Teaching the Dreyfus Affair to a new generation: Heather Camlot talks to Phoebe Maltz Bovy about the making of ‘The Prisoner and the Writer’

An event like the Dreyfus Affair, with a complicated and protracted timeline, doesn’t really lend itself to anniversaries. It began in 1894, when French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused (and in 1895, convicted) of treason, for having allegedly sold secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899 and exonerated in 1906. That stretch between 1894 and 1906 was chock-full of key turning points, relating both to the Dreyfus case itself and to how it was received in France and beyond.

But what we’re looking at now is the 125th anniversary of the moment that turned the Dreyfus case into the bigger phenomenon now known as the Affair. On Jan. 13, 1898, the French novelist Émile Zola published his pro-Dreyfus open letter, “J’Accuse…!” in the French newspaper L’Aurore. Zola’s intervention became a cultural force in its own right, evoked whenever anyone wants to righteously
accuse others of a miscarriage of justice. The French expression, “J’Accuse”, is also used in English, in homage to Zola.

While central to modern history generally and Jewish history in particular, the Affair remains somewhat obscure to non-historians. It is rather understandably overshadowed the Holocaust. But it is key to understanding that and more.

Heather Camlot, a Toronto children’s-book author and journalist, is the author of The Prisoner and the Writer, a middle-grade novel, in verse, about the Affair. Illustrated by Sophie Casson, the book alternates between depicting Dreyfus and Zola, through Dreyfus’s imprisonment on Devil’s Island and Zola’s growing involvement in the fight to free him and clear his name:

“After more than four years on Devil’s Island, the prisoner can read / A note handed to him by the chief guard. / The most important message of his life: / His sentence has been annulled. / Alfred is going home.”

The Prisoner and the Writer is already getting quite a bit of attention, including a review in the New York Times. It has lots to offer for older readers as well. (Younger, too, if your baby’s feeling patient.) Camlot’s previous books include The Other Side, which tells the story—inspired by family history—of a Canadian Jewish boy whose German non-Jewish grandfather fought for Nazi Germany in the Second World War. She also has a forthcoming book, Becoming Bionic, a middle-grade nonfiction book that uses superheroes to educate about scientific advancements such as prosthetic limbs.

Camlot is one of the most exciting writers in Canadian Jewish letters today—and it was my honour to interview her.

The Dreyfus Affair is well known to students of French Jewish history but not a part of household knowledge in North America. When and how did you first learn about it?

When I was a teenager, I used to watch a lot of late-night movies. You know, old classic silver screen type of movies. And one night, The Life of Emile Zola was on. And I watched it.

I grew up in a in a Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, on the West Island. I went Hebrew school, and everyone I knew as a child was Jewish. That was kind of everything I knew.

When I went to high school, at West Island College, all of a sudden, we were only a handful of Jewish kids in the grade, and even in the school. And it opened up my eyes to the greater world. High school led me down a path of learning about the world and other cultures and what was going on.

Learning about the Dreyfus Affair, even if it was through a movie to start with, really hit home. I mean, I lived a French city. I’m Jewish. And seeing what happened to a French Jewish man who did nothing wrong has stayed with me forever.

What do you see resonating about the Dreyfus Affair for young readers?

We’re seeing a lot more hate in the world today, of all kinds. We have to start educating children about hate, and how to rise above it, because once we’re adults, it’s too late. Adults are so ingrained in our thinking, whether we’re right or wrong. So that I think is why I wanted to write about the Dreyfus Affair for children, so they could have the same kind of eye-opening experience I had when I was a little older. They can learn what is going on in the world, how they can do something, how they can stand up and speak out. The Dreyfus case itself, where everything was fabricated, lets kids know that adults aren’t always right.

So that’s one point. And then the second point is, we’re so surrounded by news and “news,” and kids don’t really know the difference. I wouldn’t have known the difference. But kids learn things on social media or on the Internet, or from friends, and believe it.

And I think this story, because it was a story fought in the newspapers, offers media education for kids as well.

What led you to opt for this telling, where Dreyfus and Zola are side-by-side?

That was the idea of my editor, Karen Li. She’s now the publisher of Groundwood. When I originally brought her the story, it was just written in prose, just your typical kind of biographical book. She had this vision of how to make it even more powerful. And the more research I did into it, I realized that even though their stories are not perfectly parallel, it lined up.

It does work, really well! But the story itself can be confusing even for adults. It has a complicated chronology, and hinges on something called the bordereau, a document that supposedly proved that Dreyfus was spying for Germany, and thus guilty of treason. How did you approach simplifying the narrative while maintaining accuracy?

That bordereau was tricky to figure out. I called it “six torn pieces of handwritten paper found in the garbage,” which is essentially what the bordereau was.

Do you think the Affair is better understood as a prelude to the Holocaust, or rather as an example of justice triumphing and of France being ultimately not as antisemitic as imagined?

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of those two scenarios side-by-side, in order to have to choose one. It undeniably leads up to the Holocaust, because Dreyfus’s granddaughter was killed at Auschwitz. In the Affair itself, everything was fixed and patched up, and Dreyfus was pardoned. But his quote, “My only crime was to have been born a Jew,” repeated itself, a few decades later, on a much larger scale. I don’t know if I could. I can’t pick.

I agree that it’s both.

The Dreyfus Affair polarized France politically. To what extent do you see it as possible to make parallels between that period of French history and contemporary North America? Are there modern-day equivalents of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards?

This is going to sound horrible, but it’s quite similar. We have people like Kanye West speaking out. He’s got such a following. People just kind of dismiss it, right? Like, Oh, he’s got a mental illness, or, Oh, he’s Kanye, he says silly things. It’s almost a way to sweep something under the rug. And that is what was done during the Dreyfus Affair. They were trying to just sweep the whole thing under the rug. They were hoping that nobody would question it when they sent Dreyfus away. But people did question it. It’s the same thing here. People are saying, No, we can’t sweep this away. As a result, Kanye has lost professional relationships.

The Dreyfus Affair offers what is in retrospect a fairly simple story of good versus evil. Apart from the occasional ultra-conservative Christian publication, no one these days is taking the anti-Dreyfusard stance. Today, political polarization—or figuring out who the good and bad guys are—sometimes seems more complicated.

I think it’s always been complicated. I remember reading once upon a time about the Holocaust Museum in Washington. This particular feature was that when you walked in, you had to choose a door. And one door said something like, “I have prejudices,” and the other door said, “I don’t have prejudices,” and the door that said, “I don’t have prejudices” was locked. Everybody has some sort of prejudice. We’ve all been taught some, from our parents, our community, or what we read in the newspaper. What we have to do is accept that we have biases and prejudices, and work on them.

How can North American Jews balance a love of Europe, maybe Paris in particular, with the knowledge of all the terrible fates Jews have met in that part of the world? This tension exists in The Prisoner and the Writer, which is at the same time this terrible story of French antisemitism, and this beautiful document showing illustrations of France.

I’ll put it this way, and I don’t know if it’s an answer to your question or not. I never wanted to go to Germany, because I’m Jewish. I learned in school everything about the Holocaust, and World War Two, and Hitler and all that kind of stuff. I never wanted to set foot in Germany.

Now. I’m married to a man of German descent. His parents were German. His father was a child soldier during the Second World War. We had to talk a lot about that before. Eventually, my husband said, I want to show the children where my parents are from, and technically where they kind of come from, their heritage. Both his parents had passed by then. I was like, what am I going to do?

And I said, OK, let’s go. I did research for my book, The Other Side, at the same time, because it was inspired by the story of his father. And, you know, when I got there, I loved it. I love Germany. It’s beautiful. The people are friendly. They’ve tried very hard to make reparations.

I learned that there are new generations, people who are trying to fix things. But I can say that for Canada as well, which turned around the MS St. Louis ship many of whose passengers ultimately died in the Holocaust.

Do I hate Canada? I mean, that was a horrible thing to do! Cuba turned it away; the United States turned it away. Canada was the last hope—and they turned it away. So, to answer your question, I think you have to look at the good and the bad. You have to see the positivity, and hope that change has come to all these places, including where we live right now. But not forget about the history.

We need to keep learning history, we need to teach history to children, because that’s how things change. And yes, Paris is a beautiful, bright, wonderful, fun-loving city, ala Emily in Paris. But it does have a dark history, as does Germany, as does Canada, as does the United States. Look at slavery in the United States. None of us are unscathed.None of our pasts are 100% good.

The Dreyfus Affair isn’t really a History 101-type topic. Those learning about it today tend to already have a broader historical background and will be putting it into that context. Do you think middle-grade students have the Holocaust as a reference point, or that The Prisoner and the Writer might wind up being their introduction to that as well?

There are startling statistics on how Canadians in their teens and 20s, and even later, don’t know anything about the Holocaust. They don’t know it happened. I love the fact that Ontario elementary schools are getting a Holocaust education in the grade six curriculum. And I know that in high school, because my kids have already done it, they’ve included Holocaust education through literature. I don’t know if that’s across the board in Ontario, but I do know that he had it at his school in Toronto. I think we need not just Holocaust education, but to teach stories of other cultures that have undergone similar.

This leads rather perfectly to my next question, which is that at the end of the book, after the story itself, there’s an educational prompt asking readers to consider Dreyfus’s remark, “My only crime is to have been born a Jew,” replacing “Jew” with other marginalized identity groups. Do you think relating antisemitism to other hatreds is the best way to engage young people?

I should say that I’m torn because on the one hand, people can benefit from a nudge towards relating to others different from themselves. On the other, there’s the danger of getting into a situation similar to the thing where people respond to “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All Lives Matter,” and while yes, all lives do matter, it doesn’t quite work in that context to say this. I guess I’m admitting that I’m also confused about how to approach this!

The reason I asked people to replace the word Jew in Dreyfus’s quote is as a way of likening a situation to what might be their own. We all know what issues we have. You have to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes in order to understand what they’ve gone through. And you need to understand your own situation in order to empathize with other people.

The problem I see right now is that we’re all siloing each other. Everybody is seeing their own issues, and dealing with their own issues, as they should. But I think we’re so focused on those individual issues that we’re not seeing how all of this plays together in the world. We must work together. We can’t just be like, I’m Jewish, I’m going fight antisemitism, or I’m a woman, I’m going to fight for women’s rights. If we want to make the world a better place, we have to do it together.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz