Dear Simone Veil,
Your passing on June 30, 2017 barely made a ripple in the American news media; and yet even far away, there is so much we can celebrate and learn from you. You had it ‘all’: good looks, brain, money, social prestige, a brilliant career, a devoted husband and you leave 27 direct descendants. Yet your many gifts and accomplishments do not inspire envy, or a competitive spirit.
You are one of the most beloved public figures in France. Why do I share this feeling when I never met you face to face and I am neither French, nor Jewish? For one, you never made me say in the usual resigned manner: of course, she is just a politician. Even if one disagreed with some of your stands, your last public appearance was against gay marriages in France, much of the time you were right on.
After you became a senior civil servant in your late twenties during the Algerian war, you fought hard and successfully to protect incarcerated Algerian rebel women from torture and rape. As minister for health you held the floor for three days at the French National Assembly to defend the government proposal making abortion legal in 1974. The Veil law passed after you withstood countless insults and threats in the mostly male parliament. But, modestly, you always maintained that the law that had most improved French women’s condition was the 1967 Neuwirth law legalizing contraception.
Your most significant legacy may be your stand for peace. You were born in the well to do, highly educated and thoroughly secular Jewish family Jacob, which had been French for centuries. Very early you were exposed to your parents’ divergent views on the Germans. Your father who was held prisoner of war in 1914 hated them; your mother to the contrary, thought that peacemakers on both sides, such as Gustav Stresemann and Aristide Briand, should have been listened to. You wrote that upon your return from Auschwitz you chose to follow the ‘lesson’ of your mother.
Although you did not like Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the ‘banality’ of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem, your life journey is emblematic of another of Arendt’s central theses. This other survivor of the Holocaust knew that harm done could not be undone. How then could people interact with one another ‘after the deluge’? She proposed two ‘palliatives’ to the potentially deadly consequences of human action. First, she advocated forgiveness, so that the past would not dictate the present. Forgiving is not a feeling of abandoning hate, but an action based on the willingness to re-engage with former enemies for the sake of the shared world. Arendt’s second palliative is promising, i.e. endorsing laws and constitutions in politics, which would bound actors to certain courses of action.
Already in 1945 your husband and you were convinced that reconciliation with Germany was absolutely necessary, or there would be a third WW much worse even than WWII. After your death, one close friend confided that you were never heard uttering one word of reproach against the Germans even in private exchanges. Yet in 1944, the German occupiers had deported your whole family; you never saw your brother and father again. Your beloved mother Yvonne Jacob died of typhus in spring 1945 during the ‘death march’ out of the camp.
In spite of failing to protect you from deportation and half of your closest relatives from extinction, France gave you opportunities after your return. You studied law at the prestigious institute Science Po, met Antoine Veil, married and had three sons by the age of 23. You seemed destined to have the comfortable life of a stay at home upper class bourgeois wife and mother, and had to fight to obtain permission from your reluctant husband to work. For 20 years you did so in relative obscurity.
One day, your five-year-old son came back in tears from school. He had just learned about the 1572 St Barthélémy massacre when Catholics massacred Protestants. ‘Fortunately I am not Protestant’ he told you. Thus you had to start the long process of explanation about being a Jew. You did not enjoy talking about unbearable suffering, but it had to be done. All your life you wore your camp tattoo on your left arm; during the summer under sleeveless dresses it was especially visible. You were honorary president of the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah and a close friend of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld who dedicated their lives to hold Nazis accountable. Memory is a must and the ‘foundation for reconciliation’, you said.
You became an ardent supporter of European integration and the first president of the popularly elected European Parliament in 1979. You wrote in your autobiography Une vie (2007, Stock): ‘The fact that I helped make Europe has reconciled me with the twentieth century’. The book was a library success and is under reprint. You were elected to the Académie française in 2010.
According to your son Jean, your last word, pronounced softly but distinctly, was: Merci (thank you). Simone Veil, may we do more than love you; may we, in our flawed and limited ways, act out your legacy of courageous involvement in public issues, non-violent conflict resolution, and faithfulness to family and friends. Your life demands no less from its admirers than this merci.