Gertrude Stein Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945; London: Brillance Books, 1984).
After finishing her “fiction” Mrs. Reynolds in 1942, at the house in which she was living in Biliginin—although it is also evident that she later revised that fiction to include the end of the war in 1945—Stein, having moved to Culoz, turned, in 1943, to writing a book that at first seems to be a kind of continuation of her earlier, Paris France—the latter seemingly a larger discussion of not just the current war, but about all the other wars she had experienced, Wars I Have Seen.
But what we must also recognize is that not everything Stein writes in this book, as in Paris France, represents her own point of view. As in that earlier book, what Stein often creates is not a work which, instead of personally commenting on history, serves as a kind of expression of the panoply of voices and their accompanying points of view that living in a small French village during 1943 and 1944 would naturally produce. And, in that sense, her Wars I Have Seen is less a personal memoir about war than, like Mrs. Reynolds, an attempt to demonstrate “the way anybody could feel these years.” Perhaps we cannot go so far as to say that, as she does in the Epilogue of her “fiction,” “There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind,” but we can argue that the history she tells is not merely a personal one. And if, at times, it appears that Stein is somewhat impervious to the feelings anyone might have during this tense period in French history, it is because it is not a history about any one person—even though those events are represented through her point of view and she very much stands out as the central figure within the book.
One need only to observe the basic structure of most of this work to realize that it is unlike nearly any other Stein creation. Although a great many of Stein works are conversational in tone, here the very patterns of the book suggest a kind of narrative structure that is not only oral but is based on way human beings converse with one another.
Consider, for example, the quote I so objected to above: “It was a nice war.” That statement appears on page 75 in the 1984 British edition of the original 1945 Random House publication. Given Stein’s usual predilection for outright pronouncements and generalizations, we may not, at first, even question her description of a war—any war—as being “nice.” But Stein quite clearly knows in saying this that she has made a rather strange comment. And two pages later, after ambulating through a great many other issues, including the appearance in 1918 of a vision to two children of the Virgin who predicts “a much worse war,” Stein returns to her comment to explain:
This quite clearly alters what at first seems to be a personal observation. Elmer Harden is a figure, also appearing in Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, who Stein and Toklas met and shared with them his experiences in World War I. I quote below the entire passage from the 1933 work:
Stein brings these issues up, one might also say, as tantalizing questions which she later answers in various ways that are not always personal. As Stein puts it another way, “Anybody can ask a question and anybody can answer a question, and during war-time they ask questions more than ever particularly in war-time like this one of 1943.” The seeming triviality of some of these questions is humorously revealed in her next comments:
Who said Christine aged six of her mother who is the Italians, Italians
The incessant child-like questions, many of which Stein posits, creates a kind of chatter than reveals more than its speakers sometimes perceive. “So if you ask questions and there is an answer it is not nevertheless any less illuminating,” Stein concludes, arguing for her approach.
Even when she finally sums up his achievements, it is clear that Stein, like many in the French population is quite conflicted in her feelings about Petain:
Despite the fact that others had suggested to her that there was no difference between the occupied and unoccupied zones, Stein argues convincingly that “there was a difference all right. One might not be very free in the unoccupied but we were pretty free and in the occupied they were not free, the difference between being pretty free and not free at all is considerable.” Her mixed views, moreover, were similar to a great many French Jews, as Caroline Moorehad has made clear in her Village of Secrets. In the beginning a large portion of the population supported Petain, changing their viewpoints as they grew more and more aware of his roundup of the Jews and his other capitulations to the Germans.
In other words, Stein uses the tactics of communal thinking to proffer and explore unanswerable questions with which she is faced by having, as she and her neighbors were, “an enemy in the house” (p. 67), an enemy, one must always remember, that would have surely arrested her had they been able to read her impossible-to-interpret handwriting. It almost a shock when late in the book (page 229) that Stein writes:
Alice Toklas has just commenced typewriting this book, as long as
For suddenly we realize just how precarious Stein’s and her neighbor’s situations have been all along. And because of these purposeful expressions of communal sufferings I would argue strongly against Djuna Barnes caustic dismissal of the book, “You do not feel that she [Stein] is ever really worried about the sorrows of the people. Her concerns at its highest pitch is a well-fed apprehension.”
Despite the German edicts and restrictions, however, Stein remained an active member of Culoz, beloved clearly by many, sharing her townspeople worries, fears, and hate of the Nazis, desperately awaiting the arrival of the Americans. Young men forced to travel to Germany to work in factories—a euphemism for what Stein well realized meant that they were being sent North “as hostages, to be put in a pen” (pp. 85-86), stopped by to see her before they left for advice and encouragement, leaving her, at least in Stein’s perception, “cheered,” she kissing each of them. Her reaction is one of her many gems of intense understatement: “Oh, dear me one cannot sleep very well.” In her nightly and daily walks through the countryside, Stein often came upon young soldiers, who she very clearly recognized as maquis, part of the guerilla bands of the French Resistance. Even while still in Bilignin, Stein makes clear she recognized what was going on around her:
The connection between the visitation of the young men about to travel to Germany and her statement that “some of them betake themselves to the mountains” are meaningful. If a few youths had previously escaped from the often German-filled villages, such as Culoz, after the Vichy government issued, in February 1943, the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO)—requiring all men born in the years 1920-1922 be obliged to serve as workers in Germany—the Maquis groups grew commensurably. As Moorhead summarizes: “With the STO came the beginnings of a Marquis.
Despite whatever agreements she had made with Faÿ and others to insure the protection of her Paris apartment with its art noted collection of art, the Gestapo reportedly did break into Stein’s apartment on Rue Christine, threatening to cut up and burn the Picassos. As Janet Malcolm reported (in one of her few truly informing moments among her numerous open attacks on Stein):
Numerous other, “minor” “bibelots, linens, and utensils,” however, were looted.
Stein, probably, had no idea about these dangers while living in Vichy France (although Faÿ or others may have written her about them), but she most certainly knew of the dangers of her situation, particularly after the couple were forced to move from Bilingnin to Culoz. Even that incident reveals both Stein’s and Toklas’ peril and bravery. When her lease on the Bilingnin house expired, the owners, despite the fact that, as Stein asserts, they did not need “it just then” (p. 49), insisted she and Toklas vacate. Stein sued, losing the case in court. Surely bringing up a court suit during that period was a fairly rash act. I do not know what lay behind Stein’s thinking; it may be that the owners had wanted her and Alice out of the house because of their fears of having Jewish-homosexual-American tenants, but obviously it might have, and may have called attention to Stein’s and Toklas’ presence. Indeed when Toklas visited her lawyer to close the deal on the Culoz house, which they had found after their legal defeat, she was told what her lawyer describes as something “rather serious”
Clearly shocked by his comments, Stein queries him about the difficulties of traveling into Switzerland, which the lawyer assures her “could be arranged.”
If, within the context, this appears like a dangerously sudden decision, a Steinian-like bluff against what she describes as “realism,” by work’s end we see the wisdom of her determinedness to stay. But we also must somewhat qualify our feelings, with the suspicion that Stein, like most of those in France during this period, did not truly know what might have been her and Alice’s fates if they had been interred in a concentration camp; even as late as 1943 many French Jews still perceived themselves as protected by their citizenship. While a few had seen, first hand, the Vichy brutality expressed against the Jews in Vénissieux detention center in nearby Lyons, Stein and most of the region’s residents could have had no idea that conditions would have been so awful, and even fewer could have imagined what lay ahead in the Poland camps where by 1943 most of the Jews who had not changed their identities and were not in hiding had been sent. As Moorehead writes of the remaining French Jews in 1942: “What exactly awaited them in Poland was still a matter of conjecture; many found it impossible to believe that it was mass murder. But what was clear was that with the German occupation of the whole of France, another step had been taken in the delivery of Jews for deportation. The little optimism that had remained among Vichy’s Jews now died” (VoS, p. 155).
If nothing else, however, Stein again demonstrates her own views in a way that shows her to be not only outspoken but brave in a way that goes far beyond mere “apprehension,” and certainly demonstrates admirable convictions.
Toklas and Stein, moreover, not only faced possible arrest and imprisonment, but even if left alone, were in some financial peril, particularly when monies from Paris no longer arrived. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein strongly attempts to cover up any shortages of food she and Alice were suffering, recognizing that in the Rhone farmland she was so much better off that those who had remained in the cities. The most significant difficulties regarding foodstuffs and other ingestibles are represented as minor issues of missing sugar (replaced by honey), cow milk (replaced by goat’s milk), and Toklas’ craving for cigarettes (purchased from the Italian soldiers and others). Stein’s biggest complaints have to do with their limited diet as opposed to any days of empty stomachs. She does, however, describe the effects of food shortages, as she does also Mrs. Reynolds, on men. Even in the camps, Moorehead suggests in Village of Secrets, the men wasted and died at a faster rate than the women.
The reason for Stein’s continued peregrinations throughout the territory are casually attributed to their need to obtain food. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein depicts a population forced to be on the move in order to trade dairy goods for meat, meat for fruit, etc. As she describes the situation: “You have to buy what you do not want to buy in order to buy what you do want to buy” (p. 115). Many grocers and other individuals, Stein makes clear, illegally sold goods. Grocers and farmers had been ordered to deliver a certain amount of their food to the German occupiers. And Stein admits how difficult it is to live on the rations one is allotted:
…a good many people had for a year consciously tried to live on their
In the latter half of Wars I Have Seen, we find more and more statements that reveal her opinions and attitudes. At several points she refers, dismissingly, to what describes as “callabo”: “that is one who wanted to collaborate with the Germans, there were quite a few of them and they are getting less and less but there still are some and he [the owner of the local drugstore] is one.” She quotes a German to underline her own hatred for collaborators: “They [the French] are either honest and intelligent, they are either collabo and intelligent or they are collabo and honest but I have never met one who was collabo honest and intelligent.” She even seems to share the excitement of the villagers who in 1944, began to shave the heads of the girls who kept company with the Germans (p. 248). And as her narrative progresses she increasingly comes to describe the mountain maquis as Robin Hoods, despite the various opinions and fears of those around her. Later in the book, when finding herself and Alice sharing a taxi with a Maquis, Stein is absolutely delighted:
In the next paragraph, she expresses herself even more clearly: “The maquis were pretty wonderful of course now they are armed and more or less superior in numbers to the Germans….”
It is also fascinating that a great many of the soldiers she meets not only know who Stein is but claim to have read her poems in school. Given the quality of education these days, and the complete lack of any contemporary figures in most secondary educational programs, it seems almost miraculous that the military men of World War II would not only be so excited to be in her company and but would ask her to sign her name on the American dollars they handed her. Stein, herself, attempts to explore the reasons just why these soldiers are so different from the others she has previously met. Perhaps Stein had helped to bring about some of those changes by working so emphatically against the tropes of 19th century to create a 20th sensibility—despite some of horrors that came with that transformation. Even if Stein might be guilty of a bit of fictitious reporting here, it is so endearing that we desire to believe the fact that Stein once represented a figure that is now, in so many ways, maligned. Given Stein’s reconnoiter with the Americans in this volume, it is almost inevitable that her next war-time book, her final contribution to literature would be a dialogue between American soldiers, the intellectually challenging, while utterly patriotic Brewsie and Willie.
confidential was never mentioned by phone.
Indeed, Stein describes herself was only walking or occasionally taking a train and never mentions Izieu in Wars I Have Seen. Chapman, however, also wrote Malcolm of another event, the arrival of two young boys, one, a five-year old Jewish-German orphan named Manfred Iudas. Caring for the children, Chapman and her mother evidently grew quite fond of the boy and had decided to adopt him. Consulting their friend Stein, the Chapmans apparently were warned against adopting him, with Stein insisting that he “must be adopted by a Jewish family.” Malcolm immediately jumps on this statement, which she presents almost as an “edict,” suggesting that, once again, “Stein did not behave well in the Second World War.” Malcolm melodramatically writes: “The story chills the blood….. To propose that a Jewish child be sent to a Jewish family at a time when everywhere in France Jews were being rounded up was an act of almost inconceivable callousness. Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns agreed that Stein’s advice was inexplicable and terrible.”
In reality, it is soon revealed, when Malcolm later meets with Chapman, that when Stein had argued for Jewish adoption, had not at all put the child’s life at risk, and the child was, in fact, adopted by a Jewish family only after liberation, “when Jews were no longer in danger.” The Izieu raid did not take place in 1943, as reported by the letter writer, but on April 6, 1944, four months before France was liberated. In short Stein had done absolutely nothing to suggest she was callous or thoughtless regarding the Jewish children. Moorehead, in her Village of Secrets, also describes this event, a shocking one since it came so close to liberation, and the school was located in an isolated region, set atop a hill. The school was also said to be protected by “sympathetic Vichy officials.” The attack was directed by the notorious Klaus Barbie.
That does not stop Malcolm, however, as she madly trudges forward trying to dredge a story out of her non-event. Why, she queries, would Stein, a non-practicing Jew, have argued for a Jewish position of “isolationism,” the idea that a Jew should marry only a Jew? Her argument is a nearly pointless one as she searches the records vainly, quoting Toklas, who converted to Catholicism after Stein’s death, as saying that she and Stein ever thought of themselves as being among a religious minority.
Forget the fact that Stein, as she demonstrates in Wars I Have Seen very much understood herself, practicing or non-practicing, as a homosexual Jew in danger of imprisonment, it seems absolutely ludicrous to try to explore an issue that seems to have very little to do with the theory of Jewish isolationism. Even I might have argued, had I been there, that a child—one of thousands, who had been suddenly torn from his Jewish family, beliefs, and roots—might benefit from being raised by a Jewish family, particularly after the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews had lost their lives. Given the intense values of family and tradition in Jewish culture, I would think that anybody who hadn’t suggested what Stein did, would have been the most insensitive of human beings. And clearly the Genins agreed, for they found a Jewish couple to adopt Manfred. Stein’s religious practices, or lack of them, I would argue, have absolutely nothing to do with her intelligent and sensitive suggestion—particularly given the fact that she might easily have been among the dead simply for being who she was.
Finally, as Moorehead makes clear, “…There was a strong feeling in the French Jewish community that these children [those temporarily protected by Protestant and Catholic families] needed to rediscover their Jewishness, receive a Jewish upbringing, become, as they saw it, “un home Juif nouveau,” a new Jewish man.”
*******Some of her soldier friends, recognizing that they are different from their father’s generation, attribute it to the Depression, during which they or their parents were forced into fields of labor in which they did not take pleasure ; the new generation, they argue, are determined to find most satisfaction in their lives. Others argue that the rise of radio and its broadcasts made them a more intelligent and knowledgeable audience that their more isolated ancestors.