The best books on Jews in modern France

Maurice Samuels Author Of The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal That Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern
By Maurice Samuels

Who am I?

As a scholar of nineteenth-century French history and literature, I had always been fascinated by a paradox: France was the first modern European country to grant the Jews full civil rights (in 1790-91) but it was also the country where modern antisemitism first took shape. I’ve explored that paradox in a series of books, including most recently The Betrayal of the Duchess. Since 2011, I’ve also directed the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. Many people don’t realize that France today has the third-largest population of Jews in the world, after Israel and the United States. And it continues to be ground-zero for antisemitic attacks. So studying this history is more important than ever.

I wrote...

The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal That Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern

By Maurice Samuels,

Book cover of The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal That Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern

What is my book about?

The year was 1832 and the French royal family was in exile, driven out by yet another revolution. From a drafty Scottish castle, the duchesse de Berry hatched a plot to restore the Bourbon dynasty. For months, she commanded a guerilla army and evaded capture by disguising herself as a man. But soon she was betrayed by her trusted advisor, Simon Deutz, the son of France's Chief Rabbi. The betrayal became a cause célèbre for Bourbon loyalists and ignited a firestorm of hate against France's Jews. By blaming an entire people for the actions of a single man, the duchess's supporters set the terms for the century of antisemitism that followed.

Brimming with intrigue and lush detail, The Betrayal of the Duchess is the riveting true story of a high-spirited woman, the charming but volatile young man who double-crossed her, and the birth of one of the modern world's most deadly forms of hatred.

The books I picked & why

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Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

By Marcel Proust, CK Scott Moncrieff (translator),

Book cover of Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1

Why this book?

Besides being probably the best novel ever written, this is certainly the best novel ever written about Jews. Set largely during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, when the wrongful conviction of a Jewish officer for treason drove France to the brink of civil war, Proust’s epic novel explores the dynamics of Jewish assimilation and antisemitism with keen insight and biting wit. Half-Jewish himself, Proust understood better than anyone why Jews wanted to be part of a society that regarded them with at best ambivalence and at worst, outright disdain. The novel is about a lot of other things also—childhood, writing, snobbery, homosexuality—but the sections about Jews are among the most penetrating and poignant.

Alfred Dreyfus: L’Honneur d’un patriote

By Vincent Duclert,

Book cover of Alfred Dreyfus:  L’Honneur d’un patriote

Why this book?

This is the best history of the Dreyfus Affair and I wish it were available in English. Whereas most histories of the Affair cast Dreyfus as a hapless victim or as a patriotic automaton, who might not have even been a Dreyfusard had he not been Dreyfus, Duclert shows him to have been a true hero, whose super-human resolve and fortitude eventually allowed justice to prevail. Dreyfus emerges not as a martyr to antisemitism but as the first example of the resistance hero, the model for the struggle against authoritarianism and state terror in the twentieth century.

The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

By James McAuley,

Book cover of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

Why this book?

This is a book about a group of fabulously wealthy Jewish families (the Cahen D’Anvers, the Reinachs, the Rothschilds, and others) who amassed first-class art collections and left them to the French state only to see the state turn on them during the German Occupation. With great sensitivity, McAuley explores the lives of these very elite Jews, many of whom were related through ties of friendship and marriage, painting a rich portrait of their gilded but “fragile” world. He shows the complicated motivations behind their collections—the drive to belong and to express that belonging through art. This is certainly a snapshot of a very particular class, but it reveals something profound about the nature of the French-Jewish experience.

The Journal of Hélène Berr

By Hélène Berr,

Book cover of The Journal of Hélène Berr

Why this book?

Hélène Berr was the French Anne Frank: a university student during the German Occupation, she kept a journal of her experience, which her family kept private until 2008, when it became a publishing sensation. The journal covers the period from 1942, when Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, until her arrest in 1944. Gifted with a literary sensibility, Hélène observes the world around her as the walls began to close in, but still manages to grasp moments of love and joy amid the suffering. A precious record of day-to-day life in Occupied France, the journal also provides that rarest of Holocaust narratives: the voice of someone who did not survive.

La Place de l’étoile

By Patrick Modiano, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of La Place de l’étoile

Why this book?

This is the first novel by Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.  It has been translated into English but with a French title, which contains a pun that can’t be translated (referring both to a location in Paris and to the infamous badge imposed by the Nazis). A darkly comic and shocking send-up of French antisemitic literature, the novel features a clownish protagonist named Raphaël Schlemilovitch who embraces every antisemitic stereotype imaginable, becoming in turn, a cosmopolitan, a traitor, a collaborator, and a pimp before winding up on the couch of Sigmund Freud begging to be put out of his misery.  Modiano wrote this novel to exorcise the demons of French literature and it helped him carve out a place as a distinctly Jewish voice in the French literary pantheon.

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