Life & Culture

The man still seeking justice a century after the Dreyfus Affair

Educationist George Whyte says minorites are suffering because the lessons of the French scandal haven't been learnt.


Writer, composer, art expert, educationist - George Whyte modestly concedes, when it is put to him, that he is a man of many parts, and adds: "All of them Jewish".

Indeed. This is a man who is Jewish to a degree of intensity rare outside strictly religious circles. And, although he grew up in an Orthodox home in Budapest in the early 1930s and maintains a loving interest in the scriptures to this day, it is not religious observance that drives him. What fuels Whyte's extraordinary energy and output is a burning sense of the injustices suffered by Jews throughout the centuries.

For him, this crystallises around two historical events: the Holocaust and, half a century earlier, the Dreyfus affair in France. Whyte, who lost 37 family members in the Shoah, was a small boy when he first learned about Alfred Dreyfus - the Jewish French army officer falsely convicted of treason in 1894 and forced to endure five years of bitter imprisonment on Devil's Island before clearing his name. "It was my birthday party," Whyte recalls, "when my father told me that I should never forget the name, 'Dreyfus'."

Rarely can a father's injunction have been so expansively obeyed. Not only has Whyte written an authoritative and scholarly book on the Dreyfus affair but, among many creative endeavours, he has also composed a number of musical works about it. While the book has been twice reprinted and sits in university libraries throughout the world, the musical works have been lavishly staged across continents.

On top of all that, Whyte - who operates in Germany, Switzerland and Israel as well as the UK - is the founder and chairman of the Dreyfus Society, set up in Bonn in 1994 to mark the centenary of the affair and now opening at Birkbeck College, in the University of London.

Back in the 1990s, Whyte collaborated with Dr Barthold Witte, the German cultural secretary-general - "a Christian who had adopted a Jewish child after the war" - to create what was then called the Dreyfus Centenary Society in order to promote justice and fight persecution wherever it occurs. Its opening coincided with that of Berlin's Deutsche Oper production of Whyte's opera on the affair, which later went to Basel and New York.

"Our intention was to make the society an intellectual force, which referred back to the Dreyfus affair as an example of the mechanics of antisemitism and learn the lessons of that," Whyte recalls. "The immorality of the exclusion of a Jew like Dreyfus, who was totally innocent, applies pari passu to every persecuted minority."

Here, Whyte pauses dramatically to deliver the phrase from Deuteronomy that is a distillation of his life's work: "Tzedek! Tzedek! - Justice! Justice! What did Dreyfus do in his cell on Devil's Island, chained to his iron bed? He declared: 'Justice, justice is what I seek'. And what did his country, the country of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, do 50 years later? Where was justice when France sent 73,000 Jews to Auschwitz? Where was justice when Britain, in the last days of the war, bombed Dresden? Where was justice when the USA dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"

Some might view the establishment in Germany of a body dedicated to investigating the roots of antisemitism as ironic. Others might see it as singularly apt. Either way, it might be thought more appropriate to have founded the Dreyfus Society in France. The affair's repercussions rocked French society and exposed appalling discrimination within its institutions. The open letter, headed J'Accuse, written to the French president by novelist Emile Zola, that took up the entire front page of the Parisian newspaper L'Aurore on January 13 1898, is one of journalism's seminal documents.

But Whyte thought France "was not the right terrain for the society. There is this chauvinism in France. They know that a tremendous injustice occurred in 1894 but when [President Jacques] Chirac held a meeting, 100 years after Zola's J'Accuse, he said of the Dreyfus affair: 'What a victory for France! For French justice.'

"I held a poll in France about the affair. About 28 per cent said Dreyfus was innocent, 20-odd per cent said he was guilty. But the majority said: 'There is no smoke without fire'.

"Not so long ago, I took a taxi in Paris and asked the driver: 'What do you know about the Dreyfus Affair?' He said: 'Ah, Monsieur. A very strange story. All about a brilliant young officer who was accused of being Jewish'.

"In one sentence, this relatively uneducated fellow got it right. This is our problem. We are accused because we are Jewish, not because of what we do. And the state of Israel is accused very often, just because it is Jewish."

Whyte describes himself as "profoundly pessimistic about our destiny… of course, I am influenced by my own childhood, by the loss of almost all our family in Auschwitz but, whatever the nationalities were of the people who sent my cousins and my father's brothers to the gas chambers, they were all Christians.

"Christianity I have no problem with; it is malpractice by Christians that's my problem. Imagine, for all those centuries after Jesus Christ, in the pulpits the message being told week after week that the Jews murdered Jesus. And it continues: listen to Bach's oratorios. And the Jewish state must bear the stigma of the Jews. So you have the smug audacity of European nations with blood on their hands preaching to Israel about human rights."

He recalls, on the opening night of his Dreyfus opera in Berlin, seeing a gang of youths running after him. "It looked dangerous - there had been threats and rumours of neo-Nazi groups. But they called out to me: 'Herr Whyte! We are students at the university in Berlin. We want you to know that we are with you'.

"That wouldn't happen in any other country. Germany educates its people about the meaning of what happened and there is a distinct sector of the population that thinks of the past, atones for the past, lives and sleeps with the past."

Germany is, he says, one of only four countries outside Israel where he finds antisemitism is being addressed in a proper manner. The others are the United States, the Czech Republic - where he spent six months working on his hi-tech, kabbalistic drama, Golem 13 (which premiered at the National Theatre in Prague) - and China.

"I was invited the year before last to Shanghai University. The Dean said: 'If you are Jewish, you are a friend'. There are 1,000 courses in Chinese institutes of learning teaching Judaism. In Nanking, where I lectured, I went up to the seventh floor, to the Jewish department. Mezuzah on the door. 'Boker tov'. Everybody speaks Ivrit. Torah in front of you. Fantastic library…"

For all Whyte's international vistas, Britain has been his haven since he was six. "My father was a PoW in the First World War and made friends here. He was an anglophile. 'The English,' he said, 'are the only people with manners. They put their knives and forks together and they never speak loudly'.

"When my parents, my brother and I came to London, my father had £200. We lived very enjoyably on bread and onions. My father went back to Germany on September 1 1939 to reclaim $1,000 that a German in Leipzig owed him. When he arrived in the man's office, he found him wearing a swastika on his arm and a portrait of Adolf Hitler behind him. He told my father: 'We don't recognise debts to Jews'."

The young George was already quite advanced at piano when he arrived and he continued piano studies with Paul Lichternstern, and studied composition with Francesco Ticiatti. His further education included a course in French language and literature at the Sorbonne. He went on to open a successful art gallery in Bond Street, joined the board of the furniture company, Maples, as its art expert (its share price increased twelvefold during his term there), and became its chairman and that of the British National Export Council for Art. This was, he says, all at a time "when family circumstances ruled out a musical career".

And now he is "honoured" that the Dreyfus Society for Human Rights, to give it its full title, has found a home in the British capital, flanked at Birkbeck in Bloomsbury by the Wiener Library and the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. Among events planned to mark the Birkbeck launch is a lecture accompanying a performance of Whyte's play, Dreyfus Intime, based on letters exchanged between Dreyfus on Devils Island and his wife in Paris, interspersed with extracts from Zola's J'Accuse monologue; plus a series of six talks tracing the evolution of French antisemitism. In the spring of 2013, the society will co-host an international conference on the future of antisemitism, in Berlin at the Reichstag.

Alongside all this, and setting a series of mainly Hebrew poems to music, completing a musical called Captain Dreyfus, preparing for the 2013 preview in Germany of his refugee cabaret drama, Are You Listening? and writing his second volume on Dreyfus, Whyte is constantly striving to combat antisemitism.

He views the task as immense. "For too many people," he says, "the Jew is still defined by the calumnies and libels inflicted for hundreds of years by Christianity."

So what can be done? "If there is genuine atonement by Christianity for its past, let them add one sentence at the end of the Lord's Prayer or Catholic catechism: 'Justice, justice, shalt thou follow for the children of Israel, whom we have wronged'."

In other words, for Jewish Bible readers: Tzedek! Tzedek!

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