activism and campaigning continued throughout this time. Among many other things, she continued to advocate for women’s rights, she railed constantly against the encroaching hard right in French politics, she was part of a delegation that investigated detention camps in former Yugoslavia and she served as president of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Memory of the Holocaust. In 2010 she joined the Academie Francaise, only the sixth woman to do so.
In short, an astonishing and inspiring woman.
I was sad to hear that her final public appearance was in a demonstration against marriage for same sex couples. When I learn of a person of such integrity holding views that don’t sit comfortably with me, it is unsettling.
But what do I mean about her life feeding into some of my obsessions as a writer? As I discovered more about her story, it hit me again how close history is to our own lives. Like a shadow, always following us, reminding us of what has been. But we don’t always see it.
The Lycée Massena where Simone Jacob went to school is in central Nice. It is easily recognised and I’ve often passed it, often seen kids pouring out at the end of the school day. Squint a little and perhaps you can see a young Simone Jacob there with her fellow students. Or perhaps amongst the rabble you can see future activists and history changers. Who knows. I hope so.
When history encroaches in this way on a place I know, it always makes me wonder what the streets and buildings have seen. What stories they could tell. All those lives. And deaths. The Hotel Excelsior, SS headquarters and deportation centre, conveniently situated near to the station, still exists today. A four star hotel for tourists. How many of the visitors realise, do you think? The horrors those walls have seen are too hard to dwell on.
And it often occurs to me how history—big or small, communal or personal—turns on the smallest of events. Without that particular guard on the camp that day, maybe Simone Jacob would have perished too like many others did. And history—at least French history—would have been very different.
Extracts taken from Mémoires de Guerres, an article in L’Express no 3444 du 5 au 11 juillet 2017 and translated by HMT.
Featured image: Nice and the Promenade des Anglais from the Chateau by HMT
Image of Simone Veil by Rob C. Croes / Anefo – Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, reproduced from wikimedia under a creative commons licence