Top image: Original illustration of Simone Veil by Bee Johnson.
This piece was originally written as a chapter for RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone (Random House) but did not appear in the published volume.
Simone Veil was born in Nice, France, on July 13, 1927. She was a teenager when Hitler’s forces stormed through Europe. She and her family were arrested because they were Jewish in 1944, just two days after she completed high school. Her father and brother were sent by convoy to Lithuania, where they disappeared without a trace. Veil, her mother and one of her sisters were deported to two Nazi concentration camps, first Auschwitz-Birkenau, then Bergen-Belsen. Their mother died of typhus, but the girls survived to be liberated by the Allied forces ten months later.. Her mother’s death haunted Veil throughout her life: she spoke of her mother as her inspiration and role model.
Veil married a businessman soon after the war ended and resumed her studies, earning a degree in law and political science. She passed France’s highly competitive national magistrate exam in 1954 and was appointed a judge two years later. She went onto work as an attorney and served in a variety of high-level civil servant positions in the French Ministry of Justice, where she reformed conditions in women’s prisons and fought to grant women full parental rights.
The mother of three, Veil is best known for her work advancing women’s legal rights. In 1974 she was appointed the country’s minister of health, becoming only the second woman to hold a cabinet position in France. In that position, she expanded women’s healthcare, maternity benefits, and stipends for childcare. In 1975 she led the effort to legalize abortion. Opponents of the bill painted swastikas on her car, threatened her family, and even compared abortion to the Holocaust. But Veil and other reproductive choice advocates had widespread support on their side, and they prevailed. Loi Veil, the law that made abortion legal in France in 1975, still bears her name.
In 1979, Veil was elected as a Member of the European Parliament in the first European parliamentary election, and was selected as its first president. To preserve the memory of Jews killed in the Holocaust and the atrocities committed, she later served as the first president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. By documenting its history, the foundation worked to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust would ever happen again.
For decades, Veil was one of the most admired women in France, and in 2012 she received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. She died in 2017. On the day of her nationally televised funeral in Paris, thousands of people lined the streets to pay tribute to her. Many held signs that read “Merci, Simone.” The French president delivered her eulogy and she was buried in the Pantheon alongside France’s most illustrious citizens, one of only a handful of women given this honor. After her death, France issued a commemorative coin in Veil’s memory. Its features include her portrait, her Auschwitz deportation registration number, and the year 1975, signifying the legalization of abortion in France.