Why the witch-hunt against Gertrude Stein?

In 1934, Gertrude Stein was invited to the White House to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. Stein was on a triumphant lecture tour across the United States, following the success of her bestselling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and her fashionable opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The American press proclaimed, “Gertie is Gertie is Gertie!” In the thirties, Gertrude Stein was America’s quirky darling.

How times have changed.

On May 1, 2012, the celebration of Jewish Heritage Month began with an official statement from the White House: “From Aaron Copland to Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein to Justice Louis Brandeis, generations of Jewish Americans have brought to bear some of our country’s greatest achievements and forever enriched our national life.” One day later, Stein’s name was no longer wanted in the celebration because of allegations that she survived the Holocaust in France as a Nazi collaborator. Stein, the supersized lesbian “genius” of Jewish origins, has always been controversial, but now she was considered “unkosher.” The White House staff dropped her on the sly by removing all individual names from the Celebration of Jewish Heritage Month.

Some people have criticized the survival of Stein’s collection — all those “degenerate” modernist art works — as suspicious. Orthodox New York  state assemblyman Dov Hikind declared in a press release: “People need to know who owned this art and how she came to maintain it while her fellow Jews were being robbed, tortured, and murdered. Indeed, the collection should be presented as collected and safeguarded by a Nazi Collaborator.” Hikind, Manhatten Borough President Scott Stringer, commentator Alan Dershowitz, and others have tirelessly campaigned against Stein, attempting to get disclosures and warnings about Stein added to an exhibition of her art collection at the Metropolitan Museum. Alan Dershowitz went so far as to intimate that Jewish morality would have been better served if Stein had been sent to a concentration camp.

I’ve set out to explore the validity of these allegations and to put Gertrude Stein’s admittedly troubling actions in the appropriate historical context.

A modernist author and art collector

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), the “Mother of Modernism,” is one of the most famous and least-read American authors. She came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family, grew up in Oakland, studied psychology and philosophy with William James at Harvard, then medicine at Johns Hopkins. In 1903, she broke off her studies and followed her brother Leo Stein to Paris, where she lived as an expatriate writer until her death.

During her lifetime, her writing was ridiculed and rarely found publication, unless she published it herself. Her massive oeuvre of six hundred titles remains a challenge for the academic canon. And yet, there is a popular Gertrude Stein whom everybody knows and loves to quote. “(A) rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is the most quoted line of modern American literature, narrowly followed by “there is no there there.” The language revolutionary who liked to write hermetic “Cubist” portraits and texts also had a knack for playful, child-like one-liners that today ring like pop tunes or tweets. “Pigeons on the grass alas.” “When this you see remember me.” “I am I because my little dog knows me.” “Commas hold your coat for you.”  “Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.” It was Stein, a self-declared “genius,” who coined the term “the Lost Generation” after World War I, teaching young American writers like Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others that “remarks are not literature.”

The modern and postmodern relevance of Gertrude Stein has been recognized last year by two epochal traveling exhibitions. “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco (May–September 2011) was the first-ever museum show that focused solely on Stein’s personality and life, organized in tandem with the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where it showed last fall. In a unique collaboration between San Francisco museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) launched a parallel fifteen-week exhibition about the profound influence of the Stein siblings on modern art: “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” This exhibition, the largest ever undertaken by SFMOMA, was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until June 3.

Both shows reflect the central position of Gertrude Stein in the birth of modernism, signifying that she was much more than a “mother” or “muse” to her famous artist and writer friends. As an art patron — first with her brother Leo Stein, then with her life companion Alice B. Toklas — she was a trendsetter and tastemaker, connecting artists and writers at her legendary Paris salon. Row upon row of incendiary, scandalous art was hung on her walls — Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Bonnard, Manet, the Fauves, and Cubists — making her studio, in Hemingway’s words, “one of the best rooms in the finest museum.”

Urban legend

How is an urban legend created? If a rumor or allegation is repeated often enough in the media and blogosphere it ends up being perceived as an established “fact.” In Stein’s case, the legend, in the words of Stein detractor Dov Hikind, sounds like this:

It is a matter of fact that, among other things, Stein lobbied for a Nobel Peace Prize for Adolph Hitler and was only allowed to remain in France and continue collecting art because she aided the Vichy government in its collaboration with the Nazis.

Every word in this statement is a distortion or even plain nonsense, revealing a shattering ignorance about the facts, the history of WWII, and Stein herself. The rumor that Stein lobbied the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for Hitler was spread in 1995 to the Israeli journal Nativ (Volume 8, No 5, Sept. 1995) by former Committee member Gustav Hendrikssen, and repeated in the November 1995 issue of Outpost, the newsletter of Americans for a Safe Israel. Hendrikssen was enraged by the nomination of Arafat; he wanted to create a scandal to underscore the Jews’ failure to support their own interests. It didn’t matter to him that already in 1937, Hitler had decreed that no German could ever receive a Nobel Prize in any category. Hendrikssen’s defamation was quoted in 1996 by the English language edition of Forward (Feb. 2, 1996). In the same year, the office of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo debunked the story. The Nobel Prize website maintains a nomination database which also conclusively refutes Hendrikssen’s claim, but the official correction has done little for Gertrude Stein’s reputation. (The evidence can be read in the appendix to The Letters of Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein by scholars Edward Burns, Ulla Dydo, and Edgar Rice.)

Similarly ludicrous is Hikind’s notion that Stein was “allowed to … continue collecting art” during the war years. In 1939, Stein and Toklas had only been able to save two favorite paintings from their collection: they took Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” and Cézanne’s “Portrait of Mme Cézanne” on the roof of their car to the countryside. When all access to Stein’s money, her American family allowance, was cut in 1943, she was forced to sell one of these two remaining paintings. Instead of “continuing to collect art,” Stein and Toklas were, as she reported in a letter, “eating the Cézanne.”

The campaigning by Stein detractors like Dov Hikind and Alan Hershkowitz, labeling her a Nazi, a Hitler fan, a fascist, a collaborator, is symptomatic of the ignorance or willful besmirching that keeps the urban legend of Stein alive.

The beginnings of the scandal

I was personally involved in the “Summer of Stein” with lectures at both San Francisco museums; my photobiography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures (Algonquin, 1994, republished in 2010) had directly inspired Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Among the many events surrounding the parallel exhibitions, there were public readings of Stein’s one-thousand-page novel The Making of Americans, performances, and a new staging of Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Perfectly timed, Woody Allen’s charming comedy Midnight in Paris was bringing Stein and Hemingway’s Paris to the big screen. There was the local lesbian scandal: two hand-holding women chased from Seeing Gertrude Stein by a zealous museum guard, followed by a protest and public hand-holding action — by women and men — at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Then the global scandal hit.

Suddenly everyone was curious, worried, or upset over Gertrude Stein’s whereabouts during World War II. Why didn’t Gertrude and Alice leave even though they were repeatedly warned and urged to flee? Why didn’t they get the treatment of enemy aliens (i.e., Americans) or get deported like other Jews, other lesbians, or other unwanted people? The same questions were raised many times before in Stein biographies — sympathetically, for example, in the well-researched account by James Mellow, Charmed Circle, in 1979. A few years ago they were raised again, this time aggressively, by Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007). The answers given have always been the same: Stein’s close friend and frequent visitor, Bernard Faÿ, who turned into a fascist collaborator during the war, somehow protected the two women and their art collection. When Malcolm’s book came out four years ago, nobody cared.

At the center of the new, belligerent need to question Stein is the book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) by Dartmouth Professor Barbara Will. Will’s book led to the accusations against the Contemporary Jewish Museum for hiding facts and protecting Stein’s image by not properly addressing her survival. In an article for the Bay Area Jewish Weekly, Sonia Melnikova-Raich called the omission historical “cleansing,” reminding her of the similar idealizing treatment of Soviet “heroes.” At a museum panel during the exhibition, local historian Fred Rosenbaum got “extremely worried” about Stein’s “Nazi collaboration.” Commentator Mark Karlin eagerly picked up on Stein’s “fascist leanings” in his post “Gertrude Stein’s ‘Missing’ Vichy Years” and agreed with the charge that “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” noticeably lacks a sixth story. Visitors and bloggers (like BuzzFlash writer Bill Berkowitz) who never before read or studied Stein got enraged by certain details they snapped up from the agitation around them: What? Stein had a fascist friend? Stein said Hitler ought to get the Nobel Peace Prize? How scandalous! Stein, a collaborator! Stein, a Nazi! The scandal even got to the Washington Post, prompting critic Phil Kennicott to review Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and openly declare his “hatred” for her.

The crisis that started with Unlikely Collaboration has now lasted a whole year, escalating in fervor and vitriol. As the well-informed Stein blog gertrudeandalice.com recently pointed out, the situation at the Metropolitan Museum and the White House can bring back memories of the McCarthy era and the Salem witch-hunts.

Biased interpretations

While I felt the urgency to research every resource I could find and comment on the controversy in my blog and in diverse articles, I instinctively went on the defense of Stein — not, however, of Stein’s political virtue or innocence. Rather, my urgency was to address and possibly redress some of the glaring simplifications and the poisonous tone of the accusations — everything that seemed wildly out of proportion with what I knew about Stein’s life, personality, art, and yes, politics.

One of the main accusations, leveled against Stein by Barbara Will and repeated almost everywhere in the media, claims that Stein did after all want the Nobel Peace Prize for Hitler. Here is the situation: Freshly famous after the bestselling success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein was interviewed by Lansing Warren for the New York Times Magazine, in 1934. In the article titled “Gertrude Stein Views Life and Politics” Lansing writes: “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize,” [Stein] says, “because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.”

If you know Stein at all, you instantly catch the joke. Anybody really looking at the interview might note that the interviewer points to the laugh and “impish” look on Stein’s face as she brings out such outrageous pronouncements. Isn’t this the way Jewish humor works? Stein recommends Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize just as Freud “recommended” the Gestapo — with the same perfect irony. When Sigmund Freud’s supporters tried to pay his way out of Vienna at the last minute, in 1938, the Germans made a condition for his release. They demanded a declaration that he had been well treated by them. Freud declared, “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Freud a collaborator, like Stein?

If you read on in the interview, and, if you are still in doubt, you will come across the following passage:

Building a Chinese wall is always bad. Protection, paternalism, and suppression of natural activity and competition lead to dullness and stagnation. It is true in politics, in literature, in art. Everything in life needs constant stimulation. It needs activity, new blood.

Stein hands Hitler the prize for paternalism, suppression, dullness, and stagnation — in short, a mockery of “peace.” Paradoxical, provocative use of language in order to break conventions of reading and understanding, irony and self-irony are the essence of the modernist Stein. Commentators who haven’t read Stein or don’t know enough about her will most likely misread and misinterpret whatever they do read. The more objective commentators in Stein research and biographical writing have all recognized the irony in this famous comment — an irony that is reinforced by many other anti-German and anti-Nazi comments one could quote from Stein’s work. For example, one could quote Stein’s equation of Hitler’s “peace” with death for the arts as well as for the country:

The characteristic art product of a country is the pulse of the country, France did produce better hats and fashions than ever these last two years and is therefore very alive and Germany’s music and musicians have been dead and gone these last two years and so Germany is dead well we will see, it is so, of course as all these things are necessarily true. (Paris France, 1939)

Will, however, doesn’t put the Hitler quote to rest. She admits the irony but muses: “Stein probably wanted her audience to respond in both ways.” She sees “a strong element of conviction and intentionality in such pronouncements, as though she requires — indeed demands — that her words be taken literally.” Will denies Stein’s paradoxical humor by arguing, “her political ‘pontifications’ are not clearly ironic but apparently deeply felt.” Is this choice of language — “probably wanted,” “as though she requires, indeed demands,” “apparently deeply felt” supposed to be fair-minded scholarship?

Will’s earlier book, Gertrude Stein: Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius” (2000) provided valid, even enthusiastic Stein research. I wonder if the author “probably, as though, apparently” suffered a conversion experience? It is well known that conversion experiences lead to zealotry with a distinctive loss of the capacity for irony. As if to prove this point, in a recent article for the National Endowments for the Humanities, Will went so far as to take offense at the humorous photograph of a group of American GIs surrounding Gertrude Stein at Hitler’s villa in Berchtesgaden, performing what Will sees as a Hitler salute. In fact, if you care to look closely, they are not saluting, they are pointing. But even if they are saluting, victorious American soldiers striking any semblance of Hitler’s pose should be clear evidence of irony for anyone capable of perceiving irony. Will now also appears to have lost the remnant of doubt she had expressed in Unlikely Collaboration, denouncing, as if it mysteriously had become a fact, “Stein’s endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934.”

Gertrude Stein’s war years: Setting the record straight

To my relief, just as the White House crisis erupted, major American authorities on Gertrude Stein united with editor, poet, and scholar Charles Bernstein to bring factual facts back into the picture, creating a dossier, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” Stein experts Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns, Joan Retallack, and Marjorie Perloff confirm that Stein “was no fascist.” Bernstein has gathered relevant historical and cultural research in his Dossier — a badly needed breath of fresh air in a poisonous atmosphere. I will come back to the Dossier, but here is how Bernstein addresses the Hitler quote:

This willful, multiply repeated, misrepresentation of Stein’s remark in a 1934 New York Times interview is a little like saying that Mel Brooks includes a tribute to Hitler in The Producers.

Barbara Will quotes another well-worn Hitler story by editor/publisher Jay Lansing. In 1934, Lansing allegedly heard Stein say that Hitler and Napoleon were both “great men.” For Will, this unquestioningly gives the other Hitler comment a sinister “deeper meaning.” But here again, the question of context, tone of voice, an “impish look,” missed irony, or mishearing must be raised. Stein never liked Hitler any more than she liked Germans on the whole. Did Stein’s comment perhaps refer to the fact that most of the so-called “great men” of history (from Alexander the Great onward) shared the megalomania that led to mass murder in their conquerors’ wars? Napoleon was the Hitler of his time. His reign lasted one year longer than the Third Reich; he, too, executed enemies without trials, killed off prisoners of war, and spectacularly misjudged the invasion of Russia. I would argue that Stein deserves at the very least the benefit of the doubt — in spite of the fact that she did admire one “great man,” old Marshal Pétain, who at the end of his military career became the head of the Vichy Régime.

The Pétain mystery

A prime target of criticism is Stein’s attempt to translate Pétain’s speeches in 1941. There is good reason to be mystified and troubled by this strange undertaking, but this, too, deserves a historical perspective. Maréchal Pétain had been every French person’s hero after his victory in the Battle of Verdun, in 1916. He was once again most French people’s hero — and Stein’s hero — when he saved Paris and most of France from the total destruction that had just been witnessed wherever the Nazi war machine had crossed a border. They had seen the beginning of the end when Orléans was almost destroyed by the Germans. As Charles Glass writes in Americans in Paris (2010),

Even though Pétain did not actually say “armistice” this was the word that set off immediate rejoicing across the country. To this day, older French people can remember where they were — and how they felt — when they learned of Pétain’s decision.

Yes, in Stein’s eyes, the old Marshal was the savior of France and that seemed to be all that mattered. She did not object to his election as prime minister of the Vichy Government and his self-nomination to chief of state any more than almost the entire French population did. She never commented on his increasingly authoritarian regime in collaboration with the German occupiers. Did Stein approve of Pétain’s evolving reactionary and anti-Semitic politics, or blindly give him carte blanche for his past merits? Nobody knows. What we know for sure is that at the same time Stein worked on her translation project, she also wrote a whole satirical novel about Hitler and Stalin, Mrs. Reynolds (1940–1943), which she unsuccessfully tried to publish in the States.

This is my point: there are paradoxes and contradictions in Stein’s life and work that make any picture in pure black and white questionable. An objective portrait of Stein would have to take into account her lifelong ambivalence about great men (beginning with her tyrannical father and later her overbearing brother Leo) as well as her keen awareness that as a writer she was competing with all the “great men” of patriarchal literature — in particular her modernist rivals Joyce, Pound, Proust, and others. In 1926, Stein wrote a long text,“Patriarchal Poetry” (Bee Time Vine, 1953), from which feminists in the seventies produced a postcard quoting repeated variations of her statement, “Patriarchal poetry is patriotic poetry is patriarchal poetry is the same.”

Missing from Will’s book are crucial quotes like this one: “There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing” (Everybody’s Autobiography, 1936). Three years before WWII, Stein commented in a letter to her friend from WWI, W. G. Rogers:

Disguise it to yourself as you will, the majority does want a dictator, it is natural that a majority if it has come to be made up of enormous numbers do, a big mass likes to be shoved as a whole because it feels it moves and they cannot possibly feel that they move themselves as little masses can, there you are, like it or not there we are. (W. G. Rogers, When This you See Remember Me, 1949, 217)

This clear-eyed assessment and obvious dismay about the psychology of the masses is seen by Barbara Will as “chilling,” a proof that Stein “firmly distances herself” from democracy. Will writes, “Stein argues for the power, and, arguably, the rightness of authoritarian leadership.”

There is certainly no denial that Stein was a staunch conservative. Her friend W. G. Rogers called her “a Republican all her life.” She came from an assimilated, proudly bourgeois Jewish family that admired Washington and Grant. She had been raised at the Californian frontier with the pioneer spirit of individualism and patriotism, but, as W. G. Rogers writes, she was “unfamiliar in the fields of economics and politics.” She said it herself: “Writers only think they are interested in politics, they are not really, it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics.” (Answers to the Partisan Review, 1938) She also said it repeatedly in her 1939 portrait of the French, Paris France: I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free. And so France is and was.”

The modernist paradox

Still, I can’t deny that I had a hard time looking more closely at the translation project Stein undertook in 1941. How could a radical avant-gardist at the same time be a traditionalist, a conservative, even at times reactionary, I wondered?  There is a sadness when a great woman is taken down a notch in our esteem: it brings us down as well. At the same time, it struck me that nobody asked the question how a radical avant-gardist like Picasso could join the communist party in 1944, after Stalin’s show trials, gulags, and mass murders were public knowledge. How could Breton (even briefly), Aragon, Eluard, or Frida Kahlo serve Stalin’s agenda by being active communists? In Stein’s own words: “Supposing nobody asked the Question, what would be the answer?” (Useful Knowledge, 1928)

A partial answer is found in the movement of modernism, which, on the whole, dreamed of extreme political renewal, of rebirth for their respective nations, connected to “the great men” of their time. Stein was part of the modernist paradox, about which we do not yet know enough. (An entire issue of the academic magazine Modernism/Modernity, # 15, is devoted to this exploration.)  Many modernists, like Stein, feared communism more than fascism, but few of them all could claim the ironic self-knowledge that Stein professed:

It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged. It has always happened from the French revolution to today. It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure. (Paris France, 1939)

When the Vichy Régime chose Pétain as prime minister, Stein hoped — naively, blindly — that he would guarantee France’s protection from Nazi Germany and recognition from America. This view was shared by the American Department of State. At the time of Stein’s translation project, Vichy France was not (yet) at war with America; in Pétain’s Unoccupied Zone, the Zone Libre, where Gertrude and Alice’s country house was located, American Jews lived freely, especially if — like Gertrude and eventually Alice — they were over sixty-five years old. Charles Glass points out that no Americans were interned in the Unoccupied Zone. Stein’s hope for Pétain’s France was encouraged when, according to Rogers, “the Franco-American Committee … asked her to translate for her compatriots Marshal Pétain’s messages.” If Stein acted out of her concern for France, it is still a puzzle how she felt about the repressive content of these speeches, the fascist and anti-Semitic tendencies in some of Pétain’s “messages.”

Even Barbara Will is baffled. She doesn’t know what to make of the translation, because Stein didn’t really do it. She hand-wrote a draft of some thirty speeches dated from 1939 to 1940, in a language that renders them unreadable. As we know from computer gobbledygook, word-by-word translations don’t make sense; they are a joke. But that is exactly what Stein did. Here is one of many examples Will gives: “‘Ils se méprendront les uns et les autres’ — a speech denouncing Pétains’ critics — is translated ‘But they are mistaken the ones and the others.’”

Will ponders that perhaps Stein had such an admiration for the old man that every word of his had to be honored in and of itself. Maybe Stein wasn’t fluent in French, some commentators have proposed. She had spent almost four decades in France and had written and published in French. Others have wondered about her English proficiency. Stein, the recent bestselling author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, certainly was able to write straightforward English. One is tempted to speculate in the same manner Will does, but in the opposite direction. What if Stein found the content absurd but was fascinated by the language, the archaic French tonality of the old soldier that could only be rendered as some hermetic prose-poetry? The mystery remains and even Barbara Will can’t will the answer.

The paradox of friendship

It’s possible that Stein’s long-time intellectual friend Bernard Faÿ urged her to do the translation, perhaps as a favor that could promote his own standing with the Maréchal whose personal advisor he had just become, perhaps as a potential bargaining chip for her safety. But the facts of his protection have never been established. Even thorough French investigations in situ (see Dominique Saint Pierre’s study, Gertrude Stein, le Bugey, la guerre, 2009) ultimately rest on speculations, on one French collaborator’s questionable assertions about another. The study is not mentioned in Will’s book.

Faÿ came from an arch-catholic royalist family, was gay, Harvard-educated, and highly respected — both in France and the United States — as an academic and as the author of books on Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. In the twenties and thirties, he had in many ways helped Stein’s career. Even if Stein wanted to do her friend a favor, there is no evidence that she knew what Faÿ did in the Vichy government — that he became a Nazi collaborator and a secret Gestapo agent, a vicious persecutor of the Freemasons in France. Stein’s letters reveal nothing of the sort, even if Barbara Will tries to hang Stein by a single mention (in their entire letter exchange) of an agreement with Faÿ: “and of course I see politics but from one angle which is yours” (69). Politics? What politics? As far as anybody knows they might have been talking about their shared conviction that Roosevelt was bad for America or that labor unions diminish workers’ independence.

Roosevelt used a saying based (perhaps) on a Balkan proverb: “It is permitted you in times of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” If indeed Gertrude Stein walked with the devil across the bridge, she did not get Barbara Will’s permission.

It is well known, however, that in wartime, friendship trumps politics the minute anyone is in danger. When Germany occupied all of France, in November 1942, Sylvia Beach, the founder of the famous American bookstore Shakespeare & Company and publisher of James Joyce, was rounded up in Paris and deported to the Vittel detention camp. “Various friends at home who were on sufficiently good terms with the Enemy were continually working on our problem,” she wrote (quoted by Glass). In the end, her lover Adrienne Monnier appealed to Jacques Benoist-Mechin, minister of police in the Vichy government, who had helped the Germans round up Jews, Freemasons, and members of the resistance. When Beach was set free in 1943, she personally thanked the collaborator — the same man who had sent her beloved assistant Françoise Bernheim to Auschwitz to die. When Faÿ was put on trial for collaboration, in 1946, Stein made only the most minimal effort for him, perhaps for the sake of their old friendship, writing a statement about his basically good character and his effort in regards to her art collection. No more, no less.

Survival in France

Another point of contention in today’s “politically correct” atmosphere is that Stein does not mention the death camps in her wartime writing. But Sylvia Beach, who was at the hub of international connections in Paris, did not hear about the death camps until a Polish woman from Auschwitz informed her at the Vittel camp, in 1943. Stein, by contrast, lived isolated in the deep countryside from 1939 to the end of the War and refused to listen to the French radio. The American broadcasts made no mention of concentration camps. In an article published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1940, “The Winner Loses: A Picture of Occupied France,” Stein expresses the same feelings toward the Nazis that her French neighbors felt: deep fear and loathing and a profound sadness about France.

The suspicious questioning of how Stein and Toklas were able to survive the war as Jews reveals a considerable ignorance of the conditions in Occupied France and a troubling confusion of France with Germany. In Germany, half of the German Jews were trapped after 1938, and almost every one of them was murdered. In France, three quarters of the Jewish population survived in the same way Stein and Toklas did, with the help of friends and neighbors, and often with the help of local French officials who quietly resisted German orders.

Stein’s brother Leo and his wife survived in Italy in the same way. It was how Chagall survived in France. Matisse, although not a Jew but a “degenerate” modernist painter, refused a visa from the States and stayed. So did Picasso, a well-known anti-fascist. If Stein was “protected,” were they? Stein never mentions that Faÿ protected her (a claim he made at his post-war trial for collaboration) or helped her and Alice survive. On the contrary, she talks about being deprived and anxious. Should they flee to nearby Switzerland, with false papers, as was suggested to them by French officials? But how could they leave without being able to take their dog? How would they fare as an aging, illegal couple in a new place, among strangers? “No, I am not going we are not going, it is better to go regularly wherever we are sent than to go irregularly where nobody can help us,” Stein writes in Wars I Have Seen.

Even with protection and help, however, anything and everything could have gone wrong. At any moment, their neighbors could have denounced them. They never did. The Gestapo came twice to look at the “degenerate art” in their Paris home. Again it was friends, this time apparently indeed Faÿ, but also Picasso, who helped to save their collection. Germans were milling about in Bellay, their next-door garnison town, roaring on their motor-bikes through the village of Bilignin. In their second country house, in the village Culoz, Italian soldiers were billeted under their roof, followed by German officers. If any one of them recognized the two elderly women as either American Jews or lesbians, they apparently didn’t care. The Germans admired Basket, the couple’s proud poodle, who was the only one of their two dogs to survive the cold winter. Rereading Wars I Have Seen, Stein’s diary-like memoir of those years, I found a very different Stein from the author of her earlier memoirs. She does not seem to have any sense of being protected; she has a pervasive sense of unreality and helplessness and, like her neighbors, she consults ancient prophecies for comfort. The photographs I collected for my book speak the same language: Stein for the first time in her life is thin and haggard. She writes about having to walk for miles for an egg or a little bit of flour. So much for Dov Hikind’s assertion in one of his press releases that Stein “lived in comfort” because she “sold her soul” to the Nazis.

As the war turns, after Stalingrad, she declares herself increasingly enamored with the resistance and keeps excitedly reporting about local successes of the Maquis. She has abandoned her translation project. She is now clearly anti-Vichy — a fact that is conspicuously absent from Barbara Will’s book and is never mentioned in the controversy. Stein passionately writes:

The one thing that everybody wants is to be free … not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, none of these things they all want to feel free, the word discipline, and forbidden and investigated and imprisoned brings horror and fear into all hearts.

She did not write this book in hindsight. It got smuggled out of France before the war was over, and Stein didn’t add or change a word of it when it was published in 1945.  (The quote does not appear in Will’s book.)

Charles Bernstein’s dossier, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight,” reports that Stein’s work was on the “Liste Otto” of forbidden books by Jewish authors in France. In a December 5, 1987 letter to The Nation, Edwards Burns and Ulla Dydo had already pointed out that Stein was published during the war by publications that were “anti-Nazi and anti-Vichy.” They argued that “had Stein’s conduct during the war been thought less than correct, is seems unlikely that they would have associated with her.”

Another frequently repeated reason for today’s criticism is that Stein never directly addressed her Jewishness in her wartime writing. Stein and Toklas were “liberated” by the American army as Americans, as the American press reported; there was no mention of their survival as Jews. But once again, we have to look at the historical context. We have to remember that there were no “identity politics” back then. Intellectuals and artists considered themselves as defined by their country of origin; the great majority of them were assimilated Jews like Stein and Toklas, like Proust, and like so many other important writers and artists of the period. When you read names like Nathalie Sarraute, Derrida, Bergson, Maurois, Milhaud, Max Jacob, Soutine, Modigliani, Tristan Bernard, and Wanda Landowska — do you know which ones of them were Jewish? All of them, as it turns out. (Heine and Kafka, by the way, also didn’t declare their Jewishness in their work. They are not put on trial the way Stein is nowadays.)

I certainly wish Stein had been less politically conservative and short-sighted. I wish she hadn’t attempted to translate Pétain’s speeches and hadn’t chosen a friend who turned into a fascist zealot. But none of it makes her a likely or unlikely collaborator or Nazi. By contrast to many other writers and intellectuals of her time who got mixed up with extremist doctrines, she never fully embraced them. As Charles Bernstein points out in his dossier, we can be grateful that Stein and Toklas escaped extermination, that her collection was not confiscated by the Nazis, and that Stein ended her literary achievements in 1946 with her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.



Originally published in Tikkun, June 4, 2012. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

See also:
Renate Stendhal, “Was Gertrude Stein a Collaborator?” in The Los Angeles Review of Books, December 17, 2011; see also Stendhal’s blog and her article “Gertrude Stein, Hitler, and Vichy-France: Process Notes” in Trivia: Voices of Feminism (2012).