‘Une Vie’ (A Life) by Simone Veil, published by Stock, France, 2017
On the cover of Simone Veil’s autobiography, written in 2007, we read that she is a member of the Academie Francaise, though this is not mentioned in the book. It would seem that after a long and eventful life, she was too modest to mention that particular distinction. Nevertheless, the list of Simone Veil’s achievements and exploits is sufficiently long and impressive to fill a book of almost four hundred pages.
Simone Veil, the youngest of the four children of André and Yvonne Jacob, was born in 1927 in Nice, France, died at the age of ninety-one in 2018, and was buried in the Pantheon in Paris, a signal honour accorded to only a few distinguished individuals. Reading her autobiography and the long list of her achievements, one can only conclude that this honour was certainly well-deserved.
The book begins with an account of her halcyon childhood and youth in Nice on the French Riviera, only to be rudely interrupted by the advent of the Germans in 1943. Sixteen-year-old Simone and other members of her family were deported first to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. Her harrowing account of life in the concentration camp, with its horrific conditions, harsh privations and work as a slave labourer for the Siemens company, was followed by a Death March to Bergen-Belsen, and eventual liberation, albeit after the loss of her mother and other family members. The heading of that chapter in her book is simply ‘Hell.’
On returning to France after a year in the camps, only to find that most of her family had been murdered, Simone decided to resume her studies and, with typical determination, completed her Baccalaureate and went on to study law at a university in Switzerland, where she had relatives who helped and supported her. While she was studying she met and married her husband, Antoine Veil, and subsequently their three sons were born. As she mentions at this point in her book, “it’s a good thing that we got married and had children while we were young, as now, after sixty years together, we can enjoy our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” Among the photographs that adorn the book is a touching one of the senior Veils surrounded by over twenty members of their family.
After completing her studies in law, Simone decided not to apply for the bar but to follow the separate track that led to becoming a magistrate. After some years in that capacity she was appointed Commissioner for Prisons, and worked assiduously to improve and reform the conditions in prisons. She served for several years in this capacity, and in 1974 was appointed Minister of Health by Jacques Chirac. Her principal concern in that office was to reform of the law regarding abortion, and to achieve that end she was obliged to overcome a great deal of opposition from the entrenched conservatism of the mainly male parliament. Woven in among the opposition was the equally deep-rooted anti-Semitism of many of her colleagues in the government, constituting another hurdle that she had to overcome while in office.
Although her connection with Israel and Judaism was tenuous, she supported the idea of the Jewish state. Nonetheless, her loyalty to France was paramount for her, and in later years she found herself ever more critical of the policies of Israel’s government.
A staunch pro-European, in 1979 she was elected President of the recently established European Parliament, and found herself constantly having to contend with the political manipulations and machinations of its members, especially those of the French representatives, whose agenda was often dictated by internal French politics rather than the European interests which she was trying to promote. While she was in this office the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, a process that she and other French politicians watched with a mixture of approbation and concern. This, in turn, led to the eventual acceptance into the EU of many of the former Soviet-era satellite countries of Eastern Europe. After thirteen years as President, she was reappointed France’s Minister of Health in 1993. This time her main concern was to combat the incidence of Aids, both in Europe and in Africa.
Interspersed with her account of her varied and interesting career, Simone Veil presents her vision of society, which is coloured to some extent by her harrowing experience of having been a slave labourer in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Thus, she emphasizes her support for a united Europe which can never return to the enmities that gave rise to two world wars, as well as for open and democratic politics and social reform. Above all, she was motivated by an acute sense of justice, respect for human beings and the need to achieve a society that is both fair and just.
Eventually disillusioned by politics, she was appointed to France’s Constitutional Council, where she continued to promote women’s rights and pay equality. Towards the end of her life she was particularly gratified by the public acknowledgement in July 1995, by President Jacques Chirac, of France’s complicity in the crimes committed against Jews in WWII. This was accompanied by the establishment of a commission to provide compensation in the form of financial support for projects supporting Jewish activities and commemorating the crimes against Jews, and of which she was appointed President. The commission also acted to commemorate the 2,725 French Righteous Gentiles who helped to save Jews from deportation, hiding and protecting them during the years of the war, often at great personal cost.
The photographs which are included in the book show Simone Veil at the height of her beauty meeting numerous statesmen and dignitaries from around the world, though she claims that the person who impressed her the most was Anwar Sadat, who combined personal simplicity with grand human vision. The book ends with several annexes containing the text of speeches she gave at various points in her career, such as at the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2005, her address as Minister of Health to the French National Assembly in 1974, when she defended the proposal to reform the law on abortion, her address to the European Parliament following her appointment as its President in 1979, the speech she gave at the Pantheon in 2007 regarding the commemoration of France’s Righteous Gentiles, and her address to the UN General Assembly on international Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Truly, a remarkable woman who overcame adversity and devoted her life to noble causes, serving as a shining light and inspiration to us all.