(a version appeared in Maclean’s Magazine)
Charles Dreyfus, in his mid-80’s, carries his famous name with dignity and his tall frame with military bearing, as he continues to be involved with the preservation of his grandfather’s legacy. His grandfather was Alfred Dreyfus, the protagonist of the Dreyfus Affair, the greatest cause celebre in French history. The shameful saga, now over a century old, is well known: the French Captain, an Alsatian Jew, was framed, falsely accused of espionage and sent to the hell hole of Devil’s Island for five years. The case divided France and mobilized the likes of Emile Zola, whose article, J’Accuse, rocked France and eventually contributed to Dreyfus’ release in 1899. In l906, the Captain was granted a full exoneration and awarded the Legion of Honor..He fought in World War I and emerged a lieutenant-colonel.
Still, insists Charles as if it were today, “Grandfather was denied the seniority that would have allowed him to retire with the rank he deserved”. As the most active Dreyfus heir, Charles, gentlemanly and eloquent, continues to have a say in how his grandfather is remembered. He has delivered speeches at conferences and at the French Supreme Court. In 2006, he was asked to appear at a commemoration at the Ecole Militaire, presided over by then President Jacques Chirac. It was the very site where the “ceremony of degradation” was held in 1894.
“I was interviewed and became a celebrity for two days,” he recounts with a modest half- smile.
He dismisses the criticism of Alfred for being too reticent, too passive. “They had to find a justification for arresting him knowing he was innocent; so they say he may not have been guilty but he was so uninteresting.”
“Grandfather was a man of great culture”, he explains. In his journals, kept when he was incarcerated at Devil’s Island, he filled 30 notebooks. “He wrote about writers like Montaigne; he translated Shakespeare. He did math problems. That is what saved him, he was able to keep his mind active and not go mad”
Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935, when his grandson was eight years old. For decades after there was silence. ”People didn’t want to discuss it – it was not a glorious part of French history”. But in l994, a series of Dreyfus centennial commemorations began and lasted for over a decade. “From the time of grandfather’s arrest to the full clearing it took twelve years”.
Charles became more than a speaker. He had the last word on whether to move a statue of Dreyfus from its present location in a parkette on the Blvd. Raspail to the Ecole Militaire. (He said no, because it wouldn’t be visible to the public).A copy of the statue resides in the courtyard of the Jewish Museum of Art and History.
When, a few years ago, US Jewish groups called for a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival as a way of protesting French anti-semitism, and invoked the Dreyfus name, Charles Dreyfus sent them an email with his own protest. “In France today, you don’t see traditional anti-semitism – what you do see is an extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I certainly don’t feel threatened here.” Some of the most popular politicians in France are Jewish, he notes, citing Simone Weil and Jack Lang.
Charles is now preserving the memory of his grandfather through his role as Vice President of an association that is raising money for a museum in Medan, outside of Paris. It includes the home that belonged to Emil Zola, and is called Maison Zola-Musee Dreyfus. The hyphen is fitting, and so is the other VP: Martine le Blond-Zola, great grand-daughter of the writer.
“The families are still close”, Charles says of the Dreyfus and Zola descendants. He pulls out a box of old photos of the Zolas and of the Dreyfus family: Charles has three sisters and a 90 year-old cousin (three other cousins are deceased). “There are lots of grand-children and great-grand-children,” he grins proudly.
And now the Dreyfus Affair has surfaced in the Anglophone world with a series of books and lengthy articles.. It started with Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters..which that in a post 9/11 world, security is being allowed to compromise human rights and the rules of justice.
Charles Dreyfus find the book interesting, and sympathetic, “although a bit of a stretch” Still, he maintains, “the Dreyfus Affair is a symbol of miscarriage of justice, intolerance and prejudice. The head of the Supreme Court said it was “an error voluntarily committed”.