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A woman of many firsts, the activist and European Parlimentary president championed human rights and reproductive liberty.

Simone Veil would become an international political figure, a trailblazer of women’s rights, and a champion of healthcare. But first she had to survive. 

It was 1944 and Simone Veil (née Jacob) was just 16 years old when Nazi troops arrested her and her family, forcing them from their beloved home in Nice, France. Veil, along with her mother and sister, were put on a train bound for the dreaded Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The soldiers separated the family, deporting her father and brother to Lithuania, where they would never be heard from again. 

As Veil entered the camp, a Nazi guard etched five crudely drawn numbers onto her left arm: 78651. Stripped of her name, she was just a number in the eyes of her German captors. But while the tattoos were meant to dehumanize the Jewish prisoners, Veil would use those numbers in a way the Nazis couldn’t have predicted—the numbers became a quiet inspiration and a lifelong reminder to serve humanity, not diminish it.

Veil saw incredible injustice and horrific cruelty in the camps, but it did not break her. Her mother, Yvonne, gave her daughters strength in those desperate circumstances and Veil would remember her mother as her personal hero for the rest of her life. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Veil said, “I’m often asked what gave me the strength and will to continue the fight. I believe deeply that it was my mother; she has never stopped being present to me, next to me.” Veil was heartbroken when her mother died shortly before the camp’s liberation. But Yvonne’s courage would live on in her daughter. 

When Veil’s camp was liberated in 1945, she discovered that she and her two sisters were the only family who had survived the horrific events of the last year.

While the Nazis may have scarred Veil’s skin and destroyed her family, they could not touch her spirit. In fact, Veil left the camps knowing that she wanted to fight against injustice.

Shorty after being released, Veil went to Paris to resume her studies in law and political science. If ignorance and fear had given fuel to the events of the Holocaust, she would center her life’s work around knowledge and compassion.

During her studies, she met a like-minded student, Antoine Veil, whom she fell in love with and married in 1946. The couple had three boys, and Veil began to rebuild the happiness and love she’d enjoyed with her family before the war.

The couple had three boys, and Veil began to rebuild the happiness and love she’d enjoyed with her family before the war.

Her career also began to gain traction. After earning a law degree, Veil spent years preparing for the extremely competitive national examination to become a magistrate. Veil passed the exam in 1954 and, as an official in the Justice Ministry, she used her position of power to help improve the living conditions of female prisoners, a cause that drew on her own experiences as Holocaust survivor. The treatment of incarcerated women became her special focus.

Veil’s political prowess was obvious and she was soon chosen to serve as France’s health minister. She was only the second woman in history to hold full cabinet rank in the country.

This position set her up for one of the most difficult fights of her life—a fight that would secure her legacy as one of the most revered women in France. But before she would be admired, she would be the target of abuse and outrage. Her experience as a Jewish woman during World War II had prepared her to stand up to just such hatred.

In 1974, Veil gave the speech of a lifetime. As the minister of health, Veil pushed through laws that made contraception and the birth control pill more accessible in France. Now, the political activist stood before the National Assembly, which was made up mostly of conservative Catholic men, to defend a health measure they staunchly opposed: a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion.

From her place behind the podium, Veil gathered her courage, steadied her voice, and said, “I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.” 

In the balcony, a photographer snapped an iconic picture of Veil as she delivered her speech. In it, she stands stoically behind the microphone as the mostly male assembly look down on her from the audience. Many cross their arms. Some bury their heads in their hands. But Veil stands proud. Even without hearing her voice, you can see her conviction.

Veil drew on Yvonne’s bravery to get through the trials ahead. Swastikas were painted on Veil’s car and home. Threats were made against her children. She opened letters whose angry scrawl condemned her to hell. The right-wing likened terminating a pregnancy to the Nazi practice of euthanasia, a comparison seemingly directed at Veil. She rejected the comparison, brushed off the abuse, and continued to advocate for women’s empowerment and choice. 

Amid the angry opposition, and after three days of heated debate, the abortion law passed. This landmark legislation, which became known as Veil’s Law, continues to be a keystone of women’s rights in France. The image of one visionary woman standing up to a room full of men is an iconic moment in French politics. 

While the highlight of her career, Veil’s Law was not the end of her advocacy for women. She was a transformational leader in expanding healthcare, improving maternity benefits, and advocating for children, people with disabilities, and society’s disadvantaged. 

Veil was a woman of many firsts. Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, she continued to break barriers and was the first woman to hold many esteemed positions. Veil did not see the lack of women in leadership as a deterrent. Instead, she broke into the political world, without apology, so that other women could follow her example.

Perhaps her most notable “first” was becoming the first woman to be chosen as president of the European Parliament. Many young girls in Europe, and across the world, saw a role model in this pioneering politician. 

When Veil died in June 2017 at the age of 89, she was mourned as a national hero. Her legacy of giving a voice to the voiceless won her country’s admiration. Upon her passing, she was given the rare honor of being laid to rest at the French Panthéon in Paris, a mausoleum reserved for the burial France’s most illustrious figures. 

In death, Veil continued her legacy of trailblazing. She is only the fifth woman to be admitted into the Panthéon, where the other 72 residents are men. Thousands of admirers swarmed Paris to mourn and to celebrate the life of a woman who changed France. Many held signs reading, “Merci Madame,” thanking Veil for the life she dedicated to her country. 

78651, the number tattooed onto Veil’s left arm at 16, is etched into her sarcophagus. In a speech at her memorial, French President Emmanuel Macron called the tattoo a mark of Veil’s “untouchable dignity.”

Just as Veil’s mother taught her daughters that strength and dignity cannot be marred by evil, Veil gave that example to her country—and to rebel girls everywhere.

Hannah Sherk is a Californian-turned-Portlander who traded her flip-flops for hiking boots. She teaches middle school language arts, where she is surrounded daily by amazing rebel girls. She loves teaching because she gets to help kids see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. When she’s not writing or editing, you might find her riding horses, swimming in the Willamette, or matchmaking her friends with a good book.