France's fearless Simone Veil retraces life journey
She survived Europe's darkest hour as a teenage girl at Auschwitz and decades later took part in some of its greatest triumphs: Simone Veil's life captures the zeitgeist of 20th-century Europe.PARIS - At 81, the first elected president of the European parliament and one of France's most respected personalities is adding best-selling author to her list of accomplishments.
Veil's memoir "A Life" has already sold half a million copies in France and is set for release in English on Thursday.
From her childhood in Nice in a secular Jewish family -- a world of "calm surroundings and little nothings" -- to the nightmare of the death camp finally her trailblazing career, Veil chronicles her life in a poignant and straightforward fashion.
"I think for some people, the book does provide a common thread that extends through an era, even if it is partial view," Veil said during an interview at her Paris office.
"I never thought it would be this successful," said the soft-spoken petite woman, her long dark hair tucked into a chignon.
The book is dedicated to her mother and role model, Yvonne, who died from typhus at Auschwitz a few months before the camps were liberated, and to her father Andre Jacob and brother Jean, who never returned from deportation.
Veil said writing about the Holocaust was not the heart-wrenching exercise that some would assume, but it did mark a departure for a woman who had been reluctant up until now to give a full account of her experience.
"Deep down, we really do need to talk about it," said Veil. "With my husband, I practically never did because he couldn't bear to hear about the deportation."
The smell of burning flesh
It was during a random identity check in Nice that Veil, then 16, was arrested by German police who rounded up her mother, sister and brother and deported them to the Paris suburb of Drancy, the transit point for French Jews.
Hoping to be spared from prison camp, her brother volunteered for a work detachment in France but instead was sent to Lithuania, along with her father.
Veil never found out what happened to her father and brother, but research suggests they were among French Jews sent to Baltic countries to dig mass graves and were later executed themselves.
Arriving in Auschwitz in April 1944 with her mother and sister, Veil describes how they "somehow or other, got used to the desperate atmosphere that pervaded the camps, the smell of burning flesh, the smoke permanently blocking the sky."
As prison labour, she and other women spent weeks building a platform extension for the trains to the gas chambers and later watched with horror as train after train of Jews were unloaded and sent straight to their deaths.
When she returned to France in May 1945, Veil began rebuilding her life. She took up studies to become a magistrate, got married and had three sons.
Despite the horrific experience, she shows magnanimity and makes a strong case against finger-pointing.
Of all the occupied countries, France deported the lowest percentage of Jews -- a quarter of the community -- and a number of French people took great risks by sheltering Jews, she said.
Some 75,000 Jews were deported during the Nazi occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. Only 2,500 survived.
"I returned from deportation and I said: 'If we don't build Europe now, we will again know war and conflict'," said Veil in the interview. "This experience of Europe was abominable."
On the road to becoming a citizen of Europe, Veil would also provided a voice for women.
As France's first woman minister, responsible for health, Veil shepherded a ground-breaking bill legalising abortion in 1974, staring down opponents who painted swastikas on her house and insulted her in the streets.
She served as health minister twice under two presidents, centrist Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Socialist Francois Mitterrand who then shared power with centre-right prime minister Jacques Chirac.
"For a long time, I felt like I was the token woman. I took advantage of it," she said of her political career. "I was one of the first women and I considered it an opportunity."
It was in Chirac's government that she met a man of "exceptional energies, intelligence and a boundless capacity for work", Nicolas Sarkozy, then budget minister.
Veil backed Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007, lending her formidable moral authority to his campaign.
"Things are changing in France with Sarkozy," she said. "I think he will reform the country." But the economic crisis means "the reforms will not at all be the same" as what he promised during his campaign.
While she criticises the bureaucratic waste and narrow interests of some governments in the European Union, Veil nevertheless sees progress in building a European Union, now with 27 countries, which is at peace.
There were only nine countries in the then European Community when she ran for a seat in the European parliament in 1979 and became the assembly's first elected president, a post she held for nearly three years.
"It's not all as it should be, but there are steps forward," she said.
Veil left politics in 1998 and served on France's Constitutional Council for nine years, returning to her roots as a crusader for justice.
In November, the prestigious Academie Francaise, guardian of the French language, elected her as one of its 40 members and she became one of the "immortals" as the academy's members are known.
AFP / Carole Landry / Expatica