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 VOL. 23, NO. 14FEBRUARY 6, 1998 


L’AFFAIRE DREYFUS

Conference to Remember Zola on 100th Anniversary of the Dreyfus Affair


 BY SUZANNE TRIMEL

While the French undergo a reexamination of their World War II history, the centennial of Emile Zola’s celebrated 1898 letter “J’Accuse” denouncing the wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus will be commemorated during an international conference Feb. 13-15 at Columbia that will shed new light on anti-Semitism in France at the turn of the century.

  Two descendants of Dreyfus, his granddaughter, Simone Perl, and his grandson, Charles Dreyfus, will join scholars and French diplomats in New York at a reception Feb. 12 at Maison Française. Original documents, posters and artifacts from the Dreyfus era from one of the world’s most extensive private collections will be on display through Feb. 20, noon to 5:00 P.M. at the Maison. Many of the 100 items have never been on public view and include a letter in support of Dreyfus from President Teddy Roosevelt, anti-Semitic caricatures and rhetoric by the press of the period and games and novelties produced in support of “les Dreyfusards,” or Dreyfus supporters. An original copy of “J’Accuse,” as published by Zola in the newspaper L’Aurore, is among the items in the exhibition.

  The three-day conference, “The Dreyfus Affair: Memory and History in France and the U.S.A.,” begins at 9:00 A.M. Fri., Feb. 13, and is open to the public. The opening Friday morning session will be in Maison Française. All other sessions will be in Wood Auditorium, Avery Hall.

  The largest in this centennial year of Zola’s article, the colloquium will feature new findings on French public opinion about Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer in the French Army who was falsely accused of espionage and condemned to life in prison; anti-Semitism in the French press and the role played by tabloids in the Dreyfus Affair; the commitment of women in the campaign for Dreyfus’s freedom; and a recently-discovered and as yet unpublished journal of a Devil’s Island guard that for the first time gives a close account of Dreyfus’s incarceration. Excerpts from the diary will be read publicly by Michel Drouin of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

  “The Dreyfus Affair continues to be a symbol against oppression and persecution of any kind, and of major importance in our age because of enduring prejudice,” said Columbia Professor Henri Mitterand, one of the world’s leading authorities on Zola and the conference organizer. He noted that French President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to Dreyfus and Zola last Jan. 13, the 100th anniversary of the publication of “J’Accuse,” Zola’s open letter to the French President that played a decisive role in prompting the judicial review of the 1894 trial that had, without proof, condemned Dreyfus. The article set French public opinion afire, dividing society into partisans and adversaries of the review. Zola wrote the letter at great personal risk. He was prosecuted for defamation and sentenced to one year in prison. He fled France for London, returning after Dreyfus’s conviction was overturned. Dreyfus was set free in 1899 and rejoined the French Army in 1906, although he suffered emotional and physical effects of the ordeal throughout his life.

  Mitterand, who is president of the Societe litteraire des Amis d’Emile Zola, said the participating French and American historians, sociologists, political scientists, and other scholars “cast through the prism of Dreyfus a sharp light on the question of anti-Semitism and the state, of anti-Semitism and the people, of civil rights, of the abuse of the state’s power and its justifications for it.

  “In light of the recent reexamination of national conscience and revision of history that countries such as France and to some extent America are undergoing,” Mitterand said, “questions about how anti-Semitism spreads and infects certain groups and institutions are as relevant today as they were at the turn of the 19th century.”

  Louis Henkin, a Columbia law professor and authority on human rights, said the lessons that should have been learned from Dreyfus “we had to learn later. Would the Occupation of France have been different had the lessons of Dreyfus been learned earlier?” he asked.

  While the judicial aspects of the Dreyfus affair are well known, according to Professor Mitterand, documents discovered since 1994, the centennial of the Dreyfus verdict, shed new light on the conditions of his imprisonment, including a handwritten diary of his years in prison, his prison guard’s diary and notes taken by Dreyfus from 1899 until 1907. New research has focused on the reactions of the French and international press, French citizens, and the attitudes of intellectuals, writers, critics and professors.

  He said it is particularly gratifying to hold the centennial tribute to Zola in New York because many New York intellectuals lent support to his campaign. He received 150 letters of support from the United States in 1898, more than 80 from New York alone.

  The exhibition, “Zola and the Dreyfus Affair: A Moment in the Conscience of Humanity,” is drawn from the collection of the Beitler Family Foundation. Lorraine Beitler, professor emeritus at the City University of New York who is president of the foundation and curator of the collection, said these include posters, lithographs, prints, postcards, photographs, books, letters, and decorative arts that document passions on both sides in the Dreyfus Affair.

  Beitler noted that the posters are representative of the golden age of the French poster. The collection includes a complete set of 51 lithographs, called the “Musee des Horreurs” (freak show), which depict prominent supporters of Dreyfus, statesmen, journalists and Jewish leaders, as animals. The series was published in 1899 at the opening of the Paris World’s Fair.

  Dreyfus’s descendants include many public spirited Frenchmen and women. Both his sons, Pierre and Jean, were decorated for their military service in World War I, and his nephew, Emile, died in battle in World War I and received the Legion of Honor, according to Professor Michael Burns of Mount Holyoke College, author of “Dreyfus: A Family Affair” (1992). Two granddaughters, Madeleine Levy, a social worker, and Simone Perl, worked with the French Resistance during World War II. Levy was arrested by the Gestapo and died in Auschwitz in 1944.






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