The president of France, François Hollande, described Stéphane Hessel, who died in Paris on Tuesday at 95, as “a great figure whose exceptional life was dedicated to defending human dignity.”
The resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor – he had been tortured by the Gestapo – is best known today as the 2010 author of Indignez-vous! [Time for Outrage], a 4,000-word pamphlet and phenomenal global publishing success that urged young people to revive the flame of resistance to injustice that burned in himself and others during World War II, this time in peaceful rebellion against what he termed the dictatorial forces of international capitalism, and to reassert the ideal that the privileged class must help the less fortunate rise. In particular, Mr. Hessel’s pamphlet took aim at France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, the influence on the news media by the rich, the shrinking social safety net and, especially, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. His father, Franz, a German writer, translator, and friend of Marlene Dietrich, had lived for many years in Paris, where he met and befriended Henri-Pierre Roché, an artist and writer, and Helen Grund, a German art student, who would become his wife and Stéphane’s mother. When the boy was still a toddler, the family returned to Paris in 1925, where Helen took up with Roché, and a three-way love affair ensued, becoming the basis for Roché’s 1953 novel, Jules et Jim, later adapted by François Truffaut into the well-known film.
An important chapter in Stephane Hessel’s remarkable life, which began (he said) significantly during the October Revolution in 1917, was his work in 1948 as France’s ambassador to the U.N. with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a recent interview with Swiss television, he spoke about the remarkable progress that had been made in the protection of human rights all over the world, and contrasted these achievements with the failure of the U.N. to abolish war, which had been the great hope of mankind after 1945.
In 2003, along with other former resistance fighters, he signed the petition “For a Treaty of a Social Europe” and in August 2006, he was a signatory to an appeal against the Israeli air-strikes in Lebanon. The appeal was made by the French member organization of European Jews for a Just Peace.
Source: The New York Times (February 27), among others