Mon cher Stéphane,
Wherever you are, I know you are well and at peace.
I am also sure of one thing; you must be kicking yourself for having gone a few weeks before the closing session of an initiative that you were deeply involved with, from its birth, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Rest assured, Stéphane, we are also deeply troubled and lost knowing that, this time, you will indeed not be present with us, to celebrate life, to celebrate resistance.
I have been talking to you, secretly, since I learned of your death. Had not planned to put my thoughts on paper, but when Hicham, a friend, asked me to do so, like you would have done, I could not say ‘no’.
I did not cry, Stéphane. Could not do this to you. At least until this morning, when another common friend (you had so many), Pratibha, sent me a picture she had taken of you in Cape Town. A picture that was so you, it made me realise, more than all the TV tributes have done, that you were gone, at least physically, and that I will miss you deeply. We all will.
I will remember you as someone that always made others, whoever they were, whatever their positions, their backgrounds, felt loved and important. The way you always welcomed me (“Frank! Mon cher Frank. Comment ca va?”) made me feel I was in the right place, with the right people, at the right time, always.
The way you joked with us about death was also a great lesson. Every time I left you, after those long private meetings of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, in Paris, around this huge table filled with amazing food, you were adamant. “Frank. I might not be around next time”. Before the New York session, when Christiane, your wife, and yourself got a 6 months visa, you both laughed about it. “6 months! We will be dead by then!”. A premonition? Not really Stéphane, because writing to you, just now, makes me realise that in fact, you are not dead if your spirit is still so powerfully around us.
I last saw you a couple of months ago, at your modest flat in Paris. You looked frail and tired but, as usual, gave your best. We talked for a lot longer than planned. We talked, talked and talked about a topic that was your last fight, you were repeating this constantly: Palestine and the children, the future. At the end of our conversation, you took me aside with Christiane and made me an offer I could not refuse. When I did, a few weeks later, you both were disappointed but incredibly supportive and I know why. (I had said no because I wanted to put my family and our well being as priority number one. I had made this decision not with my brain but with my heart. You respected that.)
You were not a radical politically but your vision of life, in the epoch we live in, was. LOVE had to be the motto. Love and resistance. Your love of life, you, the son of Jules and Jim, was addictive. Love was your engine and you talked so beautifully about it. You were a force of nature, Stéphane. I remember when, arriving in Cape Town after a 12 hours flight, when the Russell Tribunal team worrying about you, had cancelled all interviews and requests for the morning, you told us, getting out of the taxi and entering the lobby of the hotel: “What’s next? What am I suppose to do now?”. When we told you to go to your bedroom and rest. You got upset. “Rest? I’ll rest when I’m dead!”.
Your sense of humour, your optimism, sometimes carried the team of the tribunal, Stéphane. Your were an example to follow, without asking anyone, ever, to follow you.
You sometimes, showed signs of weakness, but once again, your heart was talking. I remember when, in South Africa again, you got very worried because you could not find Christiane, your beloved wife, in the hotel. Every time you bumped into me, you asked me again: “Have you seen Christiane? Where is she?” I repeated the same thing, again and again: “She went for a walk with a friend”. Still, you asked and asked. Without her, your heart was lost.
One event maybe embodied who you were more than any others. We met in London for lunch, with Christiane, in a posh hotel near Piccadilly Circus that had been provided to you by the French government for Sarkozy’s celebrations of the ‘entente cordiale’ between Great Britain and France. After saying a few harsh words about Sarkozy, we went on to order wine. I chose this moment to tell you that my partner was expecting. You both were very happy and said: “Let’s order a fantastic wine then!” My partner looked embarrassed when she responded: “due to being pregnant, I cannot really drink.” You responded in unison: “Have a happy pregnancy and the child will be a happy one, let’s have some wine!” We did. It was superb.
You did meet my son, a few times. I have got this great picture of Leo, on your knees, in Cape Town. 93 years difference but the facial expressions, of youth and joy, were the same. My son and I will cherish this picture for ever.
Cher Stéphane you belong to the people now. Yesterday a spontaneous demonstration took place on Place de la Bastille, in Paris. You would have liked that immensely; and I’m sure that you saw this and smiled. The best homage you could have received. People are talking about you in the Pantheon. Your reaction to this news would have been one of surprise and astonishment. I can see your face, now, before me, dismissing the idea as completely mad.
Now, it is down to us to carry the torch and we will. Under the guidance of your smile, we will resist and struggle until it’s over. And we will, dear Stéphane, be a lot more radical and revolutionary than you would have wanted. I know that you will understand that this is needed now more than ever.
We are running out of time Stéphane, as we ran out of you.
I will end this public letter to you by quoting you, talking about death and what it meant. Au revoir, Stephane, et a bientot!
“Death is a great project, of all experiences it is perhaps the most interesting of all. We shall see what remains and what will be. Life has been beautiful, with awful moments and admirable ones. Death shall perhaps be even more beautiful, who knows!”
Frank Barat. 28 February 2013.
This article first appeared in Ceasefire Magazine. Stephane Hessel, holocaust survivor, French Resistance fighter, co-editor of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and advocate for Palestinian rights died on Tuesday at the age of 95.