Remembering Simone Veil

Simone Veil. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

By Frances Novack
Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor and France’s Health Minister, died at the age of 89. As Health Minister, she fought for laws that changed the lives of millions and which revealed the power for good an extraordinary woman can wield.   Veil, who passed away on June 30, was a staunch defender of the European project, which promotes integrated economic legislation to make Europe a political union, as well as a key figure in her own country’s reforms focusing on women’s health.  
Deported to Auschwitz with her mother and a sister at l6, Simone Jacob survived the “death march” and became determined to better the world.
After the war, she studied at the famous Institut d’etudes politiques  (Sciences Po)  in Paris, where she met and then married Antoine Veil. She passed the competitive exam to become a magistrate, and was surprised when in 1974, then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac asked her to be Health Minister.  Here she improved access to contraception and aided people with disabilities.  But her greatest distinction — and fiercest battle — was for passage of the law legalizing abortion in 1975, still called the Veil Law today. Vilified by many — one opponent accused her of wanting to put babies ‘in the oven” — she spoke movingly before the French Parliament, where she  “apologized” for bringing women’s point of view to the virtually all-male assembly, insisting that every abortion remained a tragedy, but that it was necessary. No woman ever makes that decision lightly, she asserted, but women do have to make it.

The French Republican Guard carrying Simone Veil’s coffin. Photo: AFP Photo/Michel Euler.

In l979, she was the first woman to be elected president of the European Parliament, serving in that position until l982 and as a European parliamentary member until l993.  She continued her involvement in politics, with a brief ministerial term in another administration, and always reminded future generations of the Shoah, serving as president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah.  She knew her mother had died of typhus in the “death march,”  but  only discovered how her father and brother had been taken years later.  In her autobiography, entitled simply “A Life” (2007), she noted how people couldn’t understand it, citing an official who, after seeing how a natural disaster had harmed the children before him, merely stated that this must bring back memories of her own experience, without recognizing the enormity of the genocidal attacks.

Elected as one of six women — and the rare political figure — among the 40 “Immortals” of the French Academy, founded in 1635, Madame Veil had her Auschwitz number, which she always retained on her arm, as one of the symbols of her new position.  French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a eulogy citing the “three dimensions” of Simone Veil: memory of the Shoah, liberation of women, and committed European.

President Macron announced that Veil, who has been repeatedly voted as one of the most admired people in France, will be buried in the Panthéon. She is the fifth woman to be buried in the historic  mausoleum in Paris. The other four women include: scientist Marie Curie, French Resistance fighters Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, and Sophie Berthelot. Famed writers and philosopher Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are among the men buried in the Panthéon.

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