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Simone Veil, dead at 89, survived the Nazis and then spent her life fighting for women’s rights

“I have survived worse than you.”

Abortion law project adopted by the Senate in Paris, France on December 15th , 1974.
FRANCE - DECEMBER 15: Simone Veil at Abortion law project adopted by the Senate in Paris, France on December 15th , 1974.
Photo by Jean-Claude FRANCOLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Few Americans probably know the name Simone Veil. But ask almost any French person about the 89-year-old who died on June 30th and she’ll tell you that perhaps no modern woman in France is more revered. She is considered the very symbol of courage.

Today French President Emmanuel Macron ensured her legacy will be remembered among the greats of France. At Veil’s funeral this morning, he announced that Simone Veil would be buried in the Pantheon, the mausoleum in the center of Paris that is the final resting place of 72 of France’s most adored cultural and historical figures, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile Zola. Veil will be only the fifth woman buried there. “She loved Europe,” said Macron, in his eulogy. Veil was given full military honors in her funeral today.

A feminist icon and Holocaust survivor who spent a year in Nazi death camps, Simone Veil championed the rights of women and forever altered French society. Most of what you probably picture when you think about women and their status in France was at least in some way influenced by Simone Veil.

Veil was the author of the 1974 French law legalizing abortion — it is literally called “Veil’s Law. She was a champion for not only the right of women to control their pregnancies, but also to control their fertility. She long advocated for universal access to contraception.

Trained as a lawyer, she became a judge renowned for her concern for human rights, particularly the rights of prisoners. As a parliamentarian and a health minister, she battled for the rights of women. She then served as the first president of the European parliament. And, in the last decades of her life, she emerged as a tireless lecturer and advocate for the preservation of Holocaust memory.

And none of it came easy.

Veil is perhaps best known as the architect of legalized abortion in France

In her iconic 1974 speech in front of parliament right before a vote on legalizing abortion, Veil spoke passionately on why the right to terminate a pregnancy must be awarded to all women. “I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men,” she said that day, underscoring with a single phrase exactly why her presence was so crucial. She added, “No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.”

It was a struggle that earned her the vitriol of the extreme right, who accused her of wanting to murder babies like the Nazis murdered their victims. A fellow parliamentarian claimed her law would “each year kill twice as many people as the Hiroshima bomb.” Another said the law was “genocide.”

And yet, the law passed.

For many years, Veil was the constant target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front party. She refused to stand down. In this archival footage from 1979, a brawl broke out when National Front supporters attempted to disrupt a meeting she was speaking at in Paris. Veil can be heard shouting, “Vous ne me faites pas peur! J'ai survécu a pire que vous!” — “You do not frighten me! I have survived worse than you!”

“She is revered, but she was also hated. She was under attack by the right and extreme right,” explains Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Manchester. Dreyfus describes the verbal assaults Veil weathered and her reputation for tireless advocacy. She was a staunch opponent of the National Front, he says, from its creation until the end of her life.

“She was known first as a magistrate and an advocate for human rights,” Dreyfus continues. “She advocated for the rights of prisoners. She wanted the living conditions in French prisons to be improved. She would stop to visit prisons as she left on holiday —- she would leave her family and say ‘I am just visiting a prison to see if it’s okay.’”

Dreyfus notes she did not, at least initially, publicly link her wartime experiences with her work. But when she ran for the European parliament in the early 1980s, she began to clearly, vocally connect her desire to build a united Europe with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Her past was never very far behind her

Simone Veil was born Simone Jacob in 1927 in the Mediterranean city of Nice to a middle-class, assimilated — in other words, non-religious — Jewish family. But the Nazis cared about Jewish blood, not religious identity.

In the spring of 1944, at the age of 16, Simone and her family were rounded up. First she and two of her sisters were taken, on March 30, then her father and brother and finally a third sister — the last was also a resistance fighter. All were deported to Eastern Europe.

Veil was sent by closed cattle car to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. There she received the indelible number 78651 tattooed on her arm — the Nazis tattooed the inmates, taking away their identities and rendering them simply numbers.

"From then on, each of us was just a number, seared into our flesh," she wrote later in her life. "A number we had to learn by heart, since we had lost all identity."

French President Jacques Chirac (R), former Auschwitz prisoner and former French Health Minister Simone Veil (2nd R), and French writer Marek Halter (C) pass the entry of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, January 27, 2005.
PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/GettyImages

Veil, her mother Yvonne, and her sister Madeleine were together in Auschwitz. When the Nazis dismantled the camp in January 1945, the three were forcibly marched for days only to be incarcerated again in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Madeleine and Simone survived Bergen-Belsen; Veil’s mother did not. Veil’s other sister Denise, held with other resistance fighters, survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Her father and brother were never heard from again.

Veil and her sister were liberated in April of 1945 and Veil returned to France. After the war, she attended the prestigious French school Sciences Po and studied law. She met and married a fellow student named Antoine Veil who later went into business. Together they had three sons.

Veil’s wartime experience propelled her European parliamentary career

Simone Veil did not discuss her Holocaust experience much in the early years of her life. But by the end of the 1970s, she began drawing a clear line between the horrors she had observed and been a victim of and the need for a peaceful, unified Europe.

She set out to work for the European Economic Community — which later became the European Union. She became the first president of the European parliament. In her first speech before that body, in 1979, she nodded to the past that had destroyed her family and nearly destroyed Europe.

“[T]his is the first time in history, a history in which we have so frequently been divided, pitted one against the other, bent on mutual destruction,” she said, “that the people of Europe have together elected their delegates to a common assembly representing, in this Chamber today, more than 260 million people.”

Veil would serve as president of the European parliament until 1982, and a general member of that body until 1993. She then reprised her role as French Health Minister in the early 1990s. Later she held a variety of other positions including integrating immigrants, on the High Council for Integration, and did a nine-year tour as a member of the Constitutional Council, the highest court in France tasked with reviewing the constitutionality of laws. At the turn of the century she turned in earnest to the job of Holocaust memorialization, serving on the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust) for seven years.

This morning, as the news of her passing broke, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to her in a statement. “Her uncompromising humanism, wrought by the horror of the camps, made her the constant ally of the weakest, and the resolute enemy of any political compromise with the extreme right,” he said.

Macron also tweeted his condolences at hearing the news.

The tweet reads: “Enormous condolences to the family of Simone Veil. May her example inspire our countrymen, who will find in her the very best of France.”

Other tributes poured in all day.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Paris, tweeted early this morning: “Immense sadness at the announcement of the death of Simon Veil, a model of courage for women, for commitment to France, and to Europe.”

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