Did you know that the French law that legalized abortion was spearheaded by and named after a Holocaust survivor?
The Veil Act, Loi Veil, which passed in 1975, was the product of Simone Veil’s life-long battle. The achievement made her the subject for vicious attacks from her cohorts in the government for which she served as Health Minister — her critics compared the law to the Nazi death chambers and anonymously marked her car with swastikas.
“Faced with a marked conservative environment, I presented the three flaws of being a woman, being in favor of the legalization of abortion, and, finally, being Jewish,” Veil wrote in her autobiography, “Une Vie.”
In the trailer of the upcoming movie based on her life, “Simone: Woman of the Century,” you can hear her character shout at detractors, “I am not afraid. I have survived worse than you.”
The movie, which came out in France in 2021 and will be released in theaters in the U.S., on August 18, tells the story of the Holocaust survivor and history maker — the unimaginable losses and her world-changing victories.
Directed by Oliver Dahan, best known for his Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie En Rose,” the movie tells the story of Veil’s youth in Nice, where she got her high school diploma under Nazi occupation and, the following day, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later to Bergen-Belsen. It follows her life as a politician in the years after the war, when she got her law degree and met and married her husband, Antoine Veil, with whom she had three sons.
Both actresses who play Veil in the movie — Elsa Zylberstein who plays the older Veil, and Rebecca Marder who plays young Simone Jacob (her maiden name) — have Jewish roots, as does Dahan.
As the Minister of Health, and later the Minister of State, Veil helped to pass laws that gave women reproductive freedom and equal rights. She made sure incarcerated women were fairly treated, that women had access to social programs and so much more. She also worked to ensure that Europe and the world never forget the story of the Holocaust as the head of the Shoah Foundation between 2007 and 2008. She lost her mother, two brothers and her father, who was a proud secular Jew, to the Nazis.
After seeing the Nazi regime’s worst horrors, she placed all her postwar hopes in a united, free Europe.
Veil was a feminist icon and deeply marked by the women in her life — especially the ones she met while interred who showed her the kindness women could show each other, and her two sisters, who both survived the Holocaust when no one else in their family did. Her sister Denise was a resistance fighter, and Madeleine, who went by Milou, survived Auschwitz only to tragically pass away in a car accident in 1952.
But perhaps the woman who meant the most to Veil was her mother, Yvonne, who died of typhus while they were at Bergen-Belsen. In the trailer, you can hear Veil say, “Every day I see mother, she’s my strength. All my fights are her, for her.”
Veil kept making history — she was the first woman to lead the European parliament in 1979; the sixth woman elected to the French Academy; and she received the highest honor a French person can receive — the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor (she was the first person inducted into the legion in the rank of grand officer, the second highest honor, and was promoted to Grand Cross a few years later).
After she died in 2017, she became the fifth woman to be buried in France’s famous pantheon.
In these days, when reproductive rights are still being fought for in America, her story to fight for the face of her nation, and for the freedom of the women in it, is perhaps more relevant than ever. As Bridget Sendziak wrote in Hey Alma in the days after Roe v. Wade was overturned, we need an American Simone Veil.