The story of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter of German origin who fled to France in the 1940s, is upsetting and provocative, which makes it also fascinating. This was a journey filled with personal drama, which merges into the depravity of a world in agony during WWII. What is most interesting is the sharp and lucid look by the artist at German society while the worst is emerging in Europe. How did this young woman in her twenties find within herself the ability to draw with such precision the rise of Nazism through the prism of Kristallnacht, an event with far-reaching consequences not only for the artist personally, but also for world history?
Charlotte's life was shaped by virtue of the fact that she seems to be a member of a "cursed" dynasty. Born in 1917 to a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, Charlotte was the descendant of a maternal line whose members committed suicide for three consecutive generations: her mother, when Charlotte was not yet nine years old; her Aunt Charlotte, whose name she bore; her wealthy great-uncle; her great-grandmother (looked after for eight years by two nurses); and her mother’s cousin. When her grandmother threw herself out of the window before Charlotte’s eyes, thus becoming the sixth suicide in the family, Charlotte felt deep within herself "the same predisposition to despair and to death." But she refused to be destroyed by this feeling.
"My God, please do not let me go crazy!"
Charlotte decided to stand up to the self-inflicted madness that decimated her family. To exorcise her demons, between 1940 and 1942, she created 1,300 gouaches (a watercolor painting technique), including her masterpiece, “Life Or Theater?” This series of 781 creations was a kind of graphic novel, originally conceived as a comic book. Or, as she defined it herself: “Ein Singspiel,” an operetta, because it also contained musical passages.
Charlotte Salomon subsequently relocated to Villefranche in the south of France. Settling on the beachfront, she painted gouaches with biting ironical themes, using only three primary colors. Her drawings were richly decorated – some comical, others tragic – with a sense of urgency, a frantic rhythm, as if she felt imminent death approaching, Charlotte put in text, and sometimes in music, her own story as well as that of her family. This drama takes place between 1913 and 1940L an uncompromising autobiography, with Charlotte refusing to succumb to her family’s suicidal tradition, and instead choosing life.
Beyond her control though, Hitler’s "Final Solution" lays out its own ambitions for killing her and all of the Jewish people.
An Amazing Work of Historical Reconstitution
Amazingly, Charlotte had an excellent memory and was able to reconstruct past events. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea a few years later, she described Hitler's accession to power in 1933, inscribing an advertisement of the Nazi Newspaper Der Stürmer, more real than life itself:
"Boycott the Jews! Whoever buys from a Jew is himself a pig."
She painted the rise of Nazism with a raw yet mature look. Her gouaches reproduced the ranks of the German army, huge flags decorated with the swastika, and in the background, a city sinking into gray to become a shadow of itself. "She had the lucidity and intelligence of lonely people," says Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, Director of Yad Vashem's Art Department.
"The only daughter of a depressed mother and a surgeon father caught up in his profession, brought up by her governess, she was left to fend for herself since childhood. Yet above all, she was immersed in a very highly cultured environment."
After the death of her mother, her father remarried an opera singer named Paula Lindberg. The couple mixed with the German intellectual elite, entertaining regularly. As a young girl, Charlotte interacted on a daily basis with art intelligentsia, composers and writers. "She would have fun lacing Albert Einstein’s shoes, the great scientist’s head always a little in the clouds," said Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg. "This gives an idea of the family’s social circle."
From these stimulating contacts, Charlotte’s opinions and world outlook formed. Initially described as closed, timid and withdrawn, she developed a sharp sense of observation that enhanced her perceptions of the world and sustained her enthusiasm for life.
She painted the outside world as well as her own; her work constantly oscillated between the two. In 1933, her stepmother Paula, who was the model for Charlotte’s Paulinka in “Life Or Theater?”, was booed off stage and was no longer permitted to perform in front of an "Aryan audience." Charlotte's father, a prominent surgeon and university professor, was ousted from his position at the hospital. Charlotte refused to go back to school, deciding instead to devote herself to drawing. With an unusual sense of introspection, she belittled herself by creating a self-portrayal as a hardworking and unskilled student. She was, however, ultimately admitted into the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Even though Charlotte was deserving of the academy’s first prize for excellence, the institute presented the award to the pretty, blue-eyed, blonde student Barbara in order to avoid a scandal.
In the mid-1930s, Hitler was viewed as a lunatic by Charlotte's parents – and that his period of rule would soon pass. Kristallnacht changed everything. They finally understood that the danger would not disappear anytime soon.
A Brutal Awakening
Charlotte’s gouache dated November 9, 1938, was written like an announcement of the Berlin National-Socialist Newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack):
"Coward assassination perpetrated by a Jew in ambush abroad... This is the last shameful act of Judas. The German people will take revenge. German men and women: This is the end of our indulgence towards the criminal power of the Jews!"
On the night of November 9-10, when the Kristallnacht pogrom erupted, Charlotte was at home. Her drawings tell of the crowd storming Jewish stores, national enthusiasm expressed by abundant flags being waved, jubilation interspersed with violence. Moreh-Rosenberg remarks:
"It is interesting to see how she uses colors, the whole image is green-brown; it is literally the Brown Plague."
She continues: "What is also fascinating was her ability to report how the historical wartime events were told in the newspapers, while also plunging into details about her family unit."
And indeed, Charlotte alternated between the official tone of antisemitic slogans: "Death to the Jews! Grab all you can!", and the mode of talking inside her home. She made her character Paulinka address her husband: "You go straight to the hospital, my little bunny, I'll get your little coat, your little cap," while the maid begs her master to hide, because "half of the Jews of the city have already been rounded up."
On the next gouache, faceless men arrive to arrest Charlotte's father. They vehemently insist: "No need to resist." He is sent to Sachsenhausen, a direct result of Kristallnacht. Charlotte is present, watching from the background, recording everything. Pragmatic, Paula acts. Half wife, half warrior, she will do anything to secure her husband’s release:
"What use is my charm, if not to convince people of all kinds."
The family home was tense. Charlotte argued with her stepmother and ran away from home. Her next painting portrays her speaking to herself: She refuses to go home, and instead thinks about going to a cafe: "But in those places it is written: ‘Access forbidden to Jews.'"
"This scene illustrates very well the everyday tragedy," explains Moreh-Rosenberg. "Charlotte was facing dramatic events in a traumatic period. Jews (including her father) were routinely arrested, beaten up, their businesses looted. She was also tormented by her personal story, common to all teenage girls who argue with their mother, combined with first-time feelings of emotional turmoil. On the one hand, she does not want to go home, but on the other, coffee bars are forbidden to Jews. She was caught up in history, torn between her personal problems and the external problems within the historical antisemitic context of WWII."
The Eye of the Artist
Meanwhile, Charlotte's father was a prisoner at Sachsenhausen. Charlotte painted with such precision, such acuteness – as if she had personally witnessed the scene – this leading figure in medicine (her father) forced into a life of harsh physical work, tortured by a sadistic camp commander: "Here one does not twiddle his thumbs." Moreh-Rosenberg continues:
"In a few strokes, this drawing also expresses the inferiority complex of this brute, who has never studied in his life, towards a professor he is in a position to humiliate. Charlotte draws her father small, hunched, emaciated, in front of a dominant mass, using, like always, those tones of browns."
Thanks to Paula, Charlotte's father was released from the camp. A reception was given at home which is attended by, as Charlotte jokingly refers, "The German Jews." Shortly after Kristallnacht, they realized that they had little alternative. They had to leave; they had to flee for their lives. Charlotte described a reception attended by the high Berlin Jewish society. Everyone was in an agitated state, each so concerned about his own personal situation "that it seems we are in a farmyard."
Charlotte's father explained that he would start by sending his daughter away. A couple in attendance had decided to emigrate to Australia. Others were leaving for the United States, with dreams "to become the greatest sculptor in the world" or "the world's greatest singer."
Once again, Charlotte sweetly made fun of her characters. In “Life or Theater?” she never explicitly answered the question. We immerse ourselves in her work, sometimes as in a diary, other times a history book. The author succeeded in capturing a poignant reality, an out-of-the-ordinary destiny with fierce, uncompromising humor, while still presenting an acute rendering of the events.
In December 1938, Charlotte relocated to Villefranche-sur-Mer, in the region of Nice, where she lived with her grandparents. It is there, caught between a suicidal grandmother and a bitter grandfather who considers Charlotte as the housemaid, that she rediscovered the heavy family legacy, and chose painting to ward off certain death. She explained in an epilogue with eloquent detachment: "After all these family dramas, Charlotte and her paintbrush remained alone with all she had endured. However, in the long run, even for someone 'predisposed to darkness', such a life was not bearable to her. She was therefore faced with this choice: to end her days, or to do something really crazy and spectacular."
Charlotte Salomon put an end to her masterly work in the year 1942. She had conquered her demons. Before finally and tragically becoming a victim of the Holocaust, in a letter to Amadeus Daberlohn, she wrote:
"I was driven by the feeling of being able to say something to people and to have the right to do it... I was getting better... But everything has changed. Mr. Hitler saw as his mission to exterminate all Jews in Europe... "
Charlotte was denounced and then arrested in September 1943, and ultimately murdered when she arrived in Auschwitz on October 10. Even on the day of her death, five months pregnant, she continued to carry life within.