Although Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) is not a universally recognized name, one of his fictional creations is: Madeline, an indomitable little Parisian girl.
Although he was a hotelier and restaurateur; a cartoonist and illustrator of hundreds of magazine articles; a novelist, anthologist, and journalist; a theatrical designer and screenwriter (his best known work being “Yolanda and the Thief”); an advertising man (including a famous ad for Jell-O) and interior decorator, he achieved everlasting renown for his six Madeline books, the first of which was published in 1939 and was named a Caldecott Honor Book (1949).
Considered one of the leading classics of children’s literature for ages 3 to 8, the Madeline books have sold well over 10 million copies and spawned an entire merchandising industry. The first story was later adapted into a short animated film by United Productions of America (1952), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film. A subsequent book, Madeline’s Rescue, earned a Caldecott Medal (1954) and a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year designation.
Each Madeline story begins in identical fashion with a rhyming cadence well-known to generations of parents and their children for over 80 years:
In an old house in Paris,
That was covered with vines,
Lived twelve little girls
In two straight lines.
The book tells the story of 12 little girls, the smallest and most adventurous of whom is Madeline, who live together in a boarding school in Paris under the supervision of Miss Clavel. Most critics claim the girls’ home is an orphanage and that Miss Clavel is a nun – which is simply incorrect; in fact, in one story, Madeline receives a beautiful dollhouse from her father, which makes her the envy of the other 11 girls, and there is considerable evidence to support the proposition that Miss Clavel is, in fact, a nurse.
As Bemelmans tells it in the first Madeline book:
In the middle of one night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”
Little Madeline sat in bed,
cried and cried – her eyes were red.
And soon after Dr. Cohn
came, he rushed out to the phone,
“Nurse,” he said, “it’s an appendix!”
not a single eye was dry.
Madeline was in his arm
in a blanket safe and warm.
Madeline’s surgery was successful, though she was left with a scar, and all the other girls wanted to have the same surgery so that they, too, could get toys and candy.
In his June 22, 1954 speech accepting his Caldecott Award, Bemelmans disclosed the origins of Madeline and said he purposely made Madeline’s doctor a Jewish physician and that he modeled Dr. Cohn after Léon Blum, the first Jewish prime minister of France.
The Madeline stories began to take shape during a family vacation in France when, while riding home on his bike, Bemelmans was struck by a car. While in the hospital having his injuries treated, a little girl who had an appendix operation stood up in bed and proudly displayed her scar to him.
He was apparently inspired by the tenderness of the doctor who treated the little girl. As he tells it, “if you take a look at the book, you will see that the doctor who runs to Madeline’s bed is the great patriot and humanitarian Léon Blum.” He was thinking specifically of Blum’s kindness and gentleness in describing Madeline being “safe and warm” in the doctor’s arms.
However, notwithstanding his affection for Blum, there is evidence that Bemelmans was an anti-Semite. Benno Weiser Varon, a leader of the Jewish community in Quito who knew Bemelmans well, declared that Bemelmans was a Jew-hater who, among other things, urged the Quito Tennis Club to exclude Jews. Varon, a fascinating character in his own right, served as editor of Quito’s leading newspaper; played a crucial role in securing Ecuador’s pivotal vote in favor of the UNSCOP partition plan for Eretz Yisrael; and served as Ecuador’s first ambassador to Israel and later as Israel’s ambassador to Paraguay.
There are any number of other specifically Jewish characters in Bemelmans’ work. For example, in the humorous The Eye of God (1949), set during the Anschluss and World War II, he writes of a Jewish banker who has managed to buy his security with money and lies. In the hilarious When You Lunch with the Emperor (published posthumously in 2005), he draws on his experiences working his way up from busboy to waiter to banquet manager at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and describes some of the entertaining characters and crazy scenes he saw along the way, including those at big Jewish weddings.
Moreover, Bemelmans agent, who was sometimes described as his “ghost artist,” was Ervine Metzl, the Chicago born son of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia. Metzl (1899-1963) was an American graphic artist and illustrator best known for his posters, including several still-famous posters he designed for the Chicago Transit Authority in the early 1920s, and postage stamp designs, including commemoratives for the first World Refugee Year, the Lincoln Sesquicentennial, and the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Readers may be interested in Avigail, a Jewish takeoff of the Madeline stories by Chana Zauderer and illustrated by Mary Abadi (Feldheim, 2015) in which four Jewish girls engage in various Jewish activities with the youngest, Avigail, always the last to do everything.
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Distinguished lawyer, jurist, journalist, poet, drama critic, and political leader, Léon Blum (1872-1950) is perhaps best known for being the first Jew and the first socialist to become French Premier.
During his three terms, he forged closer relations with the United States, worked to suppress fascism, introduced a 40-hour work week and paid vacations for workers, nationalized the Bank of France and the war industries, and carried out an extensive program of social reform including, in classic socialist fashion, redistribution of the nation’s wealth.
After graduating the Sorbonne with the highest honors in law, Blum became close with French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, which led to his joining the Socialist Party in 1899 and his later election to the prestigious Chamber of Deputies in 1919. When the party split in December 1920 with the Communists winning a majority, taking control of the machinery of government, including the national press, Blum became the unquestioned leader in the reconstruction of the Socialist Party.
After the 1934 Paris riots, which many consider to be the beginning of fascism in France, Blum began to work on the left-wing alliance that became the Front Populaire. In the 1936 elections, the Front won a large majority and Blum, its chief architect, became Premier. At the same time, his social reforms aroused the bitterness of French industrialists as well as the French right wing, which displayed pro-German tendencies and conducted a violent campaign of personal vilification against Blum tinged with anti-Semitism.
After the French collapse in 1940, Blum, refusing to flee – he was in great danger as both a Jew and a Socialist – bravely remained in France, where he was indicted by the Vichy government and brought to trial. His brilliant defense, however, so embarrassed the Nazis that they ordered the suspension of his trial; he was incarcerated for five years, first in Buchenwald and then in Dachau, before being freed by U.S. forces in May 1945. After World War II, he was again elected prime minister of France and became a respected elder statesman.
Exhibited here is a June 30, 1949 correspondence to Paul Angoulvent from Blum on his “Le Populaire” letterhead written as director of the Organe Central Du Parti Socialiste (the Central Organ of the Socialist Party) in which he sincerely and cordially acknowledges receipt of Angoulvent’s June 20th letter and for the works he was kind enough to forward.
Angoulvent (1899-1976) was a French publisher and Louvre museum curator who directed the University Presses of France beginning in 1934. After France’s liberation in 1944, he was convicted of ousting Pierre-Marcel Lévi, the Jewish director of his publishing house.
Blum was born into a Jewish family where his mother kept kosher, regularly lit Shabbat candles, and taught her children to recite prayers in Hebrew. He celebrated his bar mitzvah in synagogue, and the family regularly gathered together for the Jewish festivals. He remained observant early in his life, though he characterized Judaism as “nothing more than a collection of superstitions observed without any conviction, simply out of respect for ancestors.”
When he was admitted to an advanced French school, he brought kosher food with him and, on one occasion, his professor noted in his diary that “Blum brought unleavened bread and meat prepared according to the Jewish rite.” He married Jewish women – three of them (his second wife was the sister of composer Paul Dukas, famous for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) – and the first wedding was held at the Grand Synagogue in Paris.
Like many of his countrymen, however, Blum later became wholly assimilated and non-observant, although he was always conscious of his Jewish origins – something that French anti-Semites would later never let him forget.
Notwithstanding his assimilationist desire to become a successful socialite and to blend into the upper echelons of French society, Jewish issues played an important role in his life. His reporting on the infamous Dreyfus Affair was perhaps the formative event of his political life, and his strong support for Dreyfus resulted in a massive escalation of anti-Semitic allegations and activities against him.
The anti-Semitism against him only grew as he gained political power, and a most powerful tide of anti-Semitism was unleashed when he was elected premier in 1936 as leader of a Socialist government. Before his election, he was dragged out of his vehicle by an anti-Semitic group and nearly beaten to death and, upon his election, opposition leader Xavier Vallat took the floor of the Chamber of Deputies and made the following infamous statement:
Your coming to power is undoubtedly a historic event. For the first time this old Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I dare say out loud what the country is thinking, deep inside: it is preferable for this country to be led by a man whose origins belong to his soil than by a cunning Talmudist.
Vallat further alleged that, rather than acting in the best interests of France, Blum would be making foreign policy only after consulting with his fellow Jews. With calls of “death to the Jews!,” the fascist right, which would later comprise the pro-Nazi Vichy French government, enthusiastically endorsed Vallat’s speech. Urging the Chamber of Deputies to take seriously the Protocols of the Elder of Zion – the notorious and disgusting fake anti-Semitic screed – it announced that “the Government of Léon Blum puts the Jewish Question [sic] before the French people for the first time since the Dreyfus affair.”
In response, Blum proudly acknowledged his Judaism and answered: “I am a Jew. That is a fact [and] you do me no injury by reminding me of the race to which I belong and have never renounced and toward which I feel only gratitude and pride.”
Sympathetic to Zionist aspirations, Blum was one of the founders of the “Socialist Pro- Palestine Committee” (August 1928), which formally expressed recognition of the achievements of the new Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael; resolved that Zionism “based on work, on Socialist transformation and international solidarity, deserves the assistance of all Socialists;” and cited the Biblical prophecy of Amos 9:15: “They will never again be uprooted from the land I have given them.”
A close friend of Chaim Weizmann, he accepted the Jewish leader’s invitation to represent French Jewry in the Council of the Jewish Agency. He was also a strong supporter of Keren Hayesod and served as a member of the French Palestine Committee in Paris.
After World War II, Blum did not merely pay lip service in support of increased Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael, but rather championed the Zionist cause. Citing Herzl’s famous motto, “If you will it, it is no dream,” he publicly and dramatically declared the birth of the Jewish Commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael; assumed a leading role in influencing the French government’s pro-Jewish vote on the United Nations decision on Palestine (1947); and was instrumental in preventing British diplomatic pressure from stopping the flow of Jewish illegal immigration from Central Europe through France to Eretz Yisrael.
“Kfar Léon Blum,” a settlement begun by the Labor Zionist Habonim on the banks of the Jordan River at the foot of Mount Hermon about four miles from Kiryat Shemoneh as a permanent memorial to Blum, was formally inaugurated on November 10, 1943 during a ceremony attended by representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and the French Committee of National Liberation.
Speakers included the French consul-general, who expressed his appreciation for the friendship extended by the Jews of Eretz Yisrael to France; Golda Meirson (later Meir), on behalf of the Histadrut; and Dr. Abraham Granovsky (Granot), a JNF director and later a signer of Israel’s declaration of Independence.
One of Blum’s greatest wishes went unfulfilled: he desperately wanted to be able to visit Eretz Yisrael and to see Kfar Blum, but it was not to be. In his adult life, Blum had nothing to do with Jewish practice, and so in his death: in disregard of Jewish law, he was buried at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris on the first day of Passover after a non-Jewish funeral service.