The debate about Gertrude Stein has been in the public eye once again, with accusations flying about her role as a famous lesbian Jew who managed to survive in Nazi-dominated France, to having been protected by a Nazi collaborator, to having been a translator for the Nazi-surrogate regime of Petain. This was a regime that rounded up tens of thousands of Jews who were then put on trains carrying them to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
Tikkun magazine does not take a stand on the issue of what Gertrude Stein did or did not do, and our printing of our esteemed writer Renate Stendhal does not mean an endorsement of her views, but only reflects our commitment to encourage rational debate on many topics that have been dominated by rhetorical excess and name-calling. Stein was lauded as one of the early lesbian feminists whose literary fame gave her a partial pass on the sexism and homophobia that typically stunted the literary careers of many other lesbians. For that reason, some have been adverse to question Stein’s role as a conservative who may have helped the Nazis. Yet in the year when Stein’s work is being publicly lauded even in Jewish communities, some have raised these issues about her role during World War II.
However, while printing an article below that defends Stein’s role, we at Tikkun continue to have some concerns about what is not being discussed in these debates and public exchanges. Even granting Renate Stendhal all that she says in this article, we still believe that these concerns are relevant.
Best to state them this way: we believe that artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals are not exempt from the moral obligation to fight against the rise of evil (as manifested in racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, anti-democracy, destruction of human rights, repression of free speech and freedom of assembly, destruction of the environment, militarism, torture, etc.), which becomes most dangerous when these pathologies move from the realm of thought to the realm of political movements that embody or champion them. Like all citizens, they are morally deficient when they fail to challenge the rise of evil in any given society, and all the more so because unlike most citizens, these people typically have greater access to the means of communication than the ordinary person. So while the fascist project in Europe, once it took power, quickly shut downs means of communication, in the years before that (from the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s in France till the conquest of France by the Nazis in 1940), there were many opportunities for creative writers and thinkers to combat fascism, and those who did not are rightly to be critiqued.
If some intellectuals and writers didn’t understand the evil of fascism when it was first developing, they surely cannot be excused for not using their intelligence and creativity to condemn fascism and the Nazis once the truth was revealed and the Nazis militarily defeated. There is a special obligation to speak out clearly and unambiguously for those writers, artists, and intellectuals who had received protection from Nazis and may arguably have even unintentionally helped fascist regime. They had a moral obligation to use their creativity and smarts to alert those who listened to them or read their poems, articles, or books to inform people about what was evil about fascism, and why it should be resisted with all one’s energies.
Nor is it an excuse to say, as some have, that Gertrude Stein or others like her who benefited from the protection of Nazi collaborators had no obligation to do this since their form of writing and communication was not that of discursive sentences or positions. One’s form of communication is itself an ethical choice, and cannot be given a blanket permission in the face of mass murder happening all around oneself. If you choose to be ambiguous in the face of evil, you become one of its collaborators, empowerers, or enablers.
We at Tikkun are full well aware that this is a contentious position among many writers, poets, and thinkers today who think of themselves as somehow exempt from this kind of moral scrutiny. But when a Jewish institution gives honor to someone who may have committed this kind of sin—the sin of silence as my rabbi Joachim Prinz used to call it after he escaped the Nazis from his synagogue in Berlin to become a famous American voice of Jewish conscience and one of the speakers at the Martin Luther King, Jr.-inspired March on Washington in 1963—we think it perfectly appropriate to use such occasions to at least raise the question of the responsibility of those who even after the war remained silent about the evils of fascism and anti-Semitism. No, we do not want the other extreme of a political correctness doctrine to be used to judge every work of art, poetry, or literature. We do not use such criteria in our choice of poetry or in what books should be reviewed. But we do believe that when honoring artists, writers, and intellectuals, we should certainly consider their role in having met the ethical obligations of any other normal human being. It is this respect that some people today are questioning the continued lionizing of the life and work of Gertrude Stein.