Yes, That's a Jewish Doctor in the Children's Classic 'Madeline' – Kveller
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Yes, That’s a Jewish Doctor in the Children’s Classic ‘Madeline’

In 1954, Ludwig Bemelmans revealed that Madeline’s doctor was purposefully written as Jewish.

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I knew it was coming, thanks to countless stories from friends and jokes on the internet, yet I still was somehow unprepared to enter this new parenting stage: the one where my toddler asks me to read her the same book over and over and over and over again.

I love how much my daughter loves books, and I fantasize about the day we can both quietly read our novels of choice together on the sofa, so I try not to get too annoyed when I close a picture book, say “the end,” and she immediately screams “GUN!” (do not be alarmed, that’s just how she pronounces “again”). It helps when it’s a book I actually like, too, and that’s certainly been the case with one of her recent favorites, “Madeline.” 

Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic 1939 story about a vine-covered boarding school in Paris and the smallest girl, Madeline, who winds up in the hospital with appendicitis, is charming, a little sad and a little weird. But it wasn’t until my 189th time reading it this week that I noticed it’s also a little Jewish. 

For those who haven’t read the book 267 times this week (that’s right, I’ve read it 78 times since writing the last paragraph), when headmistress Miss Clavel finds Madeline crying in pain in the middle of the night, she calls the doctor. But not just any doctor — Dr. Cohn. I don’t like to make assumptions about people’s Jewish identities based on names or professions, but it’s hard to imagine someone with the last name Cohn, or Cohen, who isn’t Jewish. Throw in the fact that he’s a doctor, and, well, my daughter’s favorite book just officially became Jewish.

At first I used this information to create an elaborate backstory in my mind while reading, picturing Dr. Cohn’s candlelit Parisian Shabbat dinners and solemn Yom Kippur afternoons practicing tashlich along the Seine. Then I googled it and discovered that Dr. Cohn has an actual backstory, inspired by Jewish French prime minister Léon Blum. 

In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Award in 1954, Bemelmans revealed that Madeline’s doctor was purposefully written as Jewish and meant to resemble Blum, who the author called a “great patriot and humanitarian,” according to the Jewish Press

Affiliated with the Socialist party, Blum was the first Jewish prime minister of the country. His initial tenure began in 1936, and he pushed through many social reforms, including for worker’s rights. While out of office in 1940, he became an outspoken critic of the new Vichy France government which collaborated with Nazi Germany, leading to his imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp. His lover at the time, Jeanne Adèle Levylier, chose to voluntarily live with him there, and the two got married inside the camp. Eventually he was transferred to Dachau and then released, after which he returned to French politics until his death in 1950. His brother, René, died in Auschwitz. 

As the author of 12 books himself, Blum was destined to go down in literary history, so maybe he didn’t need the nod in a beloved children’s book. The Jewish Press also points out that there’s evidence Bemelmans may have been an antisemite, which is obviously quite unfortunate to learn when you have personally read his book 582 times. 

So instead of thinking about that, I will focus instead on the kind Jewish doctor who keeps little Madeline safe and warm in his arms. I bet his Kiddush cups were always filled with excellent French wine.

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