Charlotte Salomon (born 16 April 1917) came from a prosperous Berlin family. Her father, Albert Salomon was a surgeon; her mother, sensitive and troubled, committed suicide when Charlotte was nine. (This fact was concealed from her until she was twenty-two.) Charlotte was sixteen when the Nazis came to power in 1933. She simply refused to go to school, and stayed at home.
At a time when German universities were restricting their Jewish student quota to 1.5% of the student body, Charlotte Salomon succeeded in gaining admission to the Berlin Academy of Fine Art in 1936. She studied painting there for two years, even winning a prize on one occasion until it was withdrawn “on racial grounds”. But the antisemitic policy of Hitler’s Third Reich was ratcheting up the pressure on all institutions, and in the summer of 1938, her enrollment was annulled.
Charlotte’s father was briefly interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, and the Salomon family decided to leave Germany. Charlotte was sent to the South of France to live with her grandparents, already settled near Nice. Her relationship with the elderly couple was not easy, and during one row her grandmother revealed the truth to Charlotte about her mother’s suicide. Her grandmother’s bitterness and depression deepened after the outbreak of war in September 1939, until she also committed suicide.
Next, Charlotte and her grandfather were interned by the French authorities in a bleak camp in the Pyrenees called Gurs. Released on account of her grandfather’s infirmity, the two of them returned to Nice and there – at the beginning of 1941 – Charlotte Salomon commenced the great work that would outlive her short life.
Charlotte Salomon began her extraordinary series of 769 paintings – entitled Life? or Theatre? – by stating that she was driven by the question: ”whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual”.
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 Theatre? a ‘Singespiel’ or lyrical drama.
In 1943, as the Nazis intensified their search for Jews living in the South of France, she handed the work to a trusted friend with the words, “Keep this safe, it is my whole life.”
By September 1943, Charlotte Salomon had married another German Jewish refugee, Alexander Nagler. The two of them were dragged from their house and transported by rail from Nice to the Nazi ‘processing centre’ at Drancy near Paris. By now, Charlotte Salomon was five months pregnant. She was transported to Auschwitz on 7 October 1943 and she and her unborn child were probably gassed on the same day that she arrived there (October 10).