Who was Simone Weil?

Simone Weil (1909-1943) is thought to be an important French philosopher and one of the New Left’s lead thinkers but she’s also thought of as a colossal nudnik and very controversial. A limousine liberal who didn’t use her limousine very much, she instead tried on the plight of the disadvantaged. Remember all those “starving” children in Africa? Well Simone actually stopped eating because others (not in the Lodz Ghetto because Jews were not her thing, but rather the French unemployed; the Indo Chinese) were starving. Indeed she was a woman of brilliance, extremes and contrasts.Though rich, she dressed like a hobo; though Jewish, she was drawn to Jesus Christ and Catholicism and she despised Jews and Judaism and thought of them as ancient Romans—-(she was apparently unaware that the Jews and Romans, were mortal enemies as well as vastly unequal; Judea was one country and Rome was a vast empire).
though spoiled and pampered, she preferred suffering; though highly educated, she worked in factories and on farms.

Weil was born in 1909, in Paris, to arch secular Jewish parents from the Alsace region. She had an observant grandmother whom she knew. Her parents were not practicing or believing Jews to any degree, but they were culturally very Jewish despite it all. Her dad was a medical doctor, her mother was a bossy hen type and her brother was a mathematician. Both parents were obsessed with their kids brains and education. Big time.

Simone drove them nuts but they stood by her. The Mom, Selma, was also a germ and hand washing freak which didn’t help. Like Alice Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Alma Mahler (the niece) and other assimilated Jewish women during World War Two, Simone Weil and her ilk didn’t seem to notice that Jews were being persecuted and insisted she was not Jewish. Like the others, Weil, ran around Europe at the height of the war worried about workers rights, art and music.At some point, Simone actually wrote a very silly letter to the Gestapo noting that she was influenced by Christianity and Hellenism and had never been to a synagogue.They didn’t respond.

How did these women survive? Toklas and Stein were pro Fascist and were protected by a prominent French Nazi whom Toklas (Stein died in 1946 of natural causes) later helped finance after he escaped to Switzerland. Alma the musician-niece could not avoid deportation but had a private room in Auschwitz where it is thought she became beloved of Dr Mengele,her adored her music;she established the Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz.But Alma died in Auschwitz presumably by rival female Nazi guards jealous over Mengele’s attentions. Simone reluctantly escaped Paris ,as did her more realistic family first to Vichy France and then, in 1942, to the USA, New York to be exact— which she hated and left soon for London. Her Dad’s wallet and connections helped.

But Simone Weil died in 1943, in London due to tuberculosis aggravated by her stubborn refusal to eat normally or anorexia. And she missed Paris a lot. Her parents were alive when she died unmarried (she didn’t believe in marriage) and childless. Was her death a suicide? Perhaps. No one seems to know for sure.She was mentally ill and British authorities thought it was suicide.But several close friends did not.

To her great credit, Weil actually practiced what she preached …so she worked for a while in various factories; suffered; tried to support herself; fought in the Spanish Civil War, and loved poverty. She was Left but anti Stalinist ; Stalin had become a fascist and so was Hitler, she thought. She was a pacifist turned wannabe Resistance fighter and went crazy when she was rejected from the French ranks due to her semitic looks, relates Francine du Plessix Grey who wrote about her in 2001 for the series Penguin Lives.

But in the Sixties, Susan Sontag wrote about her in the New York Review of Books and wondered about her silence on Jewish suffering in WWII. (In 1937, SW, made a pleasure trip to Italy and fell in love with Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1938, the year of Kristalle Nacht she went to a Benedictine monastery in France.) And this is why she is controversial. Not that the Catholics universally liked her either. She didn’t believe in the Papacy. In fact she had a very humanistic and narrow approach to Christianity. She liked the New Testament, the ancient music, the Jesus story, the suffering and mercy, the pretty art but she had no patience for organized religion per se. That was the Jewish-Roman corruption of Christianity.

Did she know squat about Judaism? I suspect not.

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.
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