Behind the Headlines Holocaust Survivor Makes History

History was made on July 17 when the first elected European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, France, just across the river from Germany elected a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz as its president.

Simone Veil, age 52, born in Nice, a former Health Minister of France and for the last five years considered the most popular official in that nation, will preside over the 410 member legislative body that was chosen by a combined electorate of 180 million people. She will also represent the Parliament in negotiations with other European Economic Community (EEC) institutions.

What made her give up a secure appointed position as Minister of Health for the rough and tumble of electoral politics of France and of a European Parliament which includes elected representatives from the EEC countries of Denmark, Ireland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, Italy and West Germany?

There are those close to her who say that part of the motivation for her wanting to be a force in the European Parliament is that it would be a forum where she could speak out to ensure that a Holocaust which took the life of six million Jews, including her father, mother and brother, should never occur again. She now considers the EEC a safeguard against anything "like that" happening again. In the past, say French Jewish leaders, when she has had to speak out, she did so forcefully.

SPEAKING OUT FORCEFULLY

Example: This attractive woman, who dresses elegantly in Chanel suits and long sleeved dresses that always hide the concentration camp number 78651 tatooed on her forearm, was instrumental in having French television show the NBC-TV "Holocaust" series after the head of all three TV stations made public statements refusing to show it.

Example: Last year, the newsweekly "L’Express" published an interview held in Spain with the Vichy government’s Commissioner of Jewish Affairs Louis Darquier who insisted that the Holocaust never occurred. Ms. Veil spoke out. She chided L’Express for not at least providing along with the Interview accompanying documents and photographs showing what really happened, and emphasized the dangers of banalizing racism. Her response triggered page-one editorials in the Paris dailies, comments from President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and a long rebuttal in L’Express.

Example: In a fierce debate in the French Parliament, a number of years ago, she led the French government’s battle to win the right to abortion for all women. When a member of Parliament accused her of sending babies to the crematory, she fired back: "You have no right to say that to me of all people."

There are of course other ideological and political reasons why Ms. Veil may have been chaser to run in the first place for the European Parliament which, while it may have limited powers, now has the moral impact and moral authority of having its members elected by universal sufferage rather than appointed by the Parliaments of member states.

This past spring, Giscard plucked Ms. Veil from the Minister of Health post to head his ticket aligned against the Socialists, Communists, Gaullists and others in France’s election of representatives to the European Parliament. The President’s and Ms. Veil’s prestige were on the line. Until 1979, she possessed a completely non-partisan image since Giscard had appointed her and she never had to endure a political campaign.

COULD BE CHOICE FOR PRIME MINISTER

Giscard’s "Union pour la Democratic Francaise" outpolled the others in the race in the European Parliament elections in France in June and as head of that slate, Ms. Veil emerged as a major victor not only for herself but for the President himself and his political following. It was a test of whether her personal popularity could be translated into electoral magic and she came through with flying colors.

It is unlikely that Giscard will forget this woman who defeated his opponents in the political arena in 1979 when he runs in 1981. Few, if any, now deny that Ms. Veil could be Giscard’s choice for Prime Minister were he to be elected two-and-a-half years from now.

First, as president of the European Parliament, she will have excellent political exposure and thus be in a position to maintain her prestige in France, too. Secondly, what better experience could be given to a future Prime Minister who would have to deal with the French Parliament than that of presiding over the European Parliament, which, while it has no authority over the member nations has an advisory role on certain EEC activities.

But it is expected to be an influential forum on major European issues, especially since many of its representatives carry political clout. Thus, if Ms. Veil does make it to the post of Prime Minister of France she will be the first woman French Prime Minister, but not the first Jewish one; Leon Blum, Rene Meyer and Pierre Mendes-France were Jewish.

A WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Who is this woman of France who has been honored by her country and people? What is she like? What does she think? What is her philosophy? One Jewish leader who declared, "We are very proud of her," said bluntly that she is "totally a French woman elegant, self-assured, reserved." She is a product of the French civil service which to this day believes in the the tradition of service to the state. She is a serious woman, a hard taskmaster. A politician, in a complimentary way, once described her as "the only man in the Cabinet," similar to the compliment Premier David Ben Gurion of Israel paid Golda Meir.

Writing from Paris in the Manchester Guardian, Walter Schwarz said Ms. Veil’s "ideas, like Giscard’s, are humanist, rationalist, anti doctrinaire and moderate. She is a feminist and cares about the environment, but she considers nuclear energy unavoidable." She has called for governmental human rights appeals for Soviet dissidents.

One feels that much of her strength comes from her early tragic life, and much of her sense of ties to the Jewish people stem from those terrible months in the death camps.

When the Nazis called for the deportation of Jews from France in World War II, she and her family split up and went into hiding. They adopted pseudonyms. Taken in by friends, Simone Veil continued her studies. In 1944, the day after she received her high school diploma, she was stopped in the street by a German policeman. Her identity papers were immediately recognized as forgeries and within days the gestapo sent her to an extermination camp in Germany. She ended up in Auschwitz, along with her mother and one of her sisters. Her head was shaved. The number 78651 was tatooed on her arm. Ms. Veil and her sister were the only members of her family to survive. But she and others renewed their lives and like many other Jews in the French Republic, she re-entered the mainstream of the life of France which today is the home of 700,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community outside of Israel and the fourth largest in the world.

Ms. Veil, who has a degree in law and who is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, passed qualifying exams for civil service in the Judiciary. She became an advisor to the Minister of Justice in the mid 1960s and contributed to important judicial reforms. She is married to Antoine Veil, head of the French airline, UTA. The Veils have three children.

POSITIVE SENTIMENTS ABOUT JUDAISM

Ms. Veil has expressed positive sentiments about her Judaism. There is no doubt that also in the past she has been affected by the ups and downs of political relations between Israel and France. She has visited Israel several times and was the first European Minister of Health and one of the first European Minister of Health and one of the first French Cabinet ministers to visit the Jewish State.

In her 1975 trip to Israel, Ms. Veil paid a courtesy visit to another woman who was a leading figure in her country, Golda Meir. Ms. Veil is often asked about her ties with Judaism and Israel In the April, 1977 issue of L’Arche, the publication of the Fonds Social Juif Unifie, she was quoted as saying:

"It is a sense of basic belonging to a community which has been formative for us and which one feels one has inherited, intellectually and emotionally. It is an overall tie with Judaism. Religion is not just a belief; it is really a philosophy, a code of ethics. I am aware that I belong to this intellectual community of which Israel is both the cradle and the ark that enables the philosophy I mentioned to be perpetuated and renewed.

"More important still, I experienced this tie with Israel in Auschwitz. I lived with young Polish Czech, Slovak and Yugoslav women who knew that for them Israel was the only refuge. The solidarity among us was too great not to have left an impression. Nevertheless, I personally never endured those trials with the idea of going to Palestine. But I have lived that great hope so intensely with those young women that it became something very important for me emotionally."

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