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Simone Veil (1927-2017)

Posted by Samantha Dulieu, Thursday 10th August, 2017

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Simone Veil in Deauville, 31 May, 1988.

Simone Veil in Deauville, 31 May, 1988.

As a student of History and French at Royal Holloway, University of London I have been able to study what Eric Hobsbawm described as Europe’s “Age of Extremes” through historical scholarship, but also through the study of French politics and culture. Throughout my degree I have studied both the German and French experience of the twentieth century, with a specific focus on the Second World War and the Holocaust. My last blog for The Wiener Library was a discussion about Marine Le Pen’s denial of French involvement in Vel d’Hiv. My recent work on Holocaust memory and representation, as well as an interest in contemporary French politics inspired me to consider the inspirational influence of Simone Veil to French Holocaust remembrance.

Simone Veil (1927-2017)

Simone Veil, the eminent politician, President of the European Parliament, campaigner for the rights of women and Holocaust survivor has died aged 89. Best known for her illustrious political career, it is undoubtable that her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944 determined the causes she went on to champion, and indeed the conditions of her involvement in French political life. Her life remained steeped in the importance of the Holocaust, not only through her experience as a survivor, but also as she sought to help victims of genocide around the world, and prioritised Holocaust remembrance in her role as an arbiter of contemporary European life.

Political Career

Veil’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of French politics was underscored by her experience of the Holocaust, as she stood staunchly on the side of the weak, the disenfranchised, and other victims of crimes against humanity. In a statement by the office of Emmanuel Macron Veil was described as the “constant ally of the weakest, and resolute enemy of any political compromise with the far right” (Grant, 2017).

Veil became a magistrate in 1956, and had a distinguished career even before her appointment as Health Minister under Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre in 1974. In her positions as Penitentiary Administrator and the Director of Civil Affairs she enacted reforms for women prisoners and lobbied for the humane treatment of Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian militant whose torture in a prison in Algiers during the conflict was aggravated on account of her gender (Johnson, 2017).

Simone Veil’s support of the disenfranchised was probably most notable when those disenfranchised were women, as was so often the case throughout her lifetime. La Loi Veil (English: Veil Law) ensured abortion rights for women across France for the first time. The President at the time, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, supported the law but left it up to Veil to convince the nation, providing one of many examples of the “male resistance” she had to fight against throughout her life and career. In the political sphere this resistance was embodied by those male politicians who wanted women as tokens in ministerial office, but remained convinced that the business of government was primarily a man’s game (MacShane, 2009). For them the moral crisis that enveloped Veil in 1974 during the abortion debate was considered evidence of her inadequacy for high office.

Much of the opposition faced by Veil during this period was subtly, if not overtly, antisemitic. Her fight for women’s reproductive rights led to swastikas being painted on her car and in her apartment building, abusive letters being sent to her home, and antisemitic remarks by even fellow deputies in parliament. The worst of this abuse came from a fellow politician, who asked if she would agree to the idea of throwing embryos in the crematorium ovens at Auschwitz (Hottell, 2009). Concurrently to the abortion debate, parliament was debating the use of animals in laboratory experiments, and more than a few politicians and commentators likened the killing of animals and unborn babies to the genocide of the camps. The ferocity of the opposition to legal abortion exposed an antisemitic undercurrent that remained prevalent in France, but, more importantly for Veil herself, revealed the depth of misunderstanding about the Holocaust and the role France played in it. The Holocaust was, perhaps inevitably, a benchmark for her beliefs, but her experience in the camps was often seized upon by her adversaries.

Memory of the Shoah

Throughout her life Veil struggled with the reluctance of many Europeans to believe that Jews had been persecuted in Germany and France simply because they were Jews. The antisemitism she faced bore testament to this reluctance. Her sister Denise had been transported to Auschwitz with Veil and their mother in 1944, yet her involvement in the resistance ensured she was celebrated, while Jewish victims were too often ignored (Johnson, 2017). While navigating a career in politics she remained troubled by the refusal of the French government to acknowledge the role of French officials in the deportation of French Jews. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1995 that Jacques Chirac officially acknowledged France’s role in the Holocaust, and affirmed the country’s guilt in the fate of Europe’s Jews.

From 2000 to 2007, Veil was the President of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah (English: Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah), France’s Holocaust Remembrance organisation. She brought to this position her deeply held belief in the devoir de la memoire, the need to remember. This belief is probably best illustrated by her foreword to Shlomo Venezia’s memoir about his experience as a Sonderkommando, (camp prisoners who were forced to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers under threat of death), in Auschwitz:

"We had returned from a world where they had tried to banish us from the human race. We wanted to say as much but we encountered incredulity, indifference, and even hostility from others. It was only in the years after the deportation that we found the courage to speak because, in the end, people did listen to us.”

What Veil describes here is the process of coming to terms with the Holocaust that took place on both a personal level among the survivors, and the process of understanding that took place on a community, national, and international scale. She continues that Venezia’s account, like those of all deportees, needs to be understood by each person as an “appeal to reflection and vigilance” (Veil’s Foreword to Venezia, 2009). The struggle against forgetting underscored her political and humanitarian convictions. More than this, she described the survival of the Sonderkommando as a double victory over the Nazis. Veil often discussed the idea that the scale and ferocity of the Holocaust was such that the Nazis would kill the Jews as well as the eyewitnesses - to commit the crime and eradicate all trace of it. In her view this rendered the process of telling one’s story that much more important (Venezia, 2009).

Veil’s own autobiography, Une Vie (English: A Life), was published in 2007, within which she describes her deportation from Nice to Auschwitz and the fate of her family members, but also details her life in politics. The causes she championed and her experiences in French and European political life were also gathered in another volume published in 2016, probably rather tellingly entitled Mes Combats (English: My Fights). Veil herself saw great personal symbolic significance in having been a Holocaust survivor and the head of the European Parliament.

Two works by Simone Veil, Une Vie and Une Difficile Reflexion (English: A Difficult Reflection), are available at The Wiener Library, as well as Shlomo Venezia’s book, Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz, with a foreword by Veil. The library also holds a large collection of stamps commemorating the liberation of the camps and various resistance groups, one of which is photo of Simone Veil in her capacity as President of the European Parliament. This stamp is accompanied by a letter from the European Parliament written on behalf of Simone Veil with a French stamp to honour the 25th Anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

Works Cited:

Grant, Katie. “Emmanuel Macron pays tribute to ‘inspiring’ abortion rights champion Simone Veil”. i News, 2 July 2017.

Hottell, Ruth. “Simone Veil 1927 - 2017”. Jewish Women’s Archive, March 2009.

Johnson, Douglas. “Simone Veil Obituary”. The Guardian, 30th June 2017.

MacShane, Denis. “A Frenchwoman and Feminist Nonpareil”. The Guardian, 22 March 2009.

Shlomo, Venezia. Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Further Reading:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Autobiographies; Personal narratives; Women; Jews; French; Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp); Bergen-Belsen (concentration camp); Postwar; Politics

Image credit: Simone Veil in Deauville (Normandy, France), 31 May, 1988. Roland Godefroy CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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