Thursday, June 9, 2011 | return to: views, opinions


Exhibit leaves out how Gertrude Stein survived Holocaust

by Sonia Melnikova-Raich

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VMalnikova-Raich, Sonia
Sonia Melnikova-Raich
The current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” noticeably lacks a sixth story: How did Gertrude Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas — being American, Jewish and lesbian — survive unharmed during World War II in Nazi-occupied France?

How did they manage to escape deportation and maintain their lifestyle in their country home in the south of France? And why didn’t they escape to Switzerland — only 21 miles away — after being told by the American consul that their lives were in danger and they should leave immediately?

These questions, which we are left with after viewing this otherwise engaging exhibit, are addressed by Janet Malcolm in her 2007 book “Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice” but are glossed over in the exhibit. The wall text at the CJM only calls the story “complicated” and briefly mentions “an aggressively anti-Semitic writer Bernard Faÿ, who was a figure in the upper echelons of the Vichy government, and who ensured their safety and that of their art collection,” adding that “the extent and exact form of this protection remain unclear.”

The story is complicated, indeed, but perhaps not as unclear as stated.

Many scholars have explored the subject. Their conclusions range from outright collaboration  (Barbara Will’s essay “Lost in Translation: Stein’s Vichy Collaboration”) to a more nuanced view of Stein’s possible simultaneous “familiarity with the Resistance” (Linda Wagner-Martin’s book “Favored Strangers”).

But most agree that Stein’s relationship with Faÿ and a certain degree of collaboration with the Vichy government during the war were a matter of choice.

Stein met Faÿ, a French history professor, in the late 1920s. Despite his open anti-Semitism, Faÿ declared his “adoration” for Stein and her writing, translated her books into French, and was instrumental in her becoming a celebrity in France and her 1934 American lecture tour, even teaching her lecturing techniques. (Stein’s “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” mentions Faÿ as a “charming guest” and “one of the four permanent friendships of Gertrude Stein’s life.”)

During the Nazi occupation, Faÿ had close connections to the Gestapo. He was appointed director of the Vichy government’s Bureau des Sociétés Secrètes and was

responsible for deportations to concentration camps of a thousand Freemasons, more than half of whom died. He was also made head of the Bibliothèque Nationale and as such was instrumental in protecting Stein and Toklas from what ordinarily would have been their fate under a Nazi regime.

The nature of Faÿ’s affinity with Stein is another story. What is important to know, in the context of the current exhibit, is that Stein held remarkably reactionary views, opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, among other things.

Quoted in the New York Times Magazine in 1934, Stein stated, “I do not approve of the stringent immigration laws in America today. We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition.” But in the same breath, she also said, “There is no reason why we should not select our immigrants with greater care, nor why we should not bar certain peoples and preserve the color line.”

And: “Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.” To eliminate any doubts that Stein was just being her eccentric self, in 1938 she actually lobbied the Nobel committee.

This makes it less shocking, then, to learn that Stein, at Faÿ’s instigation in late 1941, undertook translating speeches by the Vichy leader Pétain into English, comparing him in her introduction to George Washington. Still, it is difficult to understand how she could continue with the project once persecution of Jews in France became state policy and mass deportations to death camps began.

After the liberation of France, Faÿ was tried as a collaborator and Stein, shortly before she died, campaigned on his behalf. He was sentenced to dégradation nationale and hard labor for life but escaped to Switzerland, with financial aid allegedly from Toklas.

Years after being pardoned in 1953 by presidential decree, Faÿ, in his memoir, identified himself as Stein’s protector during the war, having spoken to Pétain about her genius and the peril she was in. Pétain instructed the sous-préfet at Belley to provide the women with everything they needed, such as coal and ration coupons, and Faÿ periodically reminded the sous-préfet of Pétain’s instructions.

Stein’s biographers accept this account — along with a 1955 private letter from Faÿ — as true. Will’s book “Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma,” coming out later this year, may provide more food for thought.

Many scholars today are more interested in Stein’s political leanings than her Modernist literary work. But the question on my mind is not whether some obvious dark spots on Stein’s conscience make her a lesser figure in modern literature or less deserving of an interesting exhibit. Rather, it’s whether a Jewish institution can celebrate her life without being more transparent about those spots.

Sonia Melnikova-Raich of San Francisco has an extensive background in architecture, art and art history, including writing and curatorial work. She currently divides her time among art, research in Soviet history and translation work.


Posted by Dan Spitzer
06/09/2011  at  04:04 PM
The Anti-Semitism by Some Jews, Such as Stein,

JVP, Barbara Lubin, Dennis Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finklestein, and the likes of Michael Lerner should not be papered over by any institution. Or newspaper for that matter.

Gertrude Stein has been championed by gay women for a couple of decades and those who had the temerity to try to discuss the truth of her affinity for Adolf Hitler and the mutual appreciation she and her lover, Alice B. Toklas held for the vicious Vichy Jewish-hating toady Bernard Fay, has been met by condemnation of that historical reality by cries of “False, you are anti-lesbian for raising such a question.”

Well, most of us know the horrible things Hitler did to homosexuals (except the gays in the Nazi’s own upper echelon). So this whitewashing of Stein is more than a bit of an irony.

Of course, we see this bizarre pattern repeated today in those gay Jewish organizations which regularly castigate the sole society in the Middle East where their sexual preference may be openly practiced and is protected, Israel…

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Posted by Sonia Melnikova-Raich
06/10/2011  at  03:04 PM
It’s really a question of integrity

“Gay and Lesbian Review” actually showed a good example when they published an honest review of Janet Malcolm’s book about Stein, and they didn’t even have to. One would think the Jewish community would have similar integrity, regardless of individual agendas.

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Posted by Dan Spitzer
06/10/2011  at  04:52 PM
Israel Outstanding in Support of Gays

Just yesterday, thousands of gay Israelis proudly marched in one of the few countries where homosexuals can be open about their preference.

The numerous gay organizations nation and worldwide which castigate Israel should have their membership go to the Palestinian territories or, for that matter, anywhere in the Arab world so they might see for themselves what happens if they reveal their sexuality in public.

And while I have no problems with Tony Kushner winning an award for his superb skills as a playwright and director, he too should venture into the Palestinian territories to see Arab societies’ vicious response to gays.

Would that lead to the likes of Kushner ceasing their attacks upon the one Middle Eastern society where their rights would be protected? Sadly, given their hatred of fellow Jews, one would have to say that would be doubtful…

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Posted by rfaelmoshe
07/05/2011  at  03:17 PM
A pattern repeats

Here in the Bay Area, we see a similar, yet still inexplicable pattern repeat itself. For reasons that can only be attributed to psychology and not rational politics, we have LGBT Anti-Israel/Pro-Palestinian groups, despite the obvious irony that being LGBT is a Capitol offense in the Palestinian areas.  Escaping to Israel, often illegally,can often be the only way that an individual might escape a family initiated “honor killing” , etc. So, why do people who are otherwise very forward thinking and modern, inexplicably support fascist causes?  Who knows, but we see it today.

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Posted by alanrubensteindds
08/13/2011  at  12:45 PM
Gertrude Stein exhibit

I too am dismayed by the “glossing over” what should have been the “6th” story of Gertrude Stein, her association with the Nazi puppet government in France during World War II. 

The official response from the San Francisco Jewish contemporary museum was that this information can be found in the exhibit’s book available at the gift store.  Revealing the role played by this traitor Stein in a book which the vast majority of the museum’s guests will not be reading is a poor substitute for disseminating this vital information.

In the exhibit it was reported that Stein was buried in the Jewish section of a Paris cemetary. What gall, while she contributed to a regime that threw our people into unmarked
mass graves.  May she burn in hell next to Hitler. 

Shame on the museum curators who chose to gloss over Stein’s friendships with Vichy government officials.  When Stein was throwing her parties with Hemingway and Picasso, and her Nazi buddies, our Jewish children were being murdered!!

TELL THAT STORY!!! Tell the story how that Jew traitor Stein was our worst enemy.  That’s the story of the Jewish people, that’s the story a Jewish museum needs to tell.

The museum ends their official response with “as a museum rooted in the Jewish tradition of debate and inquiry we welcome questions and commentary..”

NONSENSE!! Then these curators failed!! They didn’t stimulate debate and inquiry, people like Sonia Melnikova-Raich did by having the fortitude to say it as it is.

Alan Rubenstein DDS
This Gertrude Stein was the worst kind of Nazi there is…..a Jewish Nazi, and the Jewish museum should have had the guts to say so!!

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Posted by dtrofsurvivors
08/19/2011  at  07:14 PM
Ironic Juxtaposition

In an ironic juxtaposition (intentional?), the backroom of the ground floor of the Jewish Museum offers an exhibit of the heartbreaking work and the tragically short life of Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, murdered by the Nazis when she was four months pregnant at age 26. Upstairs is Gertrude Stein, who insulated by her American arrogance, money and political connections, comfortably sat out the Holocaust while not far away Charlotte Salomon was dragged out of her house in France and taken to Auschwitz.

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