Book Review: Charlotte Salomon — A Magnificent Act of Faith

To mark the hundredth birthday of Charlotte Salomon, who is emerging as one of the 20th century’s great artists, come two fabulous volumes dedicated to her work.

Life? or Theatre?, by Charlotte Salomon, Overlook Duckworth, 815 pages, $150 and Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? A Selection of 450 Gouaches, Taschen, 599 pages, $35.

By Roberta Silman

2017 was a difficult year for many in this country, and 2018 doesn’t appear to be much better, which is why it is imperative to spread good news when we can. So here is some wonderful news we should all cherish: For the hundredth birthday of Charlotte Salomon, who is emerging as one of the 20th century’s great artists, the Overlook Press in America, shepherded by Peter Mayer, and Duckworth Publishers in England have collaborated to bring us Life? or Theatre? her masterpiece of almost 900 watercolors, which also includes prose and musical references. Its publication is an act of faith, really, at a time when publishers — or anyone else in the arts — rarely take such risks. But this work — whose pages are almost the same dimensions as the originals — is like a mesmerizing evening at the theater, with the added advantage that you can go back to it again and again.

The second book, published by Taschen, is not nearly as compelling visually because it is smaller and also includes only about half of Charlotte’s oeuvre. But it has two very good essays by Judith Bellinfante and Evelyn Benesch that are very worth reading and re-reading. And a wonderful quotation from Norman Rosenthal when the Royal Academy of Arts exhibited some of Charlotte’s work in 1998:

Her aim was “to cleanse” the world [ . . .] and by using all the disciplines and senses available to her in order to set free the cathartic power that comes with the making and contemplation of art. […] Life? or Theatre? is indeed a great opera of the mind and eye, a record of an epic modern tragedy that demands concentration and deserves eternal applause.

I had never heard of Charlotte Salomon and neither had my children. But when my daughter Miriam asked a friend about Charlotte, the friend replied, “She is known as the Anne Frank of the art world.” Our ears perked up. The answer has its own logic. Like Anne, Charlotte died at the hands of the Nazis before the end of the Second World War and left one book based on autobiographical material and can be considered a diary or memoir. Yet, as I mulled over Charlotte’s work and read the essays about her in these two books, I have come to realize that there the similarities end.

Charlotte was 26 years old (a decade older than Anne) and five months pregnant when she arrived at Auschwitz in 1943 and is believed to have been killed that very day. Moreover, her work is that of an adult, trained artist who had studied at The Berlin School of Fine and Applied Arts, and who knew from the outset that she was giving the world, as she put it, “something quite insanely extraordinary.” Even while she was hiding behind her shyness in her teens, she displayed a wide-ranging imagination.  There are clearly things in her work that go beyond the real and/or the diurnal jottings of someone writing a diary. Moreover, by the time she began this remarkable work, she knew she had come from a family of suicides and had a choice: to die or embrace life. She also knew she was leaving something for posterity. Proof of that is what she said to the good doctor who had helped her family in the south of France when she handed him the package wrapped in brown paper that survived: “Take good care of it, it is my entire life.”

There are three lines of inquiry that can sort out this somewhat complicated story: Charlotte’s life, her amazing and unique work, and the aftermath of what happened to that work.

So who was this young woman who left such a deep mark? She was born in Berlin in 1917 to an upper-class Jewish Berlin family: privileged, well-educated, cultured. They were successful professionals who prized art and music and travel and had the money to pursue their interests. Although her grandmother’s brother had committed suicide by drowning and there was a history of depression in that side of the family, Charlotte’s grandparents, Dr.Ludwig and Marianne Grunwald, had high hopes for their own family, two daughters named Franziska and Charlotte. But in 1913 younger daughter Charlotte drowns herself. Franziska goes to the German front during the First World War as a nurse and meets Albert Salomon, a doctor from a more middle class background who does not meet the Grunwald standard. However, love triumphs, Franziska marries him and in 1917 Charlotte, named after her doomed aunt, is born. All seems well — Franziska proves a loving mother until she is overtaken by loneliness and depression and jumps out of the window when Charlotte is eight.

Charlotte is told that her mother died of influenza and cannot reconcile herself to a world without her. She becomes difficult and introverted and, at times, aggressive with a string of exasperated governesses. The grandparents try to assuage her sorrow with trips abroad, and on one, Charlotte befriends a woman named Hase who encourages her to take drawing lessons. She becomes the only governess who lasts. Meanwhile, her father meets a vivacious singer named Paula Lindberg and they marry in 1930. For a while their Berlin household is filled with singing and good company and joy. Entranced by the warm and loving Paula, Charlotte revels in having a “mother” again.

But then, just when Charlotte is plunged into adolescence and the Nazi racial laws are promulgated in Berlin in 1933, things begin to fall apart. As Jews, Albert can no longer teach at the university and Paula Lindberg-Salomon cannot sing in public. Albert goes to work for The Jewish Hospital and Paula becomes active in the Cultural Union of German Jews — later called the Judischer Kulturbund — and there meets a singing coach named Alfred Wolfsohn who falls in love with her and also becomes Charlotte’s intense friend, what was called in those days, a “crush.”  Not surprisingly, this creates tension between Charlotte and Paula. Charlotte is smitten with Alfred, and in her work even goes so far as to suggest they may have been lovers. In reality, she may merely have been a teenager whose longings are regarded as amusing, more like “a phase” by Paula and Albert and, even, Alfred. When asked to consider the idea Paula Salomon thought it impossible, beyond ridiculous.

Around this time the Grunwald grandparents emigrate to Rome where Charlotte visits them and is overwhelmed by the work of Michelangelo. A year later they settle in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the southern coast of France. The Berlin Academy of Fine and Applied Arts makes an exception for the Jewish Charlotte (because she is shy and won’t make trouble), so she starts her studies in 1936 and even wins first prize in a competition in 1937. But she is not allowed to receive it because of her religion. At the end of 1938 Herschel Grynzpan assassinates Ernst vom Rath, and on November 9th comes Kristallnacht. Albert Salomon is picked up by the Nazis, Paula uses her contacts to get him out, and a month after that Charlotte leaves Germany to live with her grandparents who are now being sheltered by a young, wealthy American named Ottilie Moore (to whom Life? or Theatre? is dedicated) in Villefranche. In 1939, with forged papers, Albert and Paula emigrate to Amsterdam. Alfred Wolfsohn also emigrates, but to London. They will never see Charlotte again.

Although the south of France seemed a logical choice for Jews leaving Germany, it turns out to be a disaster. The Nazis are everywhere; Marianne Grunwald commits suicide in the spring of 1940. Shattered by his wife’s death, Charlotte’s grandfather finally tells Charlotte, who is now 23, the truth about the suicides of her aunt and mother and great-uncle. Charlotte is then faced with a choice: to be swallowed by “the abyss” or continue to live. Before she can act, grandfather and grandchild are taken to the internment camp for Jews at Gurs, north of the Pyrenees. When they are released and allowed to return to the protection of Ottilie Moore, a doctor treating Charlotte for “an attack of nerves” suggests she seek refuge in her art. Ottilie agrees and helps her buy supplies.

In summer of 1941 Charlotte begins her work, imagining something that no one has ever attempted, what she calls a singespiel, spelling it with an added e, already aware as she embarks on this project that it will be special. Others have called it a cabaret on paper, an early graphic novel, a sophisticated comic book, or something unclassifiable and hitherto unknown. Whatever its genre, most critics agree that it is a work of genius, by an accomplished and sophisticated artist whose work will remind readers of a variety of other great artists, like Chagall, Munch, Modigliani, Matisse, George Grosz, even Appollinaire and Florrie Stettheimer.  For me, it is also akin to the poetry of Paul Celan: profoundly original and mysterious. There are places where she uses the same words as Celan: e.g. a need to “cleanse the world.”   And also, at times, there are resonances with the prose of Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald.

The final biographical details are devastating: Ottilie Moore goes back to America, Charlotte finishes her work in the summer of 1942, Charlotte’s grandfather dies early in 1943, and Charlotte becomes involved with an Austrian immigrant named Alexander Nagler who is taking care of Ottilie’s villa. They marry in June of 1943 and at the end of September, when Charlotte is five months pregnant, she and Alexander are arrested, taken to Drancy and then deported to Auschwitz where she is immediately killed. He dies early in 1944 from the effects of hard labor. But when they leave France, she hands a package to Dr. Moridis, the doctor who had guided her, and he, in turn, gives it to Ottilie when she returns to Nice in 1946.

Now, let us look at this magnificent work, this affirmation of a life lived in defiance of so many obstacles. It consists of three parts, a prologue, a main section with subordinate parts, and an epilogue. It is also executed with three colors — yellow, red and blue — and named “The Tri-coloured Singespiel.” Whether that’s choice or necessity, we don’t know. And it is set up as “a play with music:” with a list of characters at the beginning, some given witty names — her grandparents, Dr and Mrs. Knarre (in German Knarre is a rattle which makes random dissonant sounds, and in Yiddish nar is also a fool), their daughters Franziska and Charlotte, Charlotte herself whom she calls Charlotte Kann, her father Dr. Kann (a pun on Konen, which means can in German), a singer and later Albert’s wife Paulinka Bim-Bam, and Amadeus Daberlohn, who is the fictional stand-in for Alfred Wolfsohn. (The first name is a reference to Mozart and the last may be a sly way of saying he was poor.) There are also minor characters, the conductor Professor Klingklang, a “versatile person” Dr. Singsang, folk from the drawing academy, and a chorus.

The Prologue follows the biography pretty closely, beginning with the drowning of her aunt, then the death of her mother when “Grief spreads through her body. It transcends her own suffering. It is the suffering of the world.” In this work, written in hindsight, the personal anguish of the Salomon family seems to foreshadow that trauma that is coming in the political realm.  During its joyous episodes, the work is whimsical, sly, and full of humor. The prose is done on tracing paper and overlays the art. The music is more traditional, what a child would remember in a mostly happy childhood. After Franziska’s suicide, and as the vise of Nazism tightens, Life? or Theater? becomes darker.

In the Main Section we are introduced to Amadeus, who comes with a lot of baggage. He was wounded in the First War and left for a corpse, but then survived. Thus his interest in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” his constant exploration of the meaning both of life and death. He also looms very large in Charlotte’s life and memory, probably much larger than anyone else realized he might, and we see him encouraging Charlotte’s talent, singing to her, introducing her to his favorite pieces of music and believing fiercely that “the movie was the machine of modern man as a means of going out of oneself.” The tension in this section is generated by her quarrels and reconciliations with Amadeus, her jealousy of Paulinka, and events outside the family, as Germany succumbs to Hitler’s rule and these privileged German Jews must cope with an increasingly hostile world. Here Charlotte abandons the tracing paper and writes the prose directly on top of the art. The work attains great authority and you can feel her confidence growing. It ends with a wrenching scene at the railroad station when Charlotte is left alone and her parents and Amadeus leave forever.

The Epilogue is lighter in feeling because it is set in the south of France. But as events become increasingly dire the narrative has an new urgency. The ending is almost entirely in prose as she recalls Daberlohn’s words and writes them again and again, as if etching them on her brain. By then she has been told her family history and her grandmother has finally thrown herself out of the window (after trying earlier to hang herself in the bathroom). Charlotte is in despair. But she somehow knows she is meant for something greater than an early death by suicide, she knows she must escape the family legacy. She summons Daberlohn’s mantra: “Love, know thyself first in order to love thy neighbor.” And then: “One has to go into oneself — into one’s own childhood— to be able to go out of oneself.”  This is reminiscent of the work of Walter Benjamin in his great work, A Berlin Childhood, and asserts the same kind of promise.

The last conversation noted is her saying to her grandfather, “You know, Grandpa, I have the feeling as if one has to put the whole world together again.”  Courageously, she summons more of what Daberlohn has said, and “she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a time from the human surface and make every sacrifice to create her world anew out of the depths.”

And she did. The last watercolor is serene, Charlotte is sitting by the sea, humming to herself, beginning the work that we now, miraculously, hold in our hands. Which makes her destiny at the hands of the Nazis even harder to bear.

Finally, one has to ask the question: How did this work survive? We know that Dr. Moridis gave the package wrapped in brown paper to Ottilie Moore when she returned to Villefranche in 1946. In 1947 Paula and Albert Salomon visit Moore and after some wrangling about some of Charlotte’s work which is hanging, beautifully framed, on Ottilie’s walls and which she refuses to give up, she hands them the package.   In it is also a long letter Charlotte addressed to Amadeus Daberlohn six months after she finished Life? or Theatre? on the very day of her grandfather’s death in February 1943. She speaks in the first person and goes over the process of creating her life’s work. There are repetitions from some of the prose in Life?, but there are also new details, such as when she tells Amadeus that she made a Veronalomelette for her grandfather because he was driving her crazy and had made inappropriate remarks to her, as well (these are included in the original work but are not, in my view, evidence of abuse but rather about the rantings of an old person who has been battered by fate).

However, because of these details, the Letter to Amadeus was suppressed and is printed in the Overlook/Duckworth book in its entirety for the first time. Although it has been seized upon by certain critics — one in The New Yorker began her piece last summer by saying Charlotte killed her grandfather — I think that is somewhat rash. There are many people who have written about Charlotte and parsed her work far more closely than I have, but I think one must remember that although Charlotte wrote the letter in the first person she addressed it to a fictional character. And much of the letter expresses her feelings and fantasies about the fictional work, so it is not certain that what she describes in the letter is the truth. It could be a postscript to Life? or Theatre? that only adds to the book’s mystery. A mystery that might have been deliberately blurred, even self-consciously distorted, by a canny artist whose imagination was still running wild. The short piece at the end of the volume by Emil Straus, who lived in Nice and was a friend of the family, posits a more logical picture of Ludwig Grunwald’s death. He was a man who, as one person put it, was “infinitely weary of life” and who died naturally of old age.

In any case, when the Salomons read through all the pages contained in the brown package, they decided what they wanted to reveal and what not. Then they got in touch with Otto Frank, who also lived in Amsterdam, and he advised them about where to go with it. No one was really interested in the 1950s and ’60s, some said it was too “primitive,” others called it “folk art,” still others thought it slapdash, and some were frustrated by its range and inability to be classified. Moreover, the volume was not something that could bring in income — one or two drawings from it are really meaningless — so it had no use as possible posters for a museum shop. Still, parts of it were exhibited occasionally in Israel and Italy and England and other places around the world. Appreciation of its value grew over the decades; there has been a novel about Charlotte, movies, and even an opera is supposedly in the works.

With the publication of these books, the work of Charlotte Salomon will become even more widely known, and our grandchildren will know who she is and what she has accomplished. Strangely, and somehow fittingly, her captivating, heart-wrenching work — “insanely extraordinary” just as she predicted — which defies the horrors of the Nazi era and which has been so lovingly reproduced in these two books, has ended up at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam where there is a centenary exhibition of the original pages until the end of this month. Not far from where Anne Frank lived.

Roberta Silman is the author of three novels, a short story collection and two children’s books.  Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows, will be available on March 5th.  A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at and she can also be reached at

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