Two Or Three Things I Know About Simone Veil

She was both imperious and gentle. Irascible and giving.

07/10/2017 08:30 am ET | Updated 4 hours ago

An abiding image of Simone Veil from September 1979, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the midst of what are traditionally known as the Days of Awe. It is a black-and-white photo taken, in Paris, before the memorial to the unknown Jewish martyr. A young man, bare-headed behind a lectern, is speaking in honor of those who died in the Holocaust. She is standing in the first row, a handsome woman lost in her thoughts but still obviously attentive. She is skeptical, stern, incredulous, wary. Afterwards, she will say to the young man, in a tone of gentle reproach, “too lyrical.”

Several years earlier, she stands before the French parliament. This is the speech that will change the lives of French women and mark the term of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing just as the abolition of the death penalty marked that of François Mitterrand. She resembles Romy Schneider in Orson Welles’s The Trial. She is determined but ill at ease. There is thunder in her words, coexisting with a bottomless melancholy. I do not believe that she “wept” after the speech. But I do not doubt that she lived through that moment in what a Christian  theologian, Duns Scott, called “the ultimate solitude.”

She will go on, paradoxically, to be honored, celebrated, beatified in her lifetime, adored all over Europe —while living as a sort of stowaway in an era that she will never fully embrace.

She will remain an enigma to her contemporaries, always slightly withdrawn—yet as transparent in her own eyes as it is humanly possible to be.

She knows what her vocation is, the direction of her destiny, the force of her desire (from which she  never wavers) to break with what she will describe, during a demonstration in Paris in support of the victims of the attack in the Rue Copernic, “Jewish disintegration.”

Who are you when you have lived through the impossible, when you have looked death directly in the eye?

How can you do anything but keep your distance when you have experienced, bodily, both disaster and miracle?

Nothing made her angrier than the refrain about the Holocaust being unspeakable, which was supposed to explain why its survivors, upon returning home, retreated into silence. No! she would insist. To be able to speak was all they were really asking! But people did not want to hear it. And, in opposition to the clichéd observation that first there was memory, before memory was gradually erased and replaced by oblivion, she believed that, for the generation that survived the camps,  oblivion came first. Memory had to be built, take hold, and resist the quicksand of banalization and denial.

The discomfort she felt when, as a cabinet Minister, she tried to broach the subject.

The man who, at a reception, asked whether the tattoo on her arm was her coat-check number.

We clashed once. It was in 1993, after I delivered to François Mitterrand the message from Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic in which he compared Sarajevo to the Warsaw ghetto. Soon after, I arranged for Izetbegovic to meet with the French president in Paris. Ahead of the meeting, Simone, Alija, various friends of Bosnia and I had dinner on the second floor of the Brasserie Lipp in Paris. She did not mince words: “Comparisons can be misleading; however awful the Bosnian situation may be, you do no one any favors by identifying it with the incomparable suffering of the Jews.” Izetbegovic listened, nodded, and, oddly, seemed to agree.

She was both imperious and gentle.

Irascible and giving.

It must be acknowledged, in her defense, that no one pinpointed the singularities of the Holocaust as accurately as she. It was a crime, she said, (1) without trace (no written orders; no official directive, ever, anywhere); (2) without graves (her father, brother, and mother went up in smoke and ash with no marker but her own memory and, later, her autobiography); (3) without ruins (Auschwitz, when she returns to it years later, is becalmed, neutralized, cleansed); (4) without exit (a Sarajevan could, at least in theory, leave Sarajevo; a Rwandan, Rwanda; a Cambodian, Cambodia; the hallmark of the Holocaust is that there was nowhere to flee—the world itself was a trap); and, finally, (5) without reason, without the slightest rationality (given the choice of expediting a troop train headed for the front or a train carrying Jews to the ovens, the Nazis would always choose the latter).

And then, of course, there was the question of Europe. After the war, there were two takes on Europe. That of Vladimir Jankélévitch: ontological culpability of Germany; irremediable corruption of its language by Hitlerian words; and a vow never again to have anything to do with that culture or that people. And that of Simone Veil: no collective culpability; German had been the language of Nazism but also of anti-Nazism; and a belief that Europe is possible, with, as its pillars, France and Germany, both mourning their ghosts.

The world, said, one century ago, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, could be reduced to a series of copyrights. Einstein’s relativity. Descartes’s doubt. Bergson’s laughter. Dante’s hell. Today: Simone Veil’s Europe! Try as I may to associate other faces with the name of Princess Europa, she alone comes to mind.

The last time I spoke with Simone was ten years ago, when I had the honor of bestowing upon her Jerusalem University’s Scopus Prize. She was accompanied by Antoine, the man of her life, and with Jean and Pierre-François, her sons. She was tired but feisty. Unquiet but free of nostalgia. In a speech lauding peace, science, and law, she paraphrased a philosopher of whom she totally  disapproved (Martin Heidegger), proclaiming “only a word can save us.”

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