”And with dream-awakened eyes, she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”
–From “Life? Or Theatre?”, Charlotte Salomon, 1940-42
Charlotte Salomon was born in 1917, to Albert Salomon, a surgeon, and Francisca Grunwald. The Salomon’s were a liberal family that defined themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” In 1939, after Kristallnacht, Charlotte was forced to leave her home in Germany, and she moved to her grandparents’ home in France, where she painted her major work “Life or Theater?” which integrated texts and drawings. In this depiction, Charlotte documents her personal story in the shadow of the rise of Nazism.
Charlotte tells a complex familial story; eight family members who she thought were lost, and about whose fates she was never told. One such relative is her mother’s sister for whom she was named, who drowned herself in a river. In her work, Charlotte tells her story retrospectively, from the time her aunt was lost, to when her parents met during World War II, their courtship and marriage, her own birth, and the loss of her mother. Each character in Charlotte’s work has a name that highlights his specific features. For example, she calls herself "Charlotte Kann" (the German word for “can”), and her maternal grandparents the "Knarres" (literally meaning “mumblers”).
According to the artist, when she was eight, her mother jumped out of a window, though she was always told that her mother died of influenza. From the first appearance of this window in her work, it becomes a symbol of her own family’s fate – suggesting that they chose their own destruction. The obituary that the family published in a Berlin newspaper, reads, “..after brief suffering, our dearly beloved daughter, wife, and mother, Franziska Kann nee Knarre, passed away. No condolence visits, by request.”
Charlotte’s father remarried a former opera star, Paula Lindberg-Levi. Charlotte grew fond of Paula and welcomed her into the family with open arms. Paula loved life and also introduced Judaism to the Salomon family. The rise of the Nazi party in January, 1933 began a phase that would present many changes in the German-Jewish community in general, as well as in the Salomon family specifically.
In the aforementioned painting, Charlotte depicts the day the Nazis rose to power. The characters are all depicted as little “Hitlers” and the swastika is prominently displayed. This depiction of Germans became a motif in Charlotte’s art, recurring at major turning points in the 1930s. In 1933, her father was fired from his position at a general hospital, and began working at a Jewish one. Paula was banned from the public arena, and Charlotte chose to leave the comfort-sphere of home.
Her professional training was the equivalent of half a year of academic art study in Berlin in 1936. It is noteworthy that in this period, almost 100 Jewish students and lecturers were expelled and dismissed on account of Nazi laws that forbade the artists’ guild from accepting Jews. Each guild was only permitted a total of 1.5% non-Aryans. Charlotte claims she was accepted on account of her talent and success in exams. Documents found at the academy show that she was accepted based on her aptitude. Overall, her quiet nature was not seen as threatening to the atmosphere of the academy.
There is no question that the Kristallnacht pogrom was a critical event for German Jews in general, and for Charlotte in particular. In her paintings, she depicts Germans as one unit following Nazism. Following Kristallnact, times were difficult for Charlotte; her father was taken to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Her stepmother worked tirelessly to free her husband, and was ultimately successful. Her father’s detention convinced the family to emigrate from Germany.
Charlotte was the first one to leave, immigrating to France to live with her grandparents. This painting expresses Charlotte’s feeling: she sits in a nearly empty room, her hand at her mouth, and her suitcase stands empty next to her. This picture indicates Charlotte’s debate and the difficulty in deciding what to pack, and her fears about the unknown future.
Grandpa and Grandma Knara (their real name was Grunwald) fled Germany for France when the Nazis took power. They settled in Nice, in the villa of a local resident named Ottilie Moore. Charlotte, who did not speak French, was sent alone to her grandparents, who grumbled and complained frequently. Her grandmother tried to hang herself but she was discovered before she was able to succeed. Charlotte had the difficult burden of watching over her grandmother to ensure she does not attempt another suicide. This event forced Charlotte’s grandfather to tell her of her mother’s true fate as well as the fates of the rest of her family. Despite their efforts, however, Charlotte’s grandmother jumped out of a window in a split unattended second, dying instantly.
In 1940, after the Nazi occupation of France, Charlotte and her grandfather were deported to a camp in Gurs, from which they were freed a few months later. At the same time, Charlotte’s physical and emotional state worsened. From her letters to her parents, delivered by a mutual friend, her difficult state became apparent, and they in turn sent her painting accessories. Charlotte began to visually depict her life.
Charlotte returned to Mrs. Moore’s abandoned villa where she had met Alexander Nagler, an Austrian-Jewish expatriate in his forties. Charlotte became pregnant and they decided to marry. For an unknown reason, Nagler insisted that they register with the local population bureau. This registration would determine the couple’s fate in the spring of 1943, when the Nazi official Alois Bruner organized the deportation of 1,800 Jews from Nice. Charlotte was taken with her husband and sent to the Drancy camp, and from there to Auschwitz. Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, Charlotte, who was then 26 years old and five months pregnant, was sent to the gas chamber. Her husband, Alexander Nagler, was sent to forced labor. He survived until early 1944.
Charlotte’s paintings were trusted to Doctor Meridis, the local doctor in Nice, for safekeeping. After the war, Ottilie Moore returned and was given the album “Life or Theatre?”. Charlotte’s parents, who survived in hiding in The Netherlands, later reclaimed the collection. In the 1960s, the art curator for the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam became enamored of the works, and they have since been exhibited in several museums. The legacy of Charlotte’s story continues to be spread worldwide.
The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam has over 1600 works by Charlotte Salomon available to view online, including a complete collection of “Life or Theatre?”.
Questions for Educational Discussion:
- Can the Holocaust be depicted in art? How so? What makes art “Holocaust Art” (Style? Period? Subject matter?)
- Charlotte creates art as a woman. What is the place of gender art within Holocaust art? What additional sphere does it provide us?
- How does Charlotte view, as expressed in her artwork, add to the study and memorialization of the Holocaust?