Stéphane Hessel, Holocaust Resistance Fighter, Dies at 95

The French human rights activist, author, diplomat and resistance fighter, was also involved in writing the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.

Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet

Stéphane Hessel, a human rights activist, author, diplomat and resistance fighter, who was involved in writing the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, died Wednesday in Paris at the age of 95.

His short work “Time for Outrage,” published in 2010, sold 4.5 million copies, was translated into 35 languages, and became the manifesto for social-justice protest movements all over the world.

Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917 to a Jewish father and German mother. In 1924 the family moved to Paris, where they obtained French citizenship shortly before World War II broke out. As a youth in Paris, Hessel learned chess and mathematics from artist Marcel Duchamp.

Hessel was drafted into the French army but refused to serve under the Vichy government and fled to London, where he joined Charles De Gaulle’s resistance fighters. He was one of the last people to see philosopher and family friend Walter Benjamin in 1940, just days before the latter committed suicide. He was secretly sent back to France to organize the resistance there, and was captured by the Gestapo, which sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He managed to escape being murdered by exchanging identities with a sick prisoner who later died of typhus, and managed to flee his German guards during a prisoner transfer to Bergen-Belsen, returning to Paris after it was liberated.

In his memoir, “Dance With the Century,” which he wrote in 1997, he connected 20th century history with his own life story. He recalled that he was born only a few days before Lenin led the Russian Revolution, received French citizenship in 1938, on a few months before his native Germany annexed Austria; and managed to escape hanging in Buchenwald a year before the United Nations was established. He also wrote that he expected his life to end at the end of the century, but that proved to be off by a wide margin.

After World War II he began his diplomatic career with the French Foreign Ministry, and within months he was partner to a historic process, helping to write the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“We, members of the general secretariat, felt our hearts skip a beat when the president of the assembly called for a vote,” he later wrote. “Would the Soviet Union vote against it or abstain? What would Saudi Arabia do? The president announces: 43 in favor, none against, eight abstentions. It was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life.”

In an interview with Haaretz Magazine last year, Hessel talked about the social-justice protests in Israel, saying they had been both hopeful and disappointing.

“I was very curious about the rage of the angry people on Rothschild Boulevard. I said to myself that the feelings of these young people are not far from the feelings of the young people in Cairo and Tunis. They too, like their neighbors in Cairo and Tunis, feel they are not being led to anywhere good and therefore they have to demonstrate.

“I told myself and then it turned out I was wrong that if the angry people on Rothschild Boulevard feel frustrated because of the cost of living and because of social distresses, they will talk about the main reason for this situation: the fact that their government is wasting so much money on the occupation and the settlements. We know it is very costly. If that money were not invested in the settlements, they would have a better life. I thought they would use that argument, but it turned out they did not.”

In “Time for Outrage,” he addressed the young people of France and told them about the social principles drawn up by the French Underground during World War II, of which he was a member.

“From London, where I had joined de Gaulle in March 1941, I learned that this Council had completed a program and adopted it on March 15th, 1944, that offered for liberated France a group of principles and values on which would rest the modern democracy of our country. These are principles and these values that we need today more than ever. It is up to us to see to it, all together, that our society becomes a society of which we are proud, not this society of immigrants without papers -- expulsions, suspicion regarding the immigrants. Not this society, where they call into question social security and national retirement and health plans. Not this society, where mass media are in the hands of the rich. These are things that we would have refused to give in to if we had been the true heirs of the National Council of the Resistance.”

One of the objectives Hessel called for in his manifesto was advanced education for everyone that did not serve only the interests of the moneyed class, but which develops creativity and critical thinking, and the return of the means of production and natural resources into the public’s hands.

“All the foundations of the social conquests of the Resistance are threatened today,” he wrote. “The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation! We, the veterans of the resistance movements and combat forces of Free France, we call on the young generation to live by, to transmit, the legacy of the Resistance and its ideals. We say to them: Take our place! Get angry!

“I wish for you all, each of you, to have your own motive for indignation. This is precious. When something outrages you as I was outraged by Nazism, then people become militant, strong, and involved.”

Hessel visited Israel once before 1967 and his daughter had volunteered in a kibbutz. Then came the Six Day War.

“I always say that when a country wins with such overwhelming might, it’s bad news for that country,” Hessel told Haaretz Magazine. “From 1967, all the Israeli governments continued making two big mistakes: occupation and settlement in the territories.”

Hessel would talk a great deal about the Israeli-Arab conflict.

“Europe is totally in thrall to Israeli propaganda. Europe is not lifting a finger to prevent Israel from continuing to behave as it is now. Israeli propaganda in Europe, France and the United States is far more effective than any other,” he said in the Haaretz interview.

“I don’t feel any special ties with the Arabs or the Palestinians. But I feel an obligation toward Israel, the responsibility of one who survived World War II and saw firsthand the Jews’ suffering. It is that obligation which makes me write that Israel must be led differently to ensure its security. Israelis might think this is a verbal exercise, but I say it in all sincerity. And I am certain that if we look at the true feelings of the Israelis, we will find that most of them feel the same way. They know that in the long term it is not good for their country to use more and more force, and that Israel will benefit from having friendly relations with its neighbors.”

He added: “On the day that a Palestinian state comes into being that will be subject to international law, and on the day that state will be able to maintain independent relations with Israel on that day it will be possible to start talking about Israel’s security, which is of central importance in modern history. As long as Palestinian violence exists, but not a Palestinian state, Israel is in danger, because it cannot obtain assistance from the international community against an entity that is not subordinate to international law.

“That is why I have always supported a two-state solution. I know there are voices today urging one state which will accommodate Jews, Muslims and Christians. That idea is completely unrealistic. None of the sides truly wishes to go in that direction. For me it is clear: we must show very solid support for Israel on issues of security and be highly critical on issues of occupation.”

Stephane Hessel during an interview with The Associated Press in Paris, France, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011.Credit: AP

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