Holocaust-era diary writing offers a rare glimpse into real-time events and personal reflections that, had they not been written, may well have been swept away in the rapid unfolding of events. The diary of a French Jewish intellectual, Lucien Dreyfus, helps us shed light on one person’s grappling with the calamity. In this episode of "On the Holocaust", we'll talk about Dreyfus's life, reflections and fate during the Holocaust as expressed in his wartime diary: “’A Terrible and Terribly Interesting Epoch’: The Holocaust Diary of Lucien Dreyfus.” .
Featured guest: Alexandra Garbarini, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts.
“The Scattered Life I Lead” - Transcription:
Narrator: “Friday, June 27 1941
I like the scattered life I lead, which is not focused on anything and which occasionally keeps me busy or leads to the unknown, because I could not return to my former existence. I live all the more intensely with the events. They absorb me completely. The readers of future historians who have gathered the most richly documented evidence will have only a pale image of what is unfolding before us who are witnessing the tragedy. One must be a contemporary to appreciate an event… This period is terrible and terribly interesting. What is past is past; it is only the present that counts, but one must have eyes to see its particularity. I thank heaven for having made me live in this epoch and for having bestowed on me the gift of understanding this epoch…”
Nate: In March 1994, eight school notebooks were mailed anonymously to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Long hidden, they contained the personal diary of Lucien Dreyfus, a Jewish intellectual, journalist and schoolteacher from the region of Alsace.
Dreyfus was 57 years old when the Second World War broke out and was forced to evacuate Alsace to the city of Nice in the southeastern coast of France. It is there that he began chronicling his wartime life. Writing from the unique perspective of an observant Jew raised in both the French and German cultures, he filled the pages with his insights about the progress of the war, life as a Jew under the Vichy regime and the persecution and eventual extermination of the Jewish population of Europe. He also recounted his day-to-day life, and wrote deeply personal messages to his daughter who had escaped France with her family. He kept his diary going until the very end - September 24, 1943, about a month before he and his wife Marthe were arrested by the Germans in the small village of Clans and two months before they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They did not survive.
Hello and welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast by Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson. In this episode, we’ll examine the contemporary response of one man to the persecution and the eventual murder of France’s Jewish population – and his attempt to maintain a feeling of normalcy and to try and make sense of the events he was witnessing and was suffering from during this “terrible and terribly interesting epoch.”
“One must be a contemporary to appreciate an event.” Lucien Dreyfus’s diary is part of a large corpus of diaries written by Jews during the Holocaust. Those diaries that had survived and were able to find their way into the public sphere provide us a unique glimpse into a wide range of Jewish perspectives on the events taking place and into their authors’ inner worlds - their hopes, fears, dreams and thoughts.
The study of Holocaust diaries is one of the the main areas of expertise of Prof. Alexandra Garbarini, our guest today.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “My name is Alexandra Garbarini. I'm a professor of history and Jewish studies at Williams College in Massachusetts in the United States and I conduct research on the history of the Holocaust, but specifically on the Jewish history of the Holocaust and even more specifically, on Jews’ contemporaneous responses to the Holocaust with an interest in the ways in which they wrote about and the ways in which they bore witness to their experiences. My work has focused especially on diary writing and then on other kinds of documents surrounding diaries, such as letters, correspondence, different kinds of testimonial accounts that's been the focus of my research.”
Nate: Prof. Garbarini explains that diary writing – obviously a very intimate and personal experience – is one the of more diverse ways to collect reactions and responses to the Holocaust:
Alexandra Garbarini: ”One of the most remarkable parts about it is the extent to which Jews who were living in all different parts of Europe engaged in it as a cultural practice. So we're talking about both in terms of gender differences, men and women, also people of different ages, from children, youth, young adults to older adults. I'm talking about people engaged in the practice of writing diaries who stemmed from different origins, people from Western Europe, from Central Europe, from Eastern Europe. And also I'm talking about the diversity of the phenomenon in terms of the extent to which people wrote in different contexts during the Holocaust. The scope of diary writing is quite vast and gives us access, I think, also to people who had very different orientations politically, religiously, culturally. So it's a remarkable body of sources for learning about and analysing how Jews responded to their persecution and to the genocide as it was ongoing. It's also a remarkable body of sources because it exposes us to the incredible diversity of European Jewry in the period of the Holocaust”.
Nate: Prof. Garbarini was one of the first researchers to recognize the exceptional vantage point Lucien Dreyfus’s diary offers us into the lives of the Jews of France during the Holocaut, co-editing the English translation together with historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus and bringing it to publication in 2021 under the title: “’A Terrible and Terribly Interesting Epoch’: The Holocaust Diary of Lucien Dreyfus.”
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “Lucien Dreyfus was born in German Alsace. And he was born there ten years after Alsace had been annexed after the Franco Prussian War by the Germans. And he grew up in a village in a small village in Alsace to a Jewish family who were observant, who existed in a small community, knows us, and with the idea he was kind of, I guess I would say an incredibly bright student, described actually by someone who knew him as a brilliant student, brilliant pupil. He studied in a Yeshiva in Colmar and also took courses at a lycée in Colmar. He decided not to continue with the rabbinate and he decided instead to focus on his secular studies. He completed his university studies and he pursued a teaching career”.
Nate: In the interwar period, Dreyfus was married, and with his wife Marthe had a daughter named Mariette. He also began to edit and write articles for a leading French Jewish weekly publication called La Tribune. In his capacity as a contributing editor to the Tribune, he wrote articles about contemporary topics that affected Jews, dealing with European Jewish life and politics throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 drastically changed Dreyfus’s life. Alsace was re-annexed by France after World War I – which was a main territorial grievance in the eyes of the Nazi movement.
Right after the Second World War began, the French government evacuated many border towns in Alsace. Dreyfus became a refugee within France and eventually settled in Nice.
After the fall of France in June 1940, the country was partitioned into two main areas. Aside from a small territory conquered by Fascist Italy in the southeast of the country, Germany directly occupied the northern part of France – while in the south, World War I veteran Marshal Petain headed a rump state now known as Vichy France. The city of Nice, where Dreyfus and his wife were located, came under Vichy control.=
Anti-Jewish measures were placed in both zones the cornerstone being the Statut des Juifs (anti-Jewish law), promulgated by the Vichy Government, on October 3, 1940; this Statute was later amended with additional anti-Jewish measures. The First Jewish Statute called for the drastic decrease of Jewish involvement within French society. It announced who in France was considered a Jew, a definition stricter than determined in Nazi Germany. It removed Jews from the army, civil service and closed off top public offices while putting a quota on Jews working in various professions. A law passed on October 4, 1940 allowed for the detainment of Jews of foreign nationality. By February of 1941, 40,000 foreign Jews were detained in camps of the Unoccupied Zone alone.
As a teacher, Lucien Dreyfus was fired from his job in October 1940. Two months later he began writing his diary. He was an incredibly well-read and educated man – and his writing style reflects the extent of his learning in Jewish sources, in German literature, in French literature and in historiography. His writings help us better understand the conditions of Jews in France –including more mundane details that could easily be forgotten had they not been written down in real time - and in a wider sense, the response to the Holocaust by a person embodying a class of Jewish intelligentsia.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “Part of his writing style was that he was in constant kind of state of commentary on the rich cultural worlds that were both for him all at the same time, Jewish and German and French. He was reading things in French and German languages. He also was writing and would engage with he went to synagogue regularly with the weekly Torah portions, the holidays. For him this kind of tricultural, if you will, this tricultural world, is present in his writing. And as far as his writing style, it is both quite erudite and also very personal. And that is a remarkable combination, the extent to which in this diary we are exposed to the kind of comings and goings of his life, his daily life, his visits, his tutoring sessions, his views on people, but then also this level of kind of intellectual activity, and that from one paragraph to the next in an entry, he moves from one to the next. It's absolutely remarkable.”
Nate: We can think of Dreyfus’s diary as his attempt to regain a sense of control over his life. An example of this can be seen in his entry from January 13, 1941, where he imagines the letter he would write to the secretary general of public education in Vichy France:
Narrator: “… I was a teacher (without any interruption in service) at the Lycée [school] Kléber school in Strasbourg from April 28, 1908 to July 14, 1939. The evacuation of Strasbourg prevented me from returning, and I accepted a position at the lycée [school] in Poitiers, then at the lycée [school] in Nice. On December 18, 1940, the director asked me to end my service as a teacher of German. This measure struck me more forcefully than many others. First, I had to give up everything that I owned in Alsace. Then, my securities… Then, my postal checking account... Finally, the… armaments bonds with the rest of my savings…. They are likewise lost to me. Thus, stripped in my 59th year of everything that I have inherited and acquired, the son of an Alsatian decorated with the commemorative medal of 1870, I see myself obliged, Mr. Secretary General, to send you, my former superior in Strasbourg, this plea to obtain work for me so that I can feed myself.
To Mr. Terracher, Secretary General”
Nate: Dreyfus filled the pages of his diary with scholarly meditations on history – thus the diary served as a reminder of his past life as a journalist and writer. Even when his audience was limited to only one person – himself – he refused to let go of his habit of writing.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “He wrote almost daily throughout this period from December 1940 until September of 1943. And he wrote about all manner of, I guess, I would say, reflections and events. He wrote about his social life in Nice, which was fascinating. He wrote about his reading, the things he was reading. He recorded quotes from things he was reading. It was almost as if he imagined he was still going to one day write columns or different pieces for the Tribune Juive. Large masses of people were killed. But in his reading of that history, this was also a story of martyrology and in that sense of long term survival. And he attributed in many ways that story of survival to his ongoing faith in divine justice. So part of his mental state, I think is explicable by his reference to history, but also his continued faith, his continued faith in divine justice did help him to find meaning in the present”.
Nate: On June 23, 1941, Dreyfus wrote about the recent news from the east – where Nazi Germany had just launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In typical fashion, he jumps from fairly mundane, personal events – to wide reflections on the fate of the war:
Narrator: “Am shaken up by the events, which seem to be turning out very badly, through the tremendous coup conceived by the Germans. Do Petliura’s supporters have a government ready to replace Ukrainian Bolshevism? Everything that is dangerous to the outcome of the war suddenly seems plausible to me. But what is plausible is not always true, I tell myself to reassure myself.”
Nare: As the attitude towards Jews in France worsened, particularly in the German occupied zone, Dreyfus documented a growing sense of detachment among his fellow Jews in Nice. Thus, referring to the news circulating in the summer of 1941 on the census of Jews in the occupied zone and the beginning of the so-called “Aryanization” policy that was being implemented there, he wrote on July 3, 1941:
Narrator: “People are becoming increasingly indifferent to events. People barely read the announcements. Fate is meted out to the Jews, people are no longer moved by it; the rumors about the census and the registration of assets are accepted with a serenity that lends them an odious character. The heat makes it difficult to think about anything, and [people] live from day to day like the inhabitants of the Isles of the Blessed. When is one unhappy? When [is one] happy[?] The war teaches you the emptiness of things, as recognized by Ecclesiastes.”
Nate: Dreyfus refers in his diary to rumors arriving also from outside of France. In his entry for July 4, 1942, he openly talked about the troubling news from Poland and the danger to Europe’s Jews. By that point it was clear to him that the worst was yet to come, and that the responsibility for the horrors lay in the hands of all those who remained silent on the sidelines:
Narrator: “Visit from Mr. Tenenbaum, very pessimistic following the military news, would like to flee, no matter where, on the advice of a friend, son of a general; [..]There is talk of 700,000 Jews killed in and around Poland. This number is not necessarily exaggerated… But we are not yet at the end. Before being welcomed again, we will go through many sufferings announced by the verses of the Torah [Bible]. [..] Moses is always right. He [Hitler] will fall, but it is not said that we will witness his fall, which, moreover, will be slow to come and will bury with him many others who have committed unforgivable sins against us. Did he not say it all, predict it with a cynicism and a sleepwalker’s confidence in his book, Mon Combat [Mein Kampf]? People did not pay attention because they had too much liking for the man who initiated, so gracefully, an elegant anti-Jewish persecution. Everyone is guilty.”
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “The other feeling that he regularly voices in the diary is a feeling of, I would say, kind of anger and disgust with Europeans, with the European bourgeoisie, with the political mood and climate. I would say, more in a sense than sadness and fear, the feeling of being just radically disappointed by the embrace of fascism, by the embrace of nondemocratic political ideals and ideology. That is a feeling to which he regularly gives voice. And it is actually for him the splitting of the political events of humans from his sense of divine justice that permitted him, I think, in many ways to continue to retain his sense in some kind of solace in divine justice. It was humans who were the actors who had betrayed their ideals.”
Nate: A rare source of hope for Dreyfus was the fact that his only daughter Mariette, son-in-law Jacques and only granddaughter Monique managed to escape France in 1942 and eventually find shelter in the United States:
Narrator: Tuesday, June 23, 1942 “A letter from the children comes, dated June 9… Arrival is expected on June 20; therefore they are already [in] New York. They are splendidly set up, extraordinary food, meat and fish at noon, Jacques is ashamed, he says, to give us these details, compared with our hardship. Monique is having a field day, she eats in a special room for the children in first class, where the walls are lined with scenes from Snow White. They eat to the sounds of an orchestra, with butter on the table, Mariette writes. “I’d like to stay on this ship forever, even though I’m a bit seasick.”... I don’t know why this letter pleased me so much, maybe because I know that they are safe now. “
Nate: In November 1942, the Germans occupied the Southern Zone of Vichy and continued the ongoing actions to arrest Jews and deport them to their extermination that they had begun implementing in the occupied zone earlier that year.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “For Lucian Dreyfus, the fact of his children and granddaughters guaranteed survival in the United States continued to shape his sense of, in a sense, the insignificance of what he imagined would be his own impending death. He didn't imagine that he would survive. He imagined not necessarily what we certainly… the Holocaust. He didn't know about death camps in Poland, but he understood that in his own way, that the possibility as Jews were being deported from the south of France, he understood on some level that he was vulnerable”.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “In the summer of 1943, Lucien and Marthe left Nice and it does not appear that they left in order to try to escape what was at that time the new presence of German troops in the unoccupied zone of France. Rather, it seems that they were seeking to spend the summer in a cooler climate at a higher elevation away from the shore, on the Mediterranean shore where, of course, Nice sits. It seems also that they were looking for a place that was affordable and had more abundant sources and supplies of food. And so they went to a small town in a kind of mountain Valley above Nice, a town called Clans. And in Clans they were joined by many of their acquaintances who also had found rental situations for the summer. And there they passed the summer.
Nate: On September 8, 1943, the Germans entered and occupied the now former-Italian Zone. The news reached Clans and the Jewish refugees decided to stay in the mountains.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “And in the time that they were there, it began to be of greater and greater concern that there were raids that were being conducted by the SS. And the Jews in Clans developed a kind of warning system so that Jews would go into hiding during an SS raid, during a roundup”.
Narretor: “Friday, September 24. At 10 a.m., Mrs. Amédéo comes upstairs to notify us of the arrival of Germans [...] We learn later that Miss Lévy, fiancée of Mr. Henri B., had learned it at the post office. We leave at once to hide, first at Fantin’s, then with the uncle of Mrs. Roux, and finally Mrs. Roux drives us to her barn higher up, after a walk of 30 minutes, where we find almost all the Israélites [Jews] gathered together. At 1 p.m. Mrs. Roux comes to get us, false alarm, the trucks of the Germans headed to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée had first taken the road from Pont-de-Clans to Clans, and shortly afterward realized their mistake. What do I know? What are we to believe? Marthe was very worked up until we had lunch at 1:30 with Mrs. Roux at our place. All is well.”
Nate: This was Dreyfus's last diary entry.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: ”What we do know is that a month later, when the Germans did arrive, they rounded up a couple of dozen of people who did not escape this particular roundup, this particular commando that came into Clans. Lucien and Marthe were among those who were rounded up. They were first brought to Nice. They were brought to this hotel in Nice, the Hotel Excelsior, which was the Gestapo headquarters. They were taken by truck from Clans to Nice. And it appears they stayed at that location in Nice for one night. And from there that they were transferred to Drancy, to the transit camp outside of Paris, and that they arrived in Drancy.”
Nate: The Drancy internment camp, located to the north of Paris, was a main location for the German effort to exterminate the French Jewry. The camp was founded in 1941 for the purpose of imprisoning Jews from all around France – and served as an assembly and detention camp. Until 1943 it was directly controlled by the French police – under the supervision of the German Security Police and Security Service. From June 1942 to July 1944, 64 transports with 61,000 Jews left Drancy – 61 for Auschwitz-Birkenau and 3 for Sobibor.
Lucien Dreyfus and his wife Marthe were among those deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Prof. Alexandra Garbarini: “On November 20, 1943, they were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They, one can presume, , were upon arrival in Birkenau, were sent immediately to the gas chambers. And there's no further record after their names appearing on that convoy list from Drancy to Auschwitz. There's no further record of them, of their arrival, of their fate”.
Nate: 78,000 Jews, about a quarter of French Jewry, were sent to extermination camps.
There isn’t one reaction to the Holocaust. We cannot define the contemporary response to this horrific world event in a single way. In fact, there are millions of different responses, millions of different ways to understand, comprehend and react to the way the Holocaust upended the lives of the Jews of Europe.
But Dreyfus’s diary allows us a dive deep into one of these responses. Dreyfus’s writing chronicles his intellectual and psychological means of understanding the tragedy in Europe – and maintaining a bearable day to day life inspite of the horrors around him. This diary is a time capsule of one man – and his decision to live his life on his own terms, in a dark period of time.
With that we come to a close. If you’d like to learn more about the Holocaust, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, hosted by me, Nate Nelson. Our program is produced by Dani Timor and Ran Levi. Research and content management by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan, Dafna Dolinko. This episode was written by Agam Kedem Levi and Dafna Dolinko and edited by Dor Shafir.
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Poto credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Monique Allen