October 12, 2006
Last night a group of us listened to a recording of Simone Veil telling an interviewer (in beautifully articulate French) about her girlhood and upbringing in the town of Nice in the 1930s. The interview gave us some insights into what had turned her into such a strong person and what had kept her sane during her incarceration in the concentration camp she survived towards the end of the war, at the age of seventeen.
The factors that counted were these. First, pride and the knowledge of who she was, and the certainty that she was loved. At school she and her sisters were the admirable “Jacob girls”: “on nous connaissait,” she said. Then there was the romance of her youth. “On vivait une sorte de roman.” She relished her surroundings, the sea, the mountains, the look of a certain tree in the school yard. She always had an appetite for debate. Her father encouraged this so much that philosophical argument became “un plaisir physique” for her. Though she is not to be confused with Simone Weil (with a W), Simone with a V saw herself from an early age as a free thinker; she had a right to think exactly as she pleased, she felt, humorously calling it “insolence”, and was willing to fight for her ideas. Another thing that stood her in good stead was the discipline of her family’s straitened circumstances in which a box of chocolates was a feast. They made the most of the little they had and when forced to move to a smaller, humbler appartment found something worth finding there, a view of the botanical gardens. In order to afford treats for her children, the mother never bought herself new clothes. Simone spoke of her mother with something like awe. At Ausschwitz she died with dignity and courage, giving hope to others who were in despair, it seems.
Simone Veil didn’t dwell on externals, on what she’d never had, or what she suffered during her youth, but on what she’d gained from it: self-assurance, romance, fresh air and lovely views, intellectual conversation, discipline at home and at school, strict economies, a dignified mother. It sounds completely out-of-date, doesn’t it?