Simone Veil James Leynse/Getty Images

Homage to Simone Veil

Nothing made the great French and European politician Simone Veil angrier than the refrain about the Holocaust being unspeakable, which was supposed to explain why its survivors, upon returning home, retreated into silence. The truth, as she could attest, was that no one wanted to hear about it.

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as a sort of stowaway in an era that she would never fully embrace – an enigma to her contemporaries, always slightly withdrawn, yet as transparent in her own eyes as it is humanly possible to be.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.”