Charlotte Salomon, Self-Portrait, 1940
Charlotte Salomon (1917 - 1943) was a German-Jewish artist born in Berlin. She is primarily remembered as the creator of an autobiographical series of paintings Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theatre?: A Singspiel ) consisting of 769 individual works painted between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, while Salomon was in hiding from the Nazis. Charlotte came from a prosperous Berlin family. Her father, Albert Salomon, was a surgeon; her mother, Franziska, née Grunwald, sensitive and troubled, committed suicide when Charlotte was nine (this fact was concealed from Charlotte until she was twenty-two). In 1930 her father married the concert singer Paula Lindberg.
Charlotte Salomon, 30.1.1933. The day of "Machtübernahme", c. 1941
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Lotte’s father lost his job and began practicing at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, while Lotte, at age sixteen, dropped out of school (which today is named after her) and began drawing on her own. In 1936 she was admitted to the famous State Art Academy in Berlin which allowed only 1.5 percent of the school to be Jewish. There she received conventional but excellent training, but the antisemitic policy was ratcheting up the pressure on all institutions, and in the summer of 1938, her enrollment was annulled. During those dire years Salomon began a passionate love affair with a musician twice her age, Alfred Wolfson.
Charlotte Salomon, Der Stürmer. German Men and Women: Take Revenge, c. 1941. [The "Stürmer" was a notorious anti-jewish periodical]
With the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938, the so-called Reichskristallnacht, everything changed for the Salomon family. Albert Salomon was interned and tortured in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen and after his release Lotte was sent for safety to her maternal grandparents in southern France. In spring 1940, she witnessed her grandmother’s suicide, learned from her grandfather of seven other family suicides, including her own mother’s, and saw herself as designated heir to this terrible legacy. “Dear God,” Charlotte cries out in the next painting, “just let me not go mad.” To her parents, now refugees in Amsterdam, she wrote: “I will create a story so as not to lose my mind.”
Charlotte Salomon, Dear God, just let me not go mad, 1940
In May 1940 the French Vichy government imprisoned German nationals as foreign enemies (many of them Jewish or leftist political refugees), and sent Lotte and her grandfather to the concentration camp of Gurs in the Pyrenees, where she watched many artists produce works amid wretched conditions. Released in summer 1940, they returned to Villefranche. Supporting herself by painting greeting cards, she eventually moved away from her grandfather in 1941 and began creating Leben? oder Theater? in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. The notebook-size paintings were done in gouache, with dialogues and narrations ranging from witty and sardonic to grave and desperate.
Charlotte Salomon, Before the departure to Southern France, c. 1941
Essential to Lotte Salomon’s own safety, the Riviera was occupied by Italy in 1942, and Italians were not deporting Jews at that time. Returning to Villefranche, she moved in with another German-speaking Jewish refugee, Alexander Nagler, and after she became pregnant, they felt safe enough to register their marriage at the Nice town hall. Although local antisemitism ran high, the Italian zone of France remained a kind of sanctuary. This anomaly so infuriated the Germans that when they occupied the Riviera in September 1943, Adolf Eichmann sent one of his most notorious agents, SS Captain Alois Brunner, to carry out roundup operations there. On September 24, 1943 Salomon and Nagler were arrested, and shipped by train to the transit camp of Drancy outside Paris. On October 7, 1943, Transport No. 60 left France and they arrived three days later at a location unknown to them. At this last station on the long road toward extinction, men like Alexander Nagler were sometimes sent into slavery. Women usually, pregnant women always, were killed on arrival. And so, in her very first hour at Auschwitz, Charlotte Salomon lost her life.
Charlotte Salomon, The mother Franziska Salomom tells Charlotte about heaven, c. 1941
But she had packaged and hidden her work, Life? Or Theater? - saying to a trusted friend, “Keep this safe. It is my whole life.” Her “whole life” was found in Villefranche after the war by her parents, Albert and Paula Salomon. Brought to Amsterdam, it was donated to the Jewish Historical Museum there. Albert and Paula Salomon had survived the war by hiding in Holland; later, Albert resumed his career as a physician and Paula became a distinguished teacher of voice. Lotte’s lover Alfred Wolfson had fled to England; Alexander Nagler died of exhaustion in Auschwitz; SS Captain Alois Brunner escaped to Syria where he designed antisemitic propaganda for the government; though tried in absentia in several countries, he was never apprehended.
Charlotte Salomon with her Grandparents in Southern France, 1940
Life? Or Theater? went on permanent exhibit at the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, while the collection also traveled in major exhibits throughout the world. The paintings of Life? Or Theater? and all studies for the work are owned by the Charlotte Salomon Foundation of Amsterdam and housed in the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. More paintings can be viewed on the museum’s web site.