PARIS – I have an abiding image of Simone Veil, the French (and later European) politician who died last week. It is a black-and-white photo taken in September 1979, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – a period known as the Days of Awe – in Paris, before the memorial to the unknown Jewish martyr. A young man, bareheaded behind a lectern, is speaking in honor of those who died in the Holocaust. Simone Veil is standing in the front row, a handsome woman lost in her thoughts yet still 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, in 1974, she stood before the French parliament to deliver a speech that would change the lives of French women and mark the term of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, just as the abolition of the death penalty marked the term of Giscard’s successor, François Mitterrand. Then, defending the legalization of abortion, she resembled Romy Schneider in Orson Welles’s The Trial, determined but ill at ease. There is thunder in her words, coexisting with a bottomless melancholy. She may not have wept after the speech, but I do not doubt that she lived through that moment in what the Christian theologian Duns Scotus called “the ultimate solitude.”
She went on, paradoxically, to be honored, celebrated, adored all over Europe, while living as a sort of stowaway in an era that she would never fully embrace – an enigma to her contemporaries, always slightly withdrawn, yet as transparent in her own eyes as it is humanly possible to be. She knew her vocation, the direction of her destiny, and the force of her desire (from which she never wavered) to break with what she described, during a demonstration in Paris in support of the victims of the 1980 synagogue bombing on Rue Copernic, “Jewish disintegration.”
Who are you when you are deported to Auschwitz just days after receiving your baccalauréat and survive the impossible, having 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 Veil 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 cliché 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 was real and all too apparent. And what could she think when she was asked, at a reception, whether the tattoo on her arm was her coat-check number?
We clashed once. It was in 1993, after I delivered to Mitterrand a message from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović in which he compared Sarajevo to the Warsaw ghetto. Soon after, I arranged for Izetbegović to meet with the French president in Paris. Ahead of the meeting, Veil, Izetbegović, 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.” Izetbegović 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 Holocaust’s singularity as accurately as she. It was a crime, she said, without trace (no written orders; no official directive, ever, anywhere); without graves (her father, brother, and mother became smoke and ash, with no marker but her own memory and, later, her autobiography); without ruins (Auschwitz, when she returns to it years later, is becalmed, neutralized, cleansed); without exit (Sarajevans, Rwandans, and Cambodians could, at least in theory, flee, whereas the hallmark of the Holocaust is that the world itself was a trap); and, finally, without reason (given the choice of expediting a troop train headed for the front or a train carrying Jews to the ovens, the Nazis always chose the latter).
And then, of course, there was the question of Europe. After the war, there were two responses. There was the response of the philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch: Germany’s ontological culpability, Hitler’s irremediable corruption of its language, and a vow never again to have anything to do with its culture or people. And there was the response of Simone Veil: no collective culpability, German as the language not only of Nazism but also of anti-Nazism, and a belief that Europe is possible, with France and Germany, both mourning their ghosts, as its pillars.
The world, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard said a century ago, 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 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Scopus Award. She was accompanied by her husband, Antoine, and her sons, Jean and Pierre-François. She was tired but feisty. Unquiet but free of nostalgia. In a speech lauding peace, science, and law, she paraphrased the philosopher Martin Heidegger, proclaiming “only a word can save us.”