Dreyfus: A family affair

Beit Hatfutsot’s study of Alfred Dreyfus provides Jews today with food for thought.

Lucie and Alfred enjoy the fresh air in 1934. (photo credit: DREYFUS FAMILY COLLECTION)
Lucie and Alfred enjoy the fresh air in 1934.
The new Dreyfus exhibition, which opened at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv on March 11, is highly enlightening.
First and foremost, “Dreyfus – The Story of a French-Jewish Family” tells the story of Dreyfus the man. We all know about the infamous episode in French history. It became a dark landmark event when anti-Semitism – which was rife in France in the late 19th century, particularly in the upper echelons of society – reared its ugly head in the basest of manners.
In 1894, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent, was stripped of his rank in a most humiliating public ceremony and sentenced to life imprisonment for having allegedly communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years in appalling conditions.
The incident sent shock waves through Western European Jewry, and even Emile Zola, the celebrated non- Jewish writer, who was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902, was moved to publish an open letter to the French president on the front page of the Paris daily L’Aurore, under the now famous headline “J’accuse.”
Even though he was subsequently tried and found guilty of criminal libel, and was forced to flee to Britain for a while to avoid imprisonment, Zola’s initiative helped to eventually secure Dreyfus’s release from Devil’s Island, although it would be many years until Dreyfus was fully exonerated.
The official opening of the Beit Hatfutsot exhibition was attended by Yael Perl Ruiz, for whom Dreyfus was much more than an important historical figure – he was her great-grandfather. Ruiz says she has been aware of the Dreyfus Affair almost all her life. “My mother gave me his writings to read, what he wrote about the things he did when he was away from the world, on Devil’s Island. She gave me them to read when I was about 11 or 12 years old,” she recalls.
It was something of a wakeup call for the young girl. “It was quite hard for me to accept because it was the first time I had been confronted with anti-Semitism. I had been living in a protected environment, and I didn’t know about these things. It was quite a shock for me to know he was my great-grandfather and that these things happened to him.”
EVEN SO, Ruiz does not have the sense that the injustice wrought on her antecedent was an ever-present component of her formative years. “I think it was more that we didn’t talk it about in the family if we didn’t have to,” she muses. “But I have a brother who says we did talk about it. But I am the fifth of six children so maybe my parents talked to the older ones about it, but not to us younger ones.”
However, for Ruiz there was no avoiding the familial link and, at the end of the day she says she reaped the benefit of it. “I had to be at the level of Dreyfus. I mean, I always had to remember to behave myself, and be strong and not to complain, and all because of him.”
That sounds like a lot to deal with for a teenager, but Ruiz says she does not lament her early, possibly rude, awakening from the innocence of childhood. “It is part of my education. It made me who I am today, so I am grateful to my parents that I have a lot of etiquette and am a responsible person. So it is not bad.”
Ruiz believes that the sorry affair of her great-grandfather’s tribulations should be remembered, and feels that the importance of the historic event has become devalued over the years. “It was a judicial crime. Today we often use the [idea of the] Dreyfus Affair as if it was nothing. People say, if they want justice, they say it is a Dreyfus Affair. Even in Israel I have heard people say, ‘I am Dreyfus. I am waiting for my Zola.’ I don’t like to hear that at all.”
According to Ruiz, comparing contemporary predicaments with her great-grandfather’s personal and historical context is unacceptable and misleading. “The Dreyfus Affair happened in a different time. Back then, the church was anti- Semitic, the government was anti-Semitic, the army was anti-Semitic, so you cannot compare those times with today.”
“The Story of a French- Jewish Family” exhibition introduces the public to the intimacy of the Dreyfus family, through various artifacts from the family home – including a beautifully bound prayer book that belonged to Dreyfus’s devoted wife, Lucie, and evocative pictures of the family before the disgraced captain was pardoned, as well as photographs from after his repatriation.
There is also some heartrending correspondence between Alfred and Lucie. From the depths of despair, far away from his family and the comforts of the life he once knew, Dreyfus writes of his battle for spiritual and emotional survival in the penal colony, and there is an excruciating sketch of the shackles which were used to confine him to his bed for six long weeks. Dreyfus also employed his well-developed grasp of illustrative aesthetics to decorate a notebook with fetching, complex intertwined line figures.
NATURALLY, THE show also features plenty of official and media documentation of the time, including a horrifyingly vulgar series of posters which ran publicly for several weeks, until eventually stopped. One, for example, depicts Zola as a pig daubing the map of France with excrement, while another shows Dreyfus as a monstrous many-headed serpent.
Despite the indignities and injustices he endured, Ruiz says her greatgrandfather never displayed bitterness. “My mother knew him very well – she was the oldest of the grandchildren. She said Alfred never talked about his experiences, and he never complained.”
Indeed, the pictures of Dreyfus in full military regalia, taken during World War I, and the latest shot of him in the museum, taken in 1930, capture the smiling face of a man who appears to be content with his lot. “My mother says he was full of tenderness, and loved being with his grandkids,” notes Ruiz.
But there were times when Dreyfus could not contain the emotional backlash of the horrors he went through. “My mother said he used to scream at night, and had nightmares,” Ruiz continues, “and my mother was traumatized by that.
My great-grandfather was concerned by anti-Semitism until the day he died. He was also, naturally, concerned about the effect that could have on his own family.”
Having sat with, and seen the exhibition together with, the greatgranddaughter of a man who for most people is a historic figure rather than a person with a family and a life of his own, I got the impression that a lot of emotion went into putting “Dreyfus – The Story of a French-Jewish Family” together.
“Inspiring is a word that is often thrown around,” notes curator Simona Di Nepi. “However, at different stages in the preparation of this exhibition I found myself thinking of this word, reflecting on how truly inspiring the protagonists of the affair are.”
Di Nepi says that Dreyfus not only fought the French establishment to protest his innocence, but he also showed great fortitude as a prisoner. “Alfred, translating Shakespeare and studying Kant to fight insanity on Devil’s Island, Lucie back in Paris, managing against all odds to shield her young children from vicious propaganda, while at the same time keeping her husband alive through her love letters.”
THE CURATOR was also keen to show how the affair impacted on the wider picture. Theodor Herzl was famously present, as Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse Viennese newspaper, at the degrading military ceremony. She notes that the anti-Semitic cries of the crowd at the military event, and the campaign led by the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole, edited by journalist and polemicist Edouard Drumont, which at the time ran a comic strip about the affair titled “History of a Traitor,” all left an indelible imprint on Herzl’s mind and heart.
But the guiding motivation behind the exhibition was to shed new light on the life of the man who unwittingly found himself at the center of a political storm. “The world knows what made the headlines then,” says Di Nepi. “But there have already been several exhibitions about the Dreyfus Affair, over the years. So we decided to do something a bit different, and that is to explore the private family side of the affair, mainly through the letters exchanged between Alfred, his wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu, and through objects that come from his own collection. Some were generously given by Yael [Ruiz] herself, and others by the Jewish Museum in Paris.”
Di Nepi also gained access to a valuable repository of Dreyfus artifacts which had lain dormant for many years.
“In 1975, Jeanne, Yael’s grandmother, came to Israel and gave an important family archive to the National Library of Israel. That included letters by people such as Zola, Bernard Lazare [the late 19th-century Jewish French writer who published an important study on anti- Semitism], and also documents and posters. There was a small exhibition at the time, and then everyone forgot about the archive.”
But the time was clearly ripe for the Dreyfus family belongings to be unearthed. “Yael started thinking about having this exhibition two years ago, and it was about the same time that the National Library rediscovered the archive,” notes Di Nepi, adding that Dr. Betty Halpern, fellow of the Institute for the Study of Religions at the Sorbonne in Paris, and a selector of French acquisitions for the National Library in Jerusalem, was instrumental in bringing the family collection back to the country’s consciousness. “Betty saw the archive and said the things cannot be left in the library, and that’s how they got be in this exhibition,” explains Ruiz.
The aforementioned items, and others from the Beit Hatfutsot exhibition, are now available to Internet users around the globe, but virtual observation cannot possibly offer the same viewing immediacy experience of visiting the show and seeing the artifacts right in front of you.
For her part, Di Nepi would like the visitors to leave the exhibition not only with some historical facts and some insight into the ordeal which Dreyfus and the members of his family experienced, but also with some food for thought. “The exhibition concludes with a documentary examining the affair from a contemporary perspective,” notes the curator. “What does it mean to be Jewish in France today? How did the Dreyfus Affair shape the identity of French Jews? These are some of the questions the film asks in interviews with Dreyfus’s descendants and foremost Jewish intellectuals.
“The film brings ‘Dreyfus: A Story of a French-Jewish Family’ to a close and into our time. We hope that this exhibition offers an opportunity for new meaning when, as observers and participants, we reflect on what the affair is to us today, in Israel, 120 years later.”
For more information about “Dreyfus – The Story of a French-Jewish Family”: (03) 745-7808 and