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1896 Captain Alfred Dreyus

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Dreyfus Court-Martialed

The Dreyfus Exhibit at National Library of Israel in Jerusalem

Over a century later, the Dreyfus affair continues to hold lessons about justice, racism, human rights and the role of the media

By Shula Kopf

For 38 years the three boxes containing original letters and artifacts of Alfred Dreyfus collected dust in relative obscurity in a storage room of the National Library in Jerusalem, ensconced on the third shelf from the bottom among hundreds of boxes that fill the room. Despite distinguished neighbors such as archives of German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schuler to the right and Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber just behind, the Dreyfus material was rarely touched.

Dr. Betty Halpern-Guedj, the French expert at the National Library, happened upon the collection.

“I was so excited I almost fainted,” she says. “It was one big wow. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. It was for me one of the most exciting moments in life. I didn’t even imagine that such an archive existed in Israel. The place hypnotized me. I kept coming back there and going through the documents. I thought that we should do something with it.”

In a happy coincidence, at about the same time, an energetic and determined Parisian approached the Beit-Hatfutsot Museum in Tel Aviv to convince curators to mount an exhibition on Alfred Dreyfus. Yael Perl Ruiz, the great-granddaughter of the French-Jewish colonel whose trial for treason was a turning point in the history of modern European anti-Semitism, thought the lessons of the Dreyfus Affair should be transmitted to the younger generation. It was her grandmother, Jeanne Dreyfus Levi, who came to Jerusalem in 1975 at age 82 to donate the materials to the National Library.

“It’s important that the new generation of Israelis know about the Dreyfus affair, about justice, racism, human rights and the role of the media,” says Ruiz in an interview during the opening of the exhibit on March 11.

The exhibition, “Dreyfus: The Story of a Jewish French Family,” is a collaboration between the museum and the National Library and the first time the library has put original items on display outside its own premises. The well-curated and fascinating exhibit includes photos, letters and other artifacts from the private family collection as well as various archives that until now have never been exhibited in Israel. It tells the Dreyfus story from the perspective of his Jewish identity while focusing on the personal story of the family. It follows the family starting with the “Affair,” through both World Wars while weaving their story into the wider fabric of the integration of French Jews into French culture and society.

Standing not far from Ruiz at the exhibition opening was another French woman, Martine Le Blond, petit and elegant in that special je ne sais quoi-style of French women. Looming behind her on the wall was a collection of grotesque anti-Semitic caricature posters that were popular during the time of the Affair. One in particular shows the writer Emile Zola, who famously championed the Dreyfus cause. His head is attached to the body of a pig and he is portrayed squatting on his novels and using a porcine claw to paint the map of France with excrement.

“It’s abominable, it gives me a feeling of horror,” says Le Blond, her face grimacing. Le Blond has a better reason than most to feel disgust. Emile Zola was her great-grandfather. Across the room from where she is standing is an original copy of the famous front page article. “J’Accuse…!” an impassioned cry for justice, which Zola penned in defense of Dreyfus. Zola accused top army generals, ministers and judges of covering up the identity of the real traitor. Zola’s polemic rocked France right down to its revolutionary soul and its impact reverberated throughout the world.

Le Blond came to the opening of the exhibition in Tel Aviv out of friendship to Ruiz. The two descendants of Dreyfus and Zola, whose legacies are inextricably intertwined, are fast friends. Each sees herself as the torch bearer of her great-grandfather’s legacy.

“Growing up as the great-grand daughter of Alfred Dreyfus gave me a sense of responsibility and taught me not to complain too much because my great-grandfather spent five years on Devil’s Island,” says Ruiz.

Each year on the first Sunday in October, members of the Dreyfus family make a pilgrimage to the Emil Zola house in Medan, just 40 kilometers out of Paris, along with other Zola enthusiasts. Le Blond had visited Ruiz’s mother while she was still alive.

“The story of my family is bound up with the story of the Dreyfus family, the connection between us is direct,” says Le Blond.

Zola was a prolific and world-famous writer. Asked what she is most proud of in her great-grandfather’s legacy, Le Blond replies without hesitation “His ‘J’accuse ….!’ Article for justice and tolerance. He was making an example for future generations. He paid a heavy cost for that.”

Three weeks after “J’Accuse…!” was published, Zola was indicted for criminal libel and sentenced to a year in prison. He fled to England and lived in exile until the charges against him were dropped a year later. In 1902 he died of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide in his home. There was speculation that his opponents obstructed the chimney of his apartment. During the opening ceremony when Le Blond was introduced, she got up to thundering applause from the audience.

“She told me that she goes to many Zola conferences and symposiums, and this was the first time that she got such a warm welcome for Zola. She was touched and so was I,” Ruiz tells The Jerusalem Report a few days later on the phone from Paris.

The Affair began in September 1894, when an Alsatian cleaning woman, who was actually a French intelligence agent working at the German Embassy in Paris, fished from the wastepaper basket a note offering to sell French military secrets.

When suspicion fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the army general staff, he was a 35-year old married man and a father of two, working as a trainee at French army general staff headquarters. Dreyfus was not the author of the note. It was not in his handwriting, He did not confess. In short, there was no hard evidence linking him to the crime.

In December 1894, after a court martial at which most of the so-called evidence was presented in secret, Dreyfus was convincted of treason and sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South America. But first he had to undergo a ceremony so mortifying that its repercussions shook France for decades.

The day before the ceremony a tailor came to his cell and removed all the buttons and stripes from his tunic and trousers, and sewed them back on with a single stitch. A sword smith filed his sword nearly in half to make it easy to be broken with a single gesture.

Then, on a cold, clear morning on January 5, 1895, thousands of troops were massed in the cobblestone courtyard of the Ecole Militaire to watch Dreyfus’ humiliation. Just across the Champs de Mars loomed the Eiffel Tower, constructed six years earlier, a proud symbol of European modernity, while outside the courtyard, held behind police barricades, a countervailing wave of hatred rose up from an agitated mob that called “Death to the Jews” in a scene evocative of medieval times, of inquisitions, pogroms and auto-da-fés.

Dreyfus was led into the center of the courtyard where he stood at attention. The verdict was read and an adjutant of the Republican Guard walked up to him, and with a quick, sharp movement broke Dreyfus’ sword across his knee, throwing the pieces on the ground. Then he cut the buttons and military insignia off Dreyfus’ uniform and threw these on the ground.

Dreyfus shouted “Vive la France! You have degraded an innocent man. I swear that I am innocent,” but his words were drowned out by the howl of the crowd yelling. “Death to the Jews.” Among the journalists covering the ceremony was a young Viennese reporter by the name of Theodore Herzl. The Dreyfus Affair influenced the formation of Herzl’s Zionistic ideas.

In the following years until the pardon in 1906, partisans lined up on either side; Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne thought Dreyfus was guilty; Pissarro Cassatt, and Monet defended him. During Dreyfus’ long years on the island, his wife Lucie, brother Mathieu, and a band of supporters fought for his innocence and, after five years, obtained a retrial. Dreyfus was once again found guilty but, due to his weakened physical state, he received a presidential pardon and returned to his family. It would take seven more years for his name to be cleared. Dreyfus’ chief accuser was an officer named Armand Mercier du Paty. Many years later, Du Paty’s son would be appointed commissioner of Jewish Affairs for the Vichy government, the same government that in 1944 deported Alfred Dreyfus’ 25-year-old granddaughter, Madeline, to Auschwitz.

One of the exhibits in Beit Hatfutsot is the damning note that started the whole affair and on two sides, a sample of Dreyfus’ handwriting and that of the real traitor. Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, an infantry major in the French army.

“You can see with a naked eye that it is not Dreyfus’ handwriting,” says Simona Di Nepi, the exhibition curator.

One of Ruiz’s motives for lobbying for the exhibit was to show a side of her great-grandfather unknown to the public. He was often portrayed as a cold and distant man.

“It’s not true,” she says. “He was a warm and affectionate man. Just read one of the letters to his wife.”

In one dated January 31, 1895, he writes, “Until now, I had a moment of happiness every day when your letter arrived. It conveyed an echo of all of you, a reverberation of all of your sympathy, which warmed my miserable, cold heart. I read your letters four or five times, devouring every word ― slowly, slowly the written words turned to words spoken … it seemed like I could hear you speaking near me. Ah! The sound of pleasant music touching my soul! It is more than four days, and nothing but silent sorrow, dreadful loneliness.”

Another says, “I hug you one thousand times. I love and adore you, Lucie my dear. A thousand kisses to the children. I don’t dare to say to you more about them. Tears fill my eyes when I think about them.”

The exhibit shows Dreyfus’ Jewish roots. There is an invitation to the marriage of Alfred and Lucie, the young couple’s ketuba, marriage contract, and Lucie Dreyfus’ ivory-covered siddur, a prayerbook with her monogram. Ruiz donated an embroidered tapestry commemorating the Jewish pilgrimage festivals that had been in Alfred and Lucie’s home.

“My mother told me that the tapestry had been in their home and she left it to me when she died. It shows that he may have been assimilated but that he was attached to his Jewish roots,” she says.

Among the artifacts in the exhibit are copies of sketches, monotonously repetitive doodles reminiscent of complex Celtic designs that cover page after page in a notebook that Dreyfus kept during his years of solitary confinement on Devils’ Island. His prison cell had been altered to keep him from seeing the ocean. On the margins he incorporated quotes from the great writers, comments on philosophical essays and excerpts of poems, especially Shakespeare.

“You ask yourself when you delve into this material how he kept his sanity. Maybe the doodles helped and his love of literature. He always believed in the most desperate moments that he would one day see his family. He didn’t see that there was a conspiracy against him. He thought it was an honest mistake. He kept defending the army and defending France until the end,” says Di Nepi.

During World War I Dreyfus served as an artillery colonel in Verdun and his son, Pierre, served as a lieutenant and later as a captain on the Western Front. Dreyfus’ two nephew, who also fought as artillery officers, died in the war. Alfred and Lucie’s direct descendants, including his last living grandson, Charles Dreyfus, 87, who attended the opening of the exhibit, all live in France.

“There are so many reasons why this Affair is still compelling to all of us and, in particular, to us as Jews,” says Di Nepi. “No doubt it’s a story of anti-Semitism in modern Europe and especially in post-emancipation France. It’s also a story of human rights and the value of the human life of an individual versus the interest of the state. These are universal, timeless questions that come up again and again.”

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