The confluence of military influence, rapidly evolving mass media, and anti-Semitism is the focus of “Traitor!,” a comprehensive, provocative and frighteningly timely exhibit about the Dreyfus Affair at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood.
Close to 200 guests strolled through the display on the evening of Oct. 7, when the Maltz Museum staged an opening reception featuring brief speeches by museum executives and others involved in the ambitious, dramatic effort. Subtitled “Spies, Lies and Justice Denied: The Dreyfus Affair,” it will run through January 2014.
The show is certainly one that stands up to repeat experience. There is far too much in the subdivided, 4,000-square-foot special exhibitions hall to absorb in one viewing. There are half-a-dozen films about fin de siècle (end-of-the-century) Paris and the different social strata that figured in the case. There are reproductions of newspaper engravings and posters demonizing the Jew Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer wrongly imprisoned for treason after a widely publicized 1894 show trial brought out anti-Semitic mobs. There are leanly written, passionate wall texts connecting that infamous case to today, when journalism remains as dangerous as it was when celebrated French novelist Emile Zola bucked convention to publish “J’Accuse,” a fervent denunciation of the French establishment and the nation’s anti-Semitism.” Convicted of libel, Zola had to flee France for a time. An original front page trumpeting “J’Accuse,” from the “L’Aurore” newspaper, is an exhibit highlight.
Zola’s treatment was mild compared to Dreyfus’, however. Convicted of treason for allegedly leaking military secrets to the Germans – detested for humiliating the French in the Franco-Prussian War decades earlier – the Alsace man was sent to Devil’s Island, a penal colony in French Guiana, where he spent four years before being exonerated. A replica of his cell is another highlight of “Traitor!”
The installation goes into vivid, and powerfully illustrated, detail regarding the connections between Dreyfus, his accusers, and a machinery of justice that didn’t quite undo the original harm. It’s a singular story, illustrating how fact and fiction can blur in the media and how that ambiguity can do profound damage. It’s an issue that continues to resonate, and it’s fitting that the viewer exits the show at a listing of the countries most dangerous to journalists today. The top three are Iraq, the Philippines and Algeria. The bottom three are Nigeria, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Milton Maltz, who spearheaded this “Traitor!” debut, said in opening remarks that he wanted the display to speak for itself. He also said anti-Semitism never goes away, citing anti-Semitic graffiti that have disfigured a statue of Dreyfus erected in Paris mere weeks ago.
A collaborative effort of the Maltz Museum, museum design firm Gallagher & Associates and the Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair at the University of Pennsylvania, the exhibit contains but a portion of Beitler’s 1,500-artifact collection.
In brief remarks before the unveiling, Beitler, a New York City resident who has spent more than 20 years scouring the world for Dreyfus memorabilia, said parts of her collection, which is permanently housed at Penn, have been seen in numerous places including France, South Africa and Poland. Her mission is primarily educational, Beitler suggested.
“Every generation has a responsibility to reflect on history,” said the Dreyfus scholar.
After the event, Beitler said even though similar exhibits based on her collection have been mounted in Europe, they’re just beginning to spread around the United States. In January, two related exhibits will be mounted in Israel.
The case continues to fascinate her because of the “injustice of it.” Dreyfus “was completely loyal,” Beitler said. “He never said anything about France or the army, and when he was reinstated, people said, ‘Long live Dreyfus!’ He said, ‘Long live France.’”