Holocaust Survivor And Feminist Simone Veil Joins French Academy

The Academie Francaise is perhaps the most prestigious French institution. Because Academie members are inducted for life, they are called “The Immortals”. Simone Veil was inducted on Thursday during a solemn ceremony attended by her 39 colleagues of the Academie, two former French Presidents and President Sarkozy.

The 82-years old Simone Veil is a former French minister and was a champion of women rights. Veil made her mark as a politician by being instrumental in the fight to legalize abortion in France in the 70s. The battle to pass the French law legalizing abortion, which bear her name, made Veil a forefront runner for women rights across Europe.

At the ceremony today, Veil was presented with the ceremonial sword with “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, the motto of the French Republic, engraved on the sword’s blade. The sword also carries the number 78651, which was the number tattooed on Simone Veil’s arm by the Nazis in Auschwitz.

The "Gate Of Death" at Auschwitz Photo By Pawel Sawicki

Simone Veil was born Simone Jacob in Nice. It was during a random identity check in Nice that Veil, then 16, was arrested by the Gestapo who rounded up her mother, sister, brother and father and deported them in Drancy, near Paris, the transit point for French Jews. On April 13, 1944 they were herded into a train of cattle trucks which traveled Eastwards for two and half days to the nightmare of Auschwitz. Some 75,000 Jews were deported during the Nazi occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. Only 2,500 survived.

Veil arrived in Auschwitz on April 16 1944 with her mother and her sister. Both of her parents and her brother died in the camps. In her memoir “A Life”, Veil wrote about her horrendous experience in Auschwitz.

“Deep down we really need to talk about it. With my husband, I practically never did because he could not bear to hear about the suffering. In the camp, we somehow or other got used to the desperate atmosphere that pervaded in Auschwitz; the smell of burning flesh, the smoke permanently blocking the sky,” wrote Veil.

In her speech today, Veil spoke of her love for the French language and invoked her experience as an holocaust survivor.

“My mother, who vanished in the hell of Bergen-Belsen a few days before it was liberated, revered the French language. Even more than I am right now, she would have been dazzled that her daughter would be here today to take the seat that once belonged to Racine (17TH Century French writer),” said an emotional Simone Veil.

The Academie Francaise was created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1639. There are 40 members elected by their peers, and they hold the position for life. Becoming one of “The Immortals”, as its members are known, is France’s highest intellectual accomplishment. Members have included Racine, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Eugene Ionesco and recently deceased Claude Levi-Strauss. Simone Veil is only the sixth female member of the Academie. The Academie Francaise is essentially a linguistic jury whose role is to preserve and make decisions on how French should be used, with the constant aim at keeping the language “Pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with Art and Science”.

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