Of the many photographs of Alfred Dreyfus on display in the stunning new retrospective of his life and saga at the Beit Hatfutsot museum in Tel Aviv, curator Simona Di Nepi has a particular favorite.
In it, the French artillery officer, whose wrongful conviction for treason serves as one of the most potent distillations of anti-Semitism in modern times, sits in a quiet backyard in Macolin, Switzerland, holding three of his grandchildren – Nicole, Francois and Charles – close. The black-and-white image, which was snapped some 30 years after he was officially exonerated of the crime of passing secrets to the German army, shows an entirely different man than the stone-faced, uniformed Dreyfus so many know from their history textbooks. Here, Dreyfus is snowy-haired, relaxed, and casually dressed, all the way down to a pair of bright white sneakers on his feet. This is the private Dreyfus, the man who before he found himself at the epicenter of one of Europe’s greatest political dramas, was a Shakespeare-loving newlywed who could quote philosophy and remembered hearing Yiddish in his childhood home.
It is this Dreyfus that Di Nepi was so eager to explore.
“We wanted to do something different,” says the Italian-born curator, who pored over thousands of pages of text and painstakingly translated dozens of documents into Hebrew, English and French in the year leading up to the exhibition. “Not just an exhibition about the Dreyfus affair, the story that everybody knows, but to add a different perspective on it. So what you get is an exhibition… that shows the public affair, as well as the private face of Dreyfus, the human side, the family side.”
The Dreyfus Affair, as it has come to be known, was an explosive political and military scandal whose reverberations were felt beyond the borders of France and throughout the entire Jewish world. In 1894, French officers learned that a high-ranking staff member had been slipping secrets to the German military, and they pointed their fingers at Alfred Dreyfus, a highly educated Jewish French artillery officer, who was summarily convicted, publicly humiliated and stripped of his uniform, and shipped off to isolation in the remote penal colony of Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana.
The true traitor was eventually named and Dreyfus was proven innocent, but not before he had served four soul-shattering years on Devil’s Island and sent all of France into a dizzying debate about anti-Semitism, the power of a hysterical press and the value of honor and trust within military circles. His story is intertwined with that of several great intellectuals, including Emile Zola, his passionate defender, and Theodor Herzl, who is said to have been spurred into writing his great treatise on Zionism, “The Jewish State,” after covering Dreyfus’s trial as a newspaper correspondent and hearing the crowd scream out “Death to the Jews!”
Dreyfus became a symbol, a man in uniform known much more for what he represented than for what he was made of. It was his great-granddaughter, Yael Perl Ruiz, who decided to change that.
“It was very important for me to show the other side, the family side, to show that he was not the cold man people speak about,” Perl Ruiz says by phone from Paris, where she lives today. “It’s a side that’s not well known, and that is important to show.”
During a visit to Tel Aviv, Perl Ruiz saw Beit Hatfutsot, and felt that its setting – a museum committed to telling the story of the Jewish people, set smack in the center of the campus of Tel Aviv University – was ideal for an exhibition about her great-grandfather. She reached out to the museum, and helped organize the exhibit along with a symposium held earlier this month. The exhibit itself is a major collaboration with the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
The symposium and opening was a family reunion of sorts. Eighty-seven-year-old Charles Dreyfus, Alfred’s grandson and the only living relative today who knew Alfred when he was alive, made the journey from France for the exhibit, as did Martine Le Blond Zola, Emile Zola’s great-granddaughter. Together with Perl Ruiz, they gathered in the gallery of Beit Hatafutsot, part of which has been refashioned into an old-style Parisian café littered with newspapers cataloguing the affair, and another corner that showcases Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus’s marriage ketubah alongside stunning enlargements of their intimate love letters.
“The hard part for me, was how do we make an exhibition that is so paper-based, based on newspapers, letters and posters? How do we give it a sense of three-dimensionality?” says Di Nepi. “Otherwise it would be flat.”
The solution lay in carving in the gallery into three spaces, one filled with newspaper clippings and the startling anti-Semitic magazine caricatures that catalogued the affair. A second section, painted blush pink, cracks open the crowded brain and heart of Dreyfus to show his hand-written love letters to his wife Lucie, as well as the fevered sketches and desperate translations of Shakespeare, scrawled out from memory, that he filled his journals with while imprisoned on Devil’s Island.
In a third corner, anchored by video that includes testimony from Perl Ruiz herself, Di Nepi has laid out the tragedy of the Dreyfus family and all French Jews during World War II, followed by their rebirth and triumph in the modern age.
Perl Ruiz says she learned about her famous great-grandfather when she was 12 years old and her mother gave her a copy of Alfred Dreyfus’s book, “Five Years of My Life.” It struck her, she says, with a mission that she continues to carry out today.
“I began to realize what anti-Semitism is. I had grown up in a protected atmosphere and didn’t really know what it was,” she says. “We have to transmit this story, and we have to fight both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. And when there is a subject like this, that is so important for you, you have to be engaged and fight for it.”