BACKSTORY: Dreyfus – From Devil’s Island to Auschwitz


He was an innocent soldier caught in the greatest political convulsion since the French Revolution. Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of spying for Germany, found guilty of treason in a secret trial, denied the right to examine the evidence against him, stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped to the lethal French penal colony of Devil’s Island.

Dreyfus would become the lightning rod for an outpouring of venomous anti-Semitism that foreshadowed calamities to come. But in a revolt of conscience, there gathered under the French Tricolour men and women who seized the mace of honour and led a campaign worthy of the greatness of the soul of the nation. And it resulted in Dreyfus’ exoneration 110 years ago in 1906.


In spite of all his trials and tribulations, for Dreyfus and his family, France remained the only country within which their deepest emotions were inextricably anchored. In this, they never wavered. This is precisely why at the age of 48, Dreyfus, although retired from the army, volunteered for combat in World War I as major of artillery. He even fought under Marshal Philippe Petain at Verdun and at the battle of the Chemin des Dames. For his valour, he was promoted to the rank of Officier de la Legion d’honneur in 1918.

His son Pierre also served France in Flanders Fields and received the Croix de Guerre. The family was devastated when Alfred’s brother Jacques’ sons, Maurice and Charles, fell in the Great War. Their brother Rene survived and became one of the most decorated French “Top Guns” of the war.

Dreyfus died in 1935 and was spared the chagrin and the sorrow of witnessing Vichy’s collaboration with the Nazi Germany, during which many members of his family were arrested, handed over to the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. Had he been alive when the deportation of French Jews started, his Legion d’honneur would not have shielded him from the flames of Nazi infernos.

His wife, Lucy, survived while hiding with the Sisters of Valence but died of a broken heart within months of her return to Paris in 1945, once she realized what had happened to her family. Two wars and her husband’s ordeal had proved too much to bear for her mortal coil. The discovery that her favourite granddaughter, Madeleine, had perished in Auschwitz was the final stroke.

Jean Pierre Reinach, the only grandson of Mathew Dreyfus, Alfred’s brother, died when his parachute failed while attempting to land in France in 1942.

Reinach’s brother-in law, Emmanuel Amar, left his wife and two daughters to join the resistance. He was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz together with the Grand Rabbi of Strasbourg in Convoy 62 in 1944.

Rene, the highly decorated flying ace of the World War I, was betrayed by his concierge and killed in Auschwitz. Rachel, Alfred’s sister, who led a ferocious campaign for her brother with Marcel Proust, Emil Zola and Anatole France, simply could not bear the anguish of losing her only son, Julien, and died of despair. According to Michael Burns, author of Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789 – 1945 her diary entry for Dec.12, 1941 reads, “Two German soldiers came to arrest Julien as a hostage. It seems that 3,000 Jews have been rounded up today. Where will they take him?”


Amar’s widow, Suzy, managed to survive in a prisoner’s camp and would have died were it not for the help of a local priest and the Swiss consul. She waited for the return of her husband in vain. Alice, the widow of Leon Dreyfus, Alfred’s elder brother, too, never came back from Auschwitz.