VMalnikova-Raich, Sonia
VMalnikova-Raich, Sonia

Exhibit leaves out how Gertrude Stein survived Holocaust

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.