Meet Charlotte Salomon


Who was Charlotte Salomon?

Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) grew up in middle-class German-Jewish Berlin. As a girl she led a relatively carefree life, until the Nazi coup in 1933. In spite of this she almost completed her studies at Art Academy. In January 1939 Charlotte fled from Germany and went to stay with her grandparents who were living in the south of France. They had quitted Nazi Germany earlier, in 1933. Following the outbreak of World War II, in 1940, Charlotte's grandmother committed suicide. Only then was Charlotte told that her mother had ended her life in a similar way, in 1926.

Something really extravagantly crazy

Charlotte, then 24 years old, came to terms with her turbulent family past as well as her experiences as a Jew living in Berlin, in a most unusual manner. She felt herself faced with a choice: either to end her life or to undertake 'something really extravagantly crazy'. She went into retirement, as it were, and in a burst of wild creative energy, started to paint. So it was that, outdoors in the sunshine of southern France, she produced a series of almost eight hundred gouaches (watercolours). Between 1940 and 1942, in eighteen months of concentrated work, she painted her life's story, titling it Life? or Theatre?

'And she saw with eyes awakened from a dream all the beauty that surrounded her, saw the sea, felt the sun and knew that for a period she must disappear from the human scene and that she had to make every possible sacrifice in order to create her new world from out of the unfathomable depths.'

In October 1943, at the age of 26, Charlotte Salomon was killed in Auschwitz.

Highs and Lows

The significant events in the life of Charlotte Salomon. Most of these are also reflected in the prelude, the main section, and the epilogue of Life? or Theater?

  • 1913: Charlotte Grünwald, Charlotte Salomon's aunt, commits suicide.
  • 1915: Charlotte's parents meet during the First World War. Franziska Grünwald is a nurse, Albert Salomon is a surgeon.
  • 1916: They marry.
  • 16 april 1917: Charlotte Salomon is born in Berlin.
  • 1926: Fränze Grunwald commits suicide. Charlotte is being told that she died from the flu.
  • 1927: Charlotte Salomon goes to the Fürstin Bismarck Gymnasium in Charlottenburg.
  • September 1930: Albert Salomon marries the contra alto Paula Lindberg.
  • January 1933:
    • The National Socialists take power in Germany.
    • Albert loses his job as surgeon and his professorship.
    • Paula Salomon-Lindberg loses her job as a singer.
    • Albert Salomon accepts a job as surgeon in the Jewish Hospital and Paula Salomon-Lindberg becomes active in the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (the later Jüdischer Kulturbund).
  • September 1933: Charlotte Salomon leaves the gymnasium after she is bullied.
  • 1933-1934: Charlotte's grandparents from mother's side, Marianne and Ludwig Grünwald, emigrate to Rome and later to Villfranche-sur-Mer at the French rivièra.
  • 1935-1936: In the autumn of 1935 Charlotte Salomon enrolls in the art academy, die Vereinigten Staatsschulen für Freie und Angewandte Kunst
  • 1937: On behalf of the Künstlerhilfe, the help organization for Jewish artists, Alfred Wolfsohn visits Paula Salomon-Lindberg and becomes her singing teacher.
  • Summer 1938: Charlotte's enrollment at the art academy is withdrawn.
  • November 1938: The anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Kristallnacht takes place in the night of 9-10 November. Albert Salomon is deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Paula Salomon manages to secure his release after a few weeks.
  • January 1939: Charlotte Salomon leaves to join her grandparents in Villefranche sur Mer, near Nice.
  • March 1939: Albert Salomon en Paula Salomon-Lindberg flee to Amsterdam from Berlin.
  • September 1939: The Second World War breaks out.
  • Spring 1940:
    • At the start of the year Charlotte Salomon moves with her grandparents from Villefranche to Nice.
    • In March her grandmother commits suicide.
  • June-September 1940:
    • The French German Armistice is signed. All German citizens in France are transferred to the Germans. Germany occupies Northern France.
    • On 10 june, Italy interferes with the war and chooses the side of Germany.
    • In juli wordt in Zuid-Frankrijk onder leiding van Pétain het marionettenbewind van Vichy ingesteld.
    • Charlotte starts working on Life? or Theatre?
  • October 1941:
    • Ottilie Moore, the American owner of the villa in Villefranche where Charlotte Salomon and her grandparents lived, and to who Life? or Theatre? was entrusted, returns to the United States.
    • At the end of 1941 Charlotte Salomon moves from Nice to St. Jean Cap Ferrat, where she stays in pension La Belle Aurore.
  • 1942:
    • In autumn 1942 the coast of the French meditteranean is occupied by Italian troops. The Italian secret service works closely together with the Gestapo.
    • At the end of 1942 gaat Charlotte Salomon moves back in with her grandfather in Nice.
  • February 1943: Grandfather dies and Charlotte Salomon returns to Villefranche.
  • 17 June 1943: Charlotte Salomon marries Alexander Nagler, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who has had an affair with Ottilie Moore.
  • September 1943:
    • Italy signs a truce with the allies. The French coast is being occupied by German troops
    • Charlotte Salomon and Alexander Nagler are arrested by the Gestapo, brought to the Gestapo headquarters in Hotel Excelsior in Nice, and from there to the Drancy transition camp near Paris.
  • 7 October 1943: Charlotte Salomon en Alexander Nagler are deported from Drancy.
  • 10 October 1943: They arrive in Auschwitz. Charlotte Salomon, four months pregnant, is presumably killed at arrival. Nagler lives until 1 January 1944.
  • 1946: Ottilie Moore returns to Villefranche. Doctor George Moridis, to whom Charlotte Salomon had entrusted Life? or Theatre? hands over the works to her.
  • 1947: The parents of Charlotte Salomon travel to Villefranche. Ottilie Moore donates Leven? of Theater? to them.
  • 1961: First exhibition of Life? or Theatre? in Museum Fodor in Amsterdam
  • 1963: The first book about Charlotte Salomon is published
  • 1971: Life? or Theatre? is donated by Albert and Paula Salomon to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam.

C'est toute ma vie

During the summer of 1942, at the hotel where she was staying in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, Charlotte Salomon laboured day and night to complete her work. When it was finished she entrusted Life? or Theatre? to the care of Doctor Moridis at Villefranche sur Mer, with the words,'C'est toute ma vie' (it's my whole life). After the war, the doctor presented the paintings to Ottilie Moore, to whom they were dedicated. She was an American woman who had offered a home to Charlotte and her grandparents in her villa in Villefranche. In 1947 Ottilie Moore in turn gave the gouaches together with a self-portrait of Charlotte to her parents, Albert and Paula Salomon, who had, incidentally, no idea of the existence of this work.

Albert and Paula had five boxes made, lined with cloth, and there the paintings remained for more than ten years. In 1959 they called the attention of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum to the series, and in 1961 the museum mounted an exhibition of the work. This signified the start of a spate of exhibitions and publications presenting Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theatre?.

On 20 November 1971 Albert and Paula Salomon donated the series comprising around 1300 gouaches to the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam.

After Life? or Theatre?

What happens with the main characters of Life? or Theatre? during and after the war?

Tragic ending

Grandfather Grünwald
Life in France became increasingly hard as the Second World War dragged on. Food was scarce and grandfather Grünwald grew very weak. He died in Nice and was buried on 12 February 1943.

Charlotte Salomon
Meanwhile the situation in the south of France had grown very grim for Jews. Charlotte was greatly comforted by an Austrian Jew, Alexander Nagler, who was also a refugee in France. On 17 June 1943 they were married in the town hall of Nice. But the wedding was to prove their undoing, because it meant they had to officially register as living there, and this information got through to the Nazis. On 24 September 1943, Charlotte, just four months pregnant, and her husband, were arrested by the Gestapo. Immediately on arrival in Auschwitz on 10 October 1943, Charlotte was killed. Her husband Alexander died on 1 January 1944 as a result of exhaustion caused by forced labour.

Op de vlucht

Albert and Paula Salomon
Previously, Charlotte's father Albert and his wife Paula had fled to Amsterdam in 1939, initially planning to escape to the United States. They hoped to be reunited there with Charlotte. But in Amsterdam they were arrested and all their possessions were burned, including letters from Charlotte. They were sent to Westerbork concentration camp in the north of the Netherlands, but they managed to escape and went into hiding. When the war was over they continued living in Amsterdam. Albert Salomon got a job as a surgeon and Paula worked as a voice teacher at the music conservatory. Albert died in 1976, while Paula lived to be 102 years old, dying on 17 April, 2000.

Alfred Wolfsohn
Alfred Wolfsohn left Berlin in 1939 and fled to London where he joined the British army as a volunteer. After the war he worked with pupils developing a voice training method that was a combination of psychotherapy and singing training. His theories are still being taught at the Roy Hart International Voice Centre, started by Roy Hart, one of the most promising pupils of Alfred Wolfsohn.

Wolfsohn ontmoette Paula en Albert voor het eerst weer in Amsterdam in 1947. Op dat moment wisten zij nog niets van het bestaan van het werk van Charlotte. Wolfsohn overleed in 1962 op 65-jarige leeftijd aan tuberculose als gevolg van de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Hij hoorde pas een jaar ervoor welke diepgaande invloed hij had gehad op het leven en werk van Charlotte Salomon.

Wolfsohn met Paula and Albert Salomon for the first time after the war in Amsterdam in 1947. At that point they were not aware of the work Life? or Theatre? that Charlotte created. Wolfsohn died from tuberculosis in 1962 at the age of 65. Only a year before his death did he find out about the enormous influence he had had on life and work of Charlotte Salomon.