A Jewish Response?

By :  Alisa Braun Academic Director, Community Engagement Posted On Jan 12, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

Wars I Have Seen by Gertrude Stein (1945)

“And now in June 1943 something very strange is happening . . .”

Does Gertrude Stein belong on the “Jewish Bookshelf?” It probably depends on whom you ask. Alan Dershowitz accused Stein of being one of the collaborators who “made [the Holocaust] possible” since she had survived in France due in large part to a friendship with a Vichy government official. I’m guessing he would say “no.” Many Stein scholars have in turn defended her from what they consider to be trumped-up charges. Others look at her more notorious texts and conclude that far from displaying fascist or anti-Semitic beliefs, they are consistent with her commitments to literary modernism’s ideal of the passive subject.

In Wars I Have Seen, Stein describes her experience under Nazi occupation in France, and the anxiety and terror of the occupation comes through in her understated language. Life is increasingly “strange,” everything is “funny.” You no longer know whom you can trust or whom to rely on for help. The repetitions which are a hallmark of her style seem perfectly apt for describing the increasing absurdity of daily life, as when Stein describes buying a jar of jam: “You have to buy what you do not want to buy in order to buy what you do want buy.”

Stein’s memoir is valuable for the way it calls attention to how many of us have preconceived notions of what a Jewish text should be or what constitutes an appropriate Jewish response. Further, some of her observations are downright chilling in light of our own country’s resurgent white nationalism. Explaining the persistence of anti-Semitism, Stein’s Germans are “desperately clinging to any past century, any past century is a hope and a force any past century even any present century, they cling to a century and what that century stood for . . . ,” a line that effectively captures how nostalgic myths of white America are invoked today.