This Day in Jewish History |

1945: Dreyfus's Widow Dies

Lucie Dreyfus’s letters to her 'darling Fred' sustained him through his painful ordeal, as did the knowledge that she had shielded their children from the case.

David Green
David B. Green
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Alfred Dreyfus.
Alfred Dreyfus.Credit: Courtesy
David Green
David B. Green

On December 14, 1945, Lucie Dreyfus, the widow of the Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, died.

Born Lucie Eugenie Hadamard in 1871, the woman who would remain loyal to her husband throughout his 12-year ordeal – in which he was framed as a traitor to the French army, convicted and sent to a penal colony in the South Atlantic – came from a well-off, prominent Jewish family. Her father had followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as a diamond merchant, and when Lucie married the young officer Dreyfus, she came with a generous dowry. At the time of Dreyfus’s initial arrest, in October 1894, he had an annual income of 40,000 francs (a typical second lieutenant in the army had a salary one-twentieth that amount), which only made more preposterous the charge that he had sold military secrets for monetary gain.

Alfred Dreyfus, too, came from a well-off Jewish family, with its roots in Alsace, but one more assimiliated than Lucie’s: She observed Jewish holidays, studied Jewish topics, and remained involved in Jewish communal affairs to the end of her dramatic life. The couple were married in 1890, and they had two children, Pierre (born 1891) and Jeanne (born 1893). Only a year after he began working as a trainee -- and the only Jewish officer -- in the army’s General Staff headquarters, Dreyfus had his life turned upside down, after the army learned that information about new weaponry was being passed to the Germans, and suspicion fell on him. He was arrested and tried and convicted in a secret court martial, and sentenced on January 5, 1895, to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, in French Guiana.

Evidence soon emerged that another officer was the real spy and that a conspiracy had framed Dreyfus, but it was not until 1899, and a bitter public battle over the case, that he was released from his imprisonment and pardoned by President Emile Lubet, and not until 1906 that he was officially exonerated and restored to the ranks of the French Army. Dreyfus continued to serve through World War I, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and dying in 1935, at age 75.

Dreyfus family letters reveal the depth of Lucie’s love and loyalty to her husband (at one point she expressed her readiness to join him in exile, explaining, “I shall not be able to live without you”) and also the cruelty of French officials in the extent to which they censored and distorted correspondence between the two. When Lucie would write encouragingly to Alfred about legal measures being taken on his behalf, the authorities would delete the information from her letters. In another case, a missive from Alfred was redacted so as to make it sound like he had resolved never to write her again. So distraught was the prisoner on Devil’s Island when he learned of this that he wrote to the governor of Guiana to protest: “By sending to Mme. Dreyfus only an excerpt from my letter an interpretation has been given which must have been more than painful for my dear wife.”

Lucie’s letters to her “darling Fred” sustained him through his painful ordeal, as did the knowledge that she had shielded their children from knowledge of the case. She made sure that he received reading material and food, and she was intimately involved in the legal campaign to reopen the case.

During World War I, once she could resume her own life, Lucie attained a nursing certificate and volunteered her services, and later cared for her husband in his ill health preceding his death. By 1940, as the Germans were closing in on Paris, she was 71 years old, but Lucie gathered together family members – her two adult children and eight grandchildren -- and fled for Vichy in the south. The group split up as they took refuge in various towns, but Lucie continued to keep in contact, financially support and even to visit her relations over the next two years. Most family members succeeded in escaping for the United States, but Lucie’s 22-year-old granddaughter Madeleine Dreyfus Levy, a social worker, insisted on stayed in Toulouse in order to continue her work in the Resistance, helping smuggle other Jews out of France. (She had three other siblings also involved with the Resistance.) Lucie assumed a false identity and was sheltered in a convent in Valence, where no one knew who she really was. Madeleine, however, was eventually arrested, sent to Drancy and then deported to Auschwitz, where she died in early 1944.

Lucie survived through liberation, dying on this date in 1945 of heart disease and tuberculosis. She was buried in a joint plot with her husband in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, and the marker on their grave also includes the name and fate of the granddaughter Madeleine, whose body of course was never found.

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