Death to the Jews: Leo Frank, Alfred Dreyfus and the Crime of Judaism

     The summer before eleventh grade, I attended Hathaway Brown Theatre Institute, a camp that trained me to perform in one of its two musicals that season. One of our assignments was to pick a new song, practice it with a voice teacher and prepare it as an audition piece. On a staff member’s suggestion, I chose “You Don’t Know This Man” from Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a 1998 musical about the trial, conviction and lynching of Leo Frank — a man innocent of all deeds except being Jewish.
     Frank, a pencil factory superintendent in Marietta, GA, was accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in April 1913. As crowds outside the courthouse screamed, “Hang the Jew!” on August 25, Frank was convicted based on factory janitor Jim Conley’s testimony. That Conley’s story changed between affidavits seemed not to bother the jury, nor did the fact he admitted fabricating parts of his tale. Although Conley was an African-American in the Jim Crow South, the jury considered him more truthful than Frank, a Jew raised and educated in the North. Appeals from Frank’s legal team failed, although Georgia’s governor commuted his original sentence — death by hanging — to life imprisonment.
     However, the commutation did not save Leo Frank. On August 16, 1915, a group of 28 men — including former Georgia governor Joseph Mackey Brown, former Marietta mayor Eugene Herbert Clay and E. P. Dobbs, the mayor of Marietta at the time, as well as lawyers, bankers and county sheriffs — abducted Frank from a prison hospital. The next day — exactly 100 years ago — they lynched him. When townspeople discovered Frank’s swinging corpse, they took proud pictures underneath it: a city united, celebrating that they had finally hung the Jew.
     Today, historians agree that Conley killed Phagan to steal the pay in her pocket. Conley framed Leo Frank, an innocent man condemned less for his alleged crime than for being a Jew in an anti-Semitic society.
     Frank’s sordid tale struck a particular chord with me not just because I am Jewish, but also because of my mother. She was born and grew up as a Jew in the South. Had my mother been born just a few decades earlier, she, too, could have been framed for murder because of her religion. She, too, may have hung from a tree, a rope bruising her breathless neck.
     As I sang the song from Parade at camp, I thought of another anti-Semitic attack. In September 1894, the French army obtained a letter known as the bordereau, written to the German military attaché in Paris, offering French military secrets. Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew with knowledge of the letter’s promised information, became an instant suspect. The army prosecuted Dreyfus without conclusive evidence as to his guilt. A handwriting expert from the Bank of France said Dreyfus’ penmanship did not match that in the bordereau, so General Mercier hired an anti-Semitic graphologist to disagree. Commandants Henry and du Paty forged a “Secret File” of documents incriminating Dreyfus under military orders. On December 22, the First Council of War unanimously declared Dreyfus guilty. Most Frenchmen believed a Jew could commit treason without question, despite his spick-and-span military career and spotless criminal record. Journalists from the popular, anti-Semitic La Libre Parole, who had felt consoled upon Dreyfus’ arrest “that it [was] not a true Frenchman who committed such a crime,” rejoiced.
     Dreyfus’ legal battle to prove his innocence continued for more than a decade. In 1896, while investigating one Commandant Esterhazy for another treasonous letter, General Georges Picquart discovered Esterhazy’s handwriting matched that in the bordereau. His superiors forbade him from revealing his discovery; when Picquart disobeyed them, giving his report to a lawyer in 1897, the army discharged him.
     Picquart’s report led to a retrial for Dreyfus and a first trial for Esterhazy. However, on Jan. 10, 1898, Esterhazy was acquitted. The crowd roared its appreciation for the verdict: “Death to the Jews!”
     However, Dreyfus and his supporters maintained his innocence. As anti-Semitic disputes roiled France, the military’s case unraveled. Reporters discovered the forged “Secret File” in August 1898; Commandant Henry committed suicide. The next day, Esterhazy fled France. A year later, Dreyfus returned to France for a retrial but, despite the new evidence in his favor, met conviction again. However, President Loubet issued Dreyfus a pardon in September 1899, which he accepted. Dreyfus remained guilty in the eyes of the law until 1906, when the Cour de Cassation gave him a fourth trial. Finally, they declared his innocence.
     Even after the 1906 ruling, however, anti-Dreyfusards and anti-Semites swore by Dreyfus’ guilt. Their sentiments haunted Dreyfus the rest of his life. He could no longer live his former existence as an upright military officer, Jewish but unobservant. Until his death, his faith and its consequences defined him.
     Alfred Dreyfus’ legal battle began 19 years before Leo Frank’s, and he avoided Frank’s grisly demise. However, history casts these two men as brothers. Both were upstanding members of their modern societies; both were framed for crimes they did not commit; both were convicted because they observed Judaism; both have been exonerated by hindsight, the great redeemer. Dreyfus and Frank serve as casualties of anti-Semitism in the Western world, and as warnings of the strife and injustice prejudice can wring.
     A common joke among Jews aims to describe, in one sentence, all our holidays: “They tried to kill us; they didn’t; let’s eat!” Although I laugh whenever someone feeds me that line, I — like all Jews, or at least most — understand the truth at its core. We are among the most persecuted groups in world history. In the Exodus, the Diaspora, the Holocaust, we have faced extinction as a people. Yet we have faced equal threats as individuals throughout history as well.
     We don’t know the name of every Jew targeted for his religion. We don’t know their faces, their families or their fates. However, we do know Alfred Dreyfus and Leo Frank. We know who they were; we know what befell them. We read their names in history books and hear their stories in musicals. We think of their faces when we hear of persecution and bemoan the years they lost because of it.
     Today, the centenary anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, remember the factory leader whose innocence could not save him. Remember Alfred Dreyfus, the soldier betrayed by the army he served. And with them, remember every other victim of religious persecution — millions of unknown people killed before their time, millions of unknown people who deal with slurs and violence everyday. We do not know all their names, but we can honor their lives. If we remember and eradicate the prejudice that plagued them, they have not died in vain.
     If observing Judaism is a crime, I am guilty. Luckily, in my life, it is not. We must make that the standard across the world, for all religions. The fact we have not achieved that yet shows what we still must learn from Leo Frank. Until then, his body’s shadow still hangs on a tree in Georgia: limbs tied together, his white nightshirt in tatters, unseeing eyes facing the sky.
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