For most people in the world, Alfred Dreyfus is a symbol. The famous trial of the French Jewish captain, falsely convicted of treason in 1894, exposed deep-rooted anti-Semitism in the land of emancipation, ultimately convincing a young reporter named Theodor Herzl that the Jews needed to have their own homeland.
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But for his great-granddaughter, Yael Perl Ruiz, he was also a family man, an extremely private, but also very passionate, family man.
Perl Ruiz is the driving force behind a new exhibit that opens on March 11 at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People dedicated primarily to this unknown facet of the iconic Jewish figure. “Dreyfus – the Story of a French Jewish Family” 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.
“For me, this is about showing that Dreyfus was also a human being, not just a symbol,” noted the Parisian-based fashion designer, in an interview with Haaretz. “There is a man behind the symbol. It is also about rehabilitating the image of my great-grandfather because there are some people who say he was a very cold and haughty man. It’s enough to read one of his letters to know he was not this cold man. Someone who writes such love letters to his wife cannot be a cold man.”
In addition to organizing the exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot, in partnership with the Israeli National Library, Perl Ruiz has also put together a special symposium to be held this week at Tel Aviv University on the Dreyfus Affair. Among those attending the symposium will be her good friend, Martine Le Blond Zola, the great-granddaughter of the writer Emile Zola, whose famous headline piece “J’accuse” accused the French government of anti-Semitism for falsely convicting Dreyfus. “This will be Martine’s first trip to Israel,” notes Perl Ruiz, “so it will be very emotional.”
A mother of two, Perl Ruiz is a regular visitor to Israel, such a frequent visitor, in fact, “that my friends say I’m not French – I am Israeli.” All of Dreyfus’s direct descendants, including his last living grandchild, 87-year-old Charles Dreyfus, reside in France today, though Perl Ruiz says she was thrilled to discover several years ago a descendant of a cousin of her great-grandfather’s living in Jerusalem.
Dreyfus and his wife Lucie had two children, Pierre and Jeanne. Perl Ruiz is the daughter of Simone, the oldest of Jeanne’s four children.
What was it like growing up in the shadow of a man who had such a profound influence on modern Jewish history?
“It was a big deal. I was the fifth of six children and my mother only told me the story of the Dreyfus Affair when I was 11 years old. I was very disturbed by it, and this is how I learned about anti-Semitism. At home we didn’t talk about it much, but at times, my mother would say things like we should be strong and if we hurt ourselves we shouldn’t complain.”
What do you recall your mother telling you about her grandfather?
“She remembered him as a tender and affectionate man who liked to be surrounded by his grandchildren, but he didn’t talk a lot. At night, she remembers that he would scream out a lot in his sleep from nightmares. She was very shocked by that when she was young. All his life my great-grandfather suffered from the years he was imprisoned and especially from the ordeal he experienced when they would chain him to his bed. He had many nightmares about that. But he was the type of person who kept things to himself.”
After he was convicted of spying for Germany, Dreyfus was stripped of his military ranks in a humiliating ceremony and shipped off to Devil’s Island, just off the coast of South America, where he spent four years in isolation. It took 12 years, however, until he was fully exonerated. During those years in isolation, when he even contemplated suicide out of desperation, it was the letters he received from his wife and his older brother, Mathieu, says his great-granddaughter, that sustained him.
Quite of few of these letters will be on display at the exhibit scheduled to run through mid-September. Dreyfus and Lucie had been married for four years and had two young children when he was sent to Devil’s Island.
Passionate love letters
The exhibit will also carry some of the passionate love letters written by Dreyfus to his wife, among them one dated January 31, 1895, in which he writes:
“At last, a blissful day has come when I am able to write to you. I count those days, alas, those days of joy! Indeed, I haven’t received any letter from you since the one given to me last Sunday. Such torment! 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.”
Among the other artifacts to be unveiled at the exhibit are the Dreyfuses ketuba (Jewish marriage certificate), an invitation to their wedding and Lucie Dreyfus’s ivory-covered, initialized Jewish prayer book. Rare photos of Dreyfus as a young soldier and a dapper young man in a top hat are part of the exhibit, as are quite a few from his later years, surrounded by his grandchildren. Dreyfus died in 1935 at age 75.
A soldier and an artist
Among some of the other important artifacts included in the exhibit are copies of sketches Dreyfus drew during the years he spent on Devil’s Island. In these very detailed sketches, he incorporates quotes from Shakespeare, Kant and other great writers and thinkers, along with mathematical formulas. “It is not well-known, but at one point in his life Dreyfus taught drawing and mathematics in a boys’ school,” notes Simona Di Nepi, the curator of the exhibit. “He was a very emotional and sensitive man and also quite an intellectual – very different from the image of the typical military man.”
The exhibit follows the family through World War II, when Lucie, her children and grandchildren were forced to flee Paris after the Nazis occupied the city and move to the south of France. Her granddaughter Madeline (Simone’s younger sister), who was a member of the French resistance, was caught by the Nazis and transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz in November 1943.
Asked what prompted her to organize this exhibit in Israel, Perl Ruiz responded: “The Dreyfus Affair is a way to get people to think about very important issues, like anti-Semitism, racism and freedom of the press. Today in France, the extreme right is gaining power, and the extreme left is anti-Zionist, so we are now in the middle of something that is not so nice, and we have to stay vigilant about it. The story of Dreyfus is also part of Israeli history, and Israel is very important to me.”
As you say, anti-Semitism is on the rise today and many French Jews are fleeing. Are things really as bad as some reports make it sound?
“No – today you can’t say that France is an anti-Semitic country. France is a place where you have anti-Semitic people, but our government is not anti-Semitic. It’s not the same situation that existed during the time of the Dreyfus affair.”