Jewish Artist Charlotte Salomon Will Never Allow Us to Forget Her Existence

Charlotte Salomon, Women's History MonthCharlotte Salomon was 26 years old when she was captured by the Nazis and subsequently murdered at Auschwitz on October 10, 1943. Four months pregnant, the German-born Jew (who found refuge in the south of France) was likely gassed upon arrival at the concentration camp -- one of the many camps where my own grandpa was imprisoned, starved, and forced into manual labor. Now 93, my grandpa, who lives with the trauma of this atrocity, passes along his Jewish legacy to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Salomon did not survive extermination, but she left behind a diary of nearly 800 small gouache paintings that serve as her autobiography through fictionalized characters. Her narrative -- as that of both an artist to honor this Women's History Month and as a Jew -- is told through this massive operetta, aptly titled Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music.


As a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Life? or Theatre? chronicles Salomon's life -- wrought with the threat of Nazi persecution during World War II and the personal struggle of learning that numerous members of her family actually took their own lives throughout the years. It is an existential masterpiece of expressionism that actually allowed her, as an artist, to live.

Who She Is

Charlotte Salomon, named after her aunt Charlotte who drowned herself years prior to the artist's birth, was born in Berlin to affluent, secular parents -- her dad, a doctor, remarried a former opera singer after her mom committed suicide (unbeknownst to Salomon) before her ninth brithday. Surrounded by creative and artistic people facing increasing oppression during the Nazi rise to power in the Third Reich, Salomon attended art school in Berlin for a short time. After Kristallnacht (or what is commonly known as the Night of Broken Glass), her father was briefly detained in a concentration camp -- and Salomon (who later on also survived a brief detainment) went to live with her grandparents, who had escaped to Villefranche-sur-Mer (near Nice, France) in the Cote d'Azur.

It was there that she learned of her family's history of suicide and depression, including that of her mom, who Salomon was originally told died of the flu. It was there that she witnessed her grandmother's suicide, and Salomon, then 23, took residence in a hotel room in Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat to create what would become Life? or Theatre?. "I will create a story so as not to lose my mind," Salomon explained through this fictionalized version of herself.

That work did indeed save her, although only temporarily. After her husband registered their marriage in Nice and Jews began losing their relative protection in the idyllic Cote d'Azur, she met her demise. Her fate was sealed, and it was only after the war that her parents discovered her artistic achievement. Thankfully, upon its completion, Salomon had entrusted her work, which she referred to as her "whole life," to a friend in what now seems to be a prescient stroke of genius.

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How She Shaped History

Between 1940 and 1942, Salomon created -- in the confines of that hotel room -- more than 1,300 gouache paintings that combined words, images, and musical references. She used nearly 800 of them to complete her lyrical drama, Life? or Theatre?, which -- with its clear beginning, middle, and end -- scholars have compared to a storyboard for a film. It is through this commixture of words and images that she tells the story (through characters that closely resemble those in her life) of her family's personal and historical struggle in a world that proposed premature and tragic death as her most likely option.

Although she is one of the six million Jewish victims whose lives were taken, Salomon did survive through what have become real, tangible artifacts of memory, history, and the two intertwined. These deeply introspective, and often gut-wrenching depictions, remind us of the complexity and absurdity of life. And now, the groundbreaking paintings that comprise Life? or Theatre? (which was first reproduced in its entirely in a 1981 book) are currently on display at Musée Masséna in Nice -- a city where (I can say from firsthand experience) it is impossible to imagine such persecution taking place.

Her Words to Live By

In one of the final pieces of her work, Salomon expresses (through the character she created) the solace she found through the authenticity of her art and the physical beauty of the world, despite the darkness of her personal life and the ugliness and oppression that surrounded humanity:

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.

She also provides a somewhat prophetic pledge to her audience, writing:

I will live for them all.

It is that individual conviction that implores us -- women, Jews, and all of humanity -- to leave behind a legacy, both individual and collective, for the future.

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Why She Inspires Me

Salomon is a woman who found strength in her talents, even proudly declaring her profession as that of a graphic artist when she was captured by the Nazis. She channeled her despair and struggle to escape her family's cycle of suicide into an impressive and unique masterpiece that allows the reader and viewer to honor her legacy. It is through this highly self-aware personal journey that she found a means of survival. It reminds us that, in the face of darkness, all we can sometimes do is try to persevere -- and that it is the power and immortality of art, words, and music that ultimately allows us to do so.

Through her oeuvre, she became a strong voice that serves as a representation of those individual stories lost in the fire of the Holocaust. Her work, like the untold stories of so many Jews who perished, helps us to never forget. As the granddaughter of a survivor, I hope that I can carry on my grandpa's legacy with as much grace and power as Charlotte Salomon managed to carry on her own.


Image via Jewish Historical Museum

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