Her Love for France’s First Jewish Prime Minister Made Her Follow Him to Buchenwald

Jeanne Levylier was smitten with Léon Blum when she was 16 and he was 43. She asked to be allowed to join her beloved in Buchenwald, marry him and be a partner in whatever fate awaited him – as seen in a new film

Gaby Levin
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Jeanne and Léon Blum in Switzerland, 1946.
Jeanne and Léon Blum in Switzerland, 1946.Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho
Gaby Levin

More than once, when the journalist Dominique Torrès would recount the incredible story of her grandmother Jeanne "Janot" Blum – wife of the three-time French Prime Minister Léon Blum – she was asked: “How could they not make a movie about this?” Well, that movie is now being released. “Je ne rêve que de vous” (“I Only Dream of You”) is being shown at the Haifa International Film Festival next month.

“The audience has received the film with great excitement; people had tears in their eyes,” says the historian Dominique Missika, on whose book “Je vous promets de revenir” (“I Promise You I Will Return”) the screenplay was based. “Most people nowadays are unfamiliar with the romantic side of Léon Blum, or with the hostility and vindictiveness directed at him by the Vichy regime.”

The Socialist Léon Blum (1872-1950) entered history with the Popular Front movement, which he led when it won the French parliamentary election of 1936. As prime minister he pushed through two landmark laws: paid vacations and a 40-hour work week.

It’s hard to describe the contemporary significance of these laws. There was a feeling of euphoria in the air; some people found themselves going to the beach for the first time. Hope reigned throughout the land, and an entire folklore developed, replete with songs and films expressing the enthusiasm, energy and hope for a new future.

Yet all around, Europe was beset by storms; for one, a civil war raging in Spain, to which Blum refused to send French forces to fight alongside the Spanish Republicans, a move he eternally regretted. And of course, the Nazis in Germany were preparing for war. In 1938, Blum was forced to resign under pressure from the Senate. Once he left, the anti-Semitic attacks on him and his supporters began in earnest.

"M. and Mme. Leon Blum, ex-premier of France, both of whom were interned in the notorious horror camps of Buchenwald and Dachau are now in London for a short holiday"Credit: AP

“Léon Blum represented everything the French right despised: He was Jewish, educated, the scion of a well-to-do family, and among the most ardent supporters of Dreyfus,” Missika says. “In the ‘20s he was at the forefront of the literary salons; he was elegant, exuded charm, was surrounded by women and dreamed of a career as a literary critic.”

His encounter with the Socialist Jean Jaurès changed life. Blum chose to enter politics on the side of the Socialists.

“For him, 1938 was too difficult to bear,” Missika says. “He was thrown into a state of depression by the death of his wife Thérèse, and the anti-Semitic attacks on him didn’t improve the situation. With the entry of German forces into France in 1940, and the stinging defeat of the French army, the Vichy government ordered Blum’s arrest and incarceration until the trial against him and his associates, which was held in 1943 in the city of Riom.”

Blum was accused of “infecting the French people with the virus of indolence,” and of “not properly preparing the army for the war."

“In other words, he was the guilty party behind the great defeat of France and its occupation by the Reich,” Missika says. “Despite the glowing speech in his defense, the Vichy government handed him over to the Nazis, who sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp along with other politicians opposed to the regime.”

Dazzling the ladies

It’s here that Jeanne Reichenbach, formerly known as Jeanne Torrès, comes into the picture. She was born Jeanne Levylier in 1899 into a very wealthy Jewish family. Her stepfather was a senator, and the family salon attracted men of letters, artists and politicians. One of them was a tall and slender man, always impeccably dressed, who enchanted the women. Léon Blum.

“Jeanne was 16, a tall and shy young woman,” Missika says. “She gazed admiringly at the 43-year-old Blum, who was then married to his first wife and who of course paid no mind to the young woman who gobbled him up with her eyes.”

Elsa Zylberstein, left, as Jeanne Blum in the 2019 French film “Je ne rêve que de vous.” Credit: Mazel Productions

Despite her love for Blum, when she was 20 she married a brilliant man with a stormy temperament, a Jewish attorney named Henri Torrès. He became famous as a defender of anarchists and Spanish Republicans.

Torrès was surrounded by artists and men of letters but lived the life of an adventurer and a skirt chaser. Jeanne thus divorced Torrès after having two sons with him, even if her departure was frowned upon. She then supported herself by designing upscale stores, and soon married Henri Reichenbach, a wealthy Jew who owned the retail chain Prisunic.

“Ever since 1938, the year Thérèse Blum died, Jeanne Reichenbach had been wooing the fresh widower, her first love,” Missika says. “She didn’t conceal from Reichenbach her contacts with Blum, even though more than once he threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him.”

In 1940, when the war broke out, she concentrated on the welfare of her sons, and hid her older (and sickly) son Jean with the family’s servant, while her younger son Georges decided to leave France and join his father, who had left for Brazil.

“Only when she was assured that her sons were safe did she tell Reichenbach that she was leaving him to join Blum near where he was being detained, at the Fort de Chazeron,” Missika says. “The husband submissively accepted the decision of his wife and left for Brazil, too. It was there that he made good on his threat and ended his life.”

Since she wasn’t a member of Blum’s family, Jeanne wasn’t allowed to visit him in his prison cell. At the end of the Riom trials in March 1943, he was transferred to Buchenwald with his former deputy premier, Édouard Daladier, and other politicians.

“Here Jeanne proved her unbelievable courage,” Missika says. “She managed to be admitted for a meeting with one of the greatest anti-Semites of the time, the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, and asked to be allowed to join her beloved in Buchenwald, marry him and be a partner in whatever fate awaited him. Thus, escorted by SS officers, she made her way, against all odds, into Buchenwald as a guest of Himmler to his hunting lodge there.”

Even before the war, SS chief Heinrich Himmler had built for himself a two-story hunting lodge near an oak tree in whose shade Goethe once sat and wrote. Blum and other statesmen were heavily guarded when they were outside the fences of the camp, where they were housed in barracks surrounded by walls. These notables were supposed to serve as bargaining chips at the end of the war in order to free high-ranking Nazi prisoners; they weren’t aware of the atrocities being committed just hundreds of yards from Himmler’s lodge.

Léon and Jeanne didn’t delude themselves about the possible fate awaiting them. Despite their fears, after two years in Buchenwald they married in a civil ceremony conducted by an SS officer, and were held in relative comfort but with the constant expectation that they would be sent to their deaths. On April 1, 1945, they were sent by the SS on a month-long march to the south, away from the rapidly advancing Allied armies.

The march ended on May 4 near the Dolomite Mountains in northeastern Italy, where they were abandoned by the SS. A few days later, Léon and Jeanne landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. “Janot was a woman in love, an energetic woman, perhaps a little hard, who was prepared to defy all the prohibitions and restrictions,” Missika says.

Blum's funeral

As journalist Dominique Torrès, Jeanne Blum’s granddaughter, recounts it, upon returning to Paris, her grandmother was informed that her son Georges had left Brazil for England, where he had enlisted in the Free French Forces. He crossed the English Channel with the Allied forces in June 1944, passing through liberated Paris and then on east. On November 8, 1944, he was killed near Strasbourg.

Elsa Zylberstein and Hippolyte Girardot as Jeanne and Léon Blum in the 2019 film “Je ne rêve que de vous.”Credit: Mazel Productions

About six months earlier, Georges had married Tereska Szwarc, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, the daughter of the sculptor Marek Szwarc. In February 1945, Dominique was born in London. She never knew her father.

What memories do you have of your grandmother and your step-grandfather Léon Blum?

“When Janot heard about her son’s marriage and my birth, she wrote an emotional letter to my mother in which she called her ‘my daughter’ and let her know that she was looking forward to welcoming us with open arms. At first we spent time in their large home in the town of Jouy-en-Josas, not far from Versailles.

“My memories of Léon Blum, whom I used to call ‘Grapi,’ actually focus more on his death. I was 5. They put a bouquet of violets in my hand, and I placed them by his body in the open coffin. I also remember the pride I felt during the funeral when the presidential guard cleared a path for us and said ‘let the family pass through.’ The memories are hazy, but I mainly remember the human warmth.”

And your grandmother Jeanne?

“Before the Six-Day War, when I decided to go to Israel, she helped me acquire press credentials. This launched me on my professional career. [Until her retirement, Torrès was a senior correspondent for public television station France 2.] It was the only time in her life that she pulled strings for me.

“I remember that she visited Israel, Kibbutz Kfar Blum, which is named after her husband, and she met with Golda Meir. My mother, Tereska, who was then living in Israel, was present at the meeting, and told me that the two women spoke at the same time, didn’t listen to each other, and at the end each said about the other that ‘she’s a wonderful woman.’”

What about the school for at-risk children that she established for dropouts?

“Until Léon’s death, she lived her life as a wife to her husband, and in his later years she devoted herself to caring for him. Following his death, when she was 51, she studied education and psychology at the Sorbonne. In 1970, she founded the school that bears her name, for young people but in particular for young women who have dropped out of school.

“The school is in Jouy-en-Josas near their home, which has been turned into a museum. She also created a special learning technique based on connections between unexpected words that helps people who have a hard time expressing themselves.”

Not long ago, Torrès’ memoir, which translates as “Don’t Call Me a Heroine,” was published in France. She devotes a chapter to ‘Grapi’ and Jeanne Blum, and tells about her grandmother’s suicide.

“Blum and Janot had decided to die together but she lived another 32 years without him. She wrote a doctoral thesis and also took care of her son Jean, who was gradually going blind. In early 1982, she told me that she intended to commit suicide within six months and that she was getting her papers in order.

“She told me this in a cold and decisive tone, as if it were someone else. Over the next few months she would bring me cardboard boxes with objects, silverware, clothes. We lived near her home, with only a little wooden gate separating our houses. All of a sudden she would show up with another box of souvenirs, and it was gut-wrenching. We knew it wouldn’t be possible to dissuade her.

“Rumors of her future suicide even reached President Mitterand, who sent a messenger to speak with her. Of course, he knocked at my door, but I explained to him that it was a lost cause. One day, Janot told my husband, ‘It’s going to happen tomorrow.’ We spent the entire night petrified. The next morning, we heard the gardener shouting; he had peered through the closed shutters and saw her.”

How would you describe Jeanne?

“To this day, I insist: She’s the smartest person I’ve ever known, and only a person like Léon Blum could have been her partner. She had a wisdom that was ahead of its time – complex, abstract intellectual, slightly distant. As a scion of the haute bourgeoisie, she knew how to hold her own. I was greatly influenced by her; you could say she molded me and I molded myself against her."

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