I recently discovered the work of Charlotte Salomon. She was a young Jewish artist during the Holocaust, but her work shouldn’t be viewed simply as Holocaust art. To view it that way is to miss the extraordinary poignancy of what she created. I feel bad even comparing her to Anne Frank, because she is so different, and it doesn’t seem fair to either of them to have to be compared to each other, but the comparison has been made nonetheless.
Her work Life? or Theater? is a work of over 1000 pages and 760 paintings she undertook to explore whether, as she says, she should “take her own life, or undertake something wildly unusual.”
She was born into a prosperous family in Berlin in 1917, but tragedy was all around her. Her mother committed suicide. Suicide rates among women were ridiculously high during the years of the Weimar Republic, and later her grandmother would also commit suicide. Her father remarried a musician who had received wonderful reviews in Germany until it was made public that she was Jewish, and then she was blacklisted.
After Kristallnacht (night of broken glass), two nights of extreme violence against Jews throughout Germany and annexed Austria, in November 1938, her parents decided they needed to leave. She had studied art in a prestigious art school in Berlin (in the 1930’s, universities could accept 1.5% Jewish students, provided their parents had served Germany on the front line in WWI) and she wound up leaving school and going to the South of France, where her grandparents had relocated.
She and her grandfather were interred in the Pyrenees for a short time in 1941, and were released due to her grandfather being very sick. Once she got back from that she began her life’s work. Life? or Theater? is a meditation on her own life, the struggles she had growing up, her family life, her romantic life, and her dreams for the future. From her wikipedia page:
“In the space of two years, she painted over a thousand gouaches, working with feverish intensity. She edited the paintings, re-arranged them, and added texts, captions, and overlays. She had a habit of humming songs to herself while painting. The entire work was a slightly fantastic autobiography preserving the main events of her life – her mother’s death, studying art in the shadow of the Third Reich, her relationship with her grandparents – but altering the names and employing a strong element of fantasy. Charlotte also added notes about appropriate music to increase the dramatic effect, and she called Life? or Theater? a ‘Singespiel’ or lyrical drama.”
In September 1943, she married another refugee, Alexander Nagler. She was living in the Riviera, in the Italian part of the South of France, and while Italy was occupied, they were not deporting Jews, so they could register their marriage in the Nice town hall. The fact that Jews weren’t being rounded up there infuriated the Nazis, and so one of the best SS officers was sent to Nice to round up the Jews. There had actually been a large scale rescue operation planned by an Italian Jewish banker, which probably involved Charlotte and Alexander, and so they stayed near Nice. But the new SS officer moved in before the operation could go forward. They were taken by the Gestapo on September 24, when she was 4 months pregnant. She was processed in Paris, and then they were taken to Auschwitz, where the men and women were separated. While men were sometimes kept alive as workers, women, especially pregnant women, were generally gassed upon arrival, and so Charlotte probably died within hours of arriving.
Her father and stepmother survived by hiding in Holland. Before she had been taken, she gave her beautiful manuscript to a member of the French resistance telling him, “keep it safe, it is my entire life.” Later, her parents were given the work. In a case of supreme artistic serendipity, they were friends with Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, who showed them the diary his daughter kept, and asked if they thought it was worth publishing.
The end of Life? or Theater? ends with this drawing, and caption that reads:
” …und sie sah – mit wachgeträumten Augen all die Schönheit um sich her – sah das Meer spürte die Sonne und wusste: sie musste für eine Zeit von der menschlichen Oberfläche verschwinden und dafür alle Opfer bringen – – – um sich aus der Tiefe ihre Welt neu zu schaffen
Und dabei entstand
das Leben oder das Theater???
… 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 surface and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.
And from that came
Life or Theater???