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Renate Stendahl places recent Gertrude Stein controversy in context

By Harriet Staff

Over at Tikkun, the debate around Gertrude Stein’s wartime activities is articulated at length, including Barbara Will’s claim that Stein essentially wanted the Nobel Peace Prize for Hitler. “Why the Witch Hunt?” asks Stein scholar and translator Renate Stendhal. For it’s not just in the literary world or on Bernstein’s blog at Jacket2 where this dialogue is drawing out:

On May 1st, 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 super-sized 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.

Stendahl goes on to look at the recent exhibitions centered on Stein and her art-collecting legacy (“Instead of ‘continuing to collect art,’ Stein and Toklas were, as she reported in a letter, ‘eating the Cézanne.’”); her translations of the speeches of Vichy head Marshal Pétain, which might have been a result of her friendship with eventual Nazi collaborator and intellectual Bernard Faÿ; and the modernist paradox that is her avant-garde writing meeting her rather conservative politics:

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)

And as regards Faÿ:

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.

Perhaps importantly:

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.)

Also worth looking at is the Editor’s Note on Stendahl’s article, written by Tiqqun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner. (“[W]e believe that artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals are not exempt from the moral obligation to fight against the rise of evil….”)

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, June 7th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.