Happy Hanukkah from OUP! This year we’re celebrating with a series of eight books celebrating Jewish history and culture over the eight nights of Hanukkah. As your menorah candles burn bright, take this opportunity to honour both the endurance of the Maccabees and the Jewish people.
In this blog post, Judith Chazin-Bennahum, author of René Blum and The Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life, provides an insight into the incredible life of René Blum.
Well? Have you? If not, it’s probably because René Blum’s lifelong career in the arts has been safely hidden from the history books. Only his brother Léon Blum, the first Socialist and Jewish Prime Minister of France, received enormous attention. But Judith Chazin-Bennahum knows why René Blum deserves to be remembered: because he was an extraordinary man. Chazin-Bennahum’s book introduces the reader to the world of the Belle Epoque artists and writers, the Dreyfus Affair, the playwrights and painters who reigned supreme during the late 19th century and early 20th century period in Paris. Below she provides us with just a few of his most impressive accomplishments.
- Caught in one of the deadliest battles at the Somme, as a French soldier in WWI under enemy fire, Blum saved important works of art from Amiens and for his bravery received the Croix de Guerre. He kept a brief journal about his experiences during the war describing the constant thunder of distant cannon and featured the deadly boredom of being a soldier. Later, during the Holocaust he was shocked that he was imprisoned having served his country honorably during wartime.
- As editor of the Parisian literary journal Gil Blas, Blum singlehandedly arranged for the publication of Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) the first volume of La Recherche du Temps perdu, (In Search of Lost time) by the publisher, Bernard Grasset. When Proust was a young and radical author, he received many letters of rejection, including one from André Gide.
- After the death of the great ballet impresario, Serge Diaghilev, René Blum brought back to life the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, engaging the greatest talents in ballet in 1932. As Artistic Director of the Théâtre du Monte Carlo, he succeeded in convincing his colleagues that resurrecting the Ballets Russes would be a boon to the theatre and the public of Monte Carlo. He hired the Colonel de Basil as his partner in this grand venture but soon lost respect for de Basil who tried to overtake Blum in the running and administering of the company. They parted soon after in 1934.
- René Blum oversaw the extraordinary performances of young Balanchine’s early works in 1932, Cotillon and La Concurrence, as well as the symphonic ballets of Leonide Massine, Les Présages and Choriartium that rocked the dance scene, as well as the classical pieces of Michel Fokine including Petrouchka and Les Sylphides. Bronislava Nijinska, the brilliant choreographer of the Ballets Russes was hired to replace de Basil and presented her Bolero, and Les Comédiens Jaloux.
- Blum saved many dancers and choreographers from the ravages of World War II by selling his company to American entrepreneurs in 1940. Blum had been with the company in the United States when the war broke out but he fatally chose to return to Paris to be with his son Claude René and also his brother Léon who was on trial and in prison in Vichy France.
- Although quite ill while imprisoned at Drancy, the infamous concentration camp near Paris, he gave lectures on French literature and ballet to distract the others from their pain and hunger. He behaved heroically before he was murdered at Auschwitz, complaining of the terrible conditions for his fellow prisoners in the camps.
Feature image credit: “Ksenia Kern, balerina” by Sergei Gavrilov. CCO via Unsplash.