Simone Veil, iconic European feminist politician, dies at 89
Simone Veil, a survivor of Nazi death camps and a European Parliament president who spearheaded abortion rights as one of France’s most prominent female politicians, died Friday at 89, her family said.
A funeral ceremony with military honours is to be held on Wednesday at Les Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb, the presidential Elysee Palace said. In a measure of the nation’s esteem for Veil, French flags will be dressed in black ribbons and European flags will fly at half — staff.
“May her example inspire our compatriots,” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
“France has lost a figure that history rarely produces,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, as tributes to the centrist Veil poured in from across the political spectrum.
Veil said it was her experiences in the Nazi concentration camps that made her a firm believer in the unification of Europe.
Her own rise from a former deportee to the head of the European Parliament was a potent symbol of that sought — after peace, she said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offering condolences in a message to Veil’s son, said she was “very grateful” for Veil’s commitment to European unification.
“We will also remember her tireless ... commitment to the survivors of the Holocaust, whose fate she shared,” Merkel wrote.
A two — time Cabinet minister, Veil was best known in France for leading the heated battle to legalize abortion in the 1970s. France’s abortion rights law is still known four decades later as the “Loi Veil,” and she called it her proudest accomplishment.
In a country where many women are hesitant to call themselves feminists, Veil embraced the label. She saw herself as an advocate for the downtrodden and devoted much of her early career to improving conditions in French prisons. Later, she became one of the most visible faces of France’s dwindling community of Holocaust survivors and spoke passionately about the need to keep the memory alive.
Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean port of Nice on July 13, 1927, she was one of four children. Her father worked as an architect until a 1941 law by France’s collaborationist Vichy government forced him — and other Jews — out of the profession.
In March 1944, the Gestapo arrested and deported Veil, her parents and all but one of her siblings. The 16 — year — old Veil, her sister and her mother ended up at the death camps at Auschwitz — Birkenau.
Her father and brother were sent to a camp in a Baltic country. They were never seen again.
“I found myself thrown into a universe of death, humiliation and barbarism,” Veil wrote in the preface to a 2005 book on the Holocaust. “I am still haunted by the images, the odours, the screams, the humiliation, the blows and the sky, ashen with the smoke from the crematoriums.”
Young and healthy when she entered Birkenau and with striking chestnut plaits, Veil caught the eye of a Polish woman who helped run the camp. The woman took her aside, telling her in broken French: “‘You are too pretty to die here. I am going to find some way so you can survive,”’ Veil told the AP.
The woman sent Veil, her mother and sister to work at a Siemens factory outside the camp. Later, Veil was transferred to work in an SS kitchen, where she was able to pilfer bits of food for her mother.
Her efforts were in vain. Veil’s mother died of typhus at the Bergen — Belsen camp. Veil’s sister survived the camp, returning to France along with Veil after the war.