a sepia photograph of the interior of the Pantheon in Paris

Simone Veil

Survivor, activist, feminist, politician

Dr. Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah (opens in new window) (Jewish Heritage Network)

As Jean d’Ormesson said in his speech welcoming Simone Veil to the Académie Française in 2010: "if one person incarnates the modern European experience, that person is Simone Veil", whose life reflects both high and low points of the 20th century.

portrait image of Simone Veil, with the words 'Une Femme, Simone Veil'

Veil was born in Nice in 1927 to middle-class Jewish parents who very much represented the modern secular Jewish world view of the first half of the century: active in various social Jewish organizations, they were known to be staunch supporters of the secular state and the French values of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.

a big group of soldiers and prisoners in a concentration camp

With the rise of Nazism in Europe these values were put to a most stringent test, with tragic outcomes. In 1944, at the age of 16, Simone and her entire family - like the majority of Europe’s Jews - were deported to concentration camps. Only Simone and her two sisters survived the war, whereas her parents and brother were murdered.

a colour portrait photograph of Simone Veil

After the war and unlike many Jews who, after having survived the horrors of the concentration camps, emigrated to Israel and North America, Simone and her sisters decided to remain in France. Veil would dedicate the rest of her life to public service defending women's rights, helping underrepresented communities and rebuilding Europe from the ashes of World War II.

a still image from a TV interview. Simone Veil is being interviewed.

As the French minister of health in the 1970s, she was a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights. Under her tenure as a minister contraception became more accessible and in 1975 abortion was legalized. To this day, the law protecting women’s rights to control their bodies is called the Veil Law.

a still image from a TV interview with Simone Veil

Veil served as an elected official of the European parliament from 1979 to 1993 and held the position of president for the majority of that period. In this capacity, she worked tirelessly to defend human rights, strengthen intra-European ties, promote European culture and protect the most vulnerable in society.

Even after retiring from politics Veil remained active in French society. In 2008, Veil was elected to the Académie Francaise, being only the sixth woman in the institution’s almost 500 year old history to receive such an honour, as well as one of the few politicians to ever be invited to join the “immortal forty.”

Until the end of her life Veil continued to break barriers, by insisting that if she’d be given the honour to be buried in the Panthéon, an honour bestowed upon only the most esteemed French citizens (Voltaire and Marie Curie among others), she would only accept if her husband could be buried next to her. A request which president Emmanuel Macron granted when she passed away in 2017.

To this day Veil continues to be one of the most beloved Frenchwomen of all time.

This blog is part of Europeana XX, a project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.