Salomon, Charlotte (1917–1943)

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Salomon, Charlotte (1917–1943)

German-Jewish artist whose Life? or Theater?, a documentation of her life under Nazi rule, is considered to be one of the greatest artistic works of the Holocaust. Name variations: Lotte Nagler. Born Charlotte Salomon on April 16, 1917, in Berlin, Germany; perished in Auschwitz on October 10, 1943; daughter of Albert Salomon (1883–1976, a surgeon who achieved success as a physician and professor at the University of Berlin) and Franziska (Fränze) Grünwald Salomon (who suffered from depressions and committed suicide in 1926); married Alexander Nagler in Nice, on June 17, 1943.

Admitted to the Art Academy of Berlin as one of that institution's few "non-Aryan" students (1935); expelled from the Academy because she was Jewish (1938); fled to France (early 1939); while in France, created an extraordinary autobiography in art entitled Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? or Theater? An Operetta), which was saved from destruction and became recognized as the visual equivalent of the diary of Anne Frank .

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin on April 16, 1917, the only child in an assimilated middle-class Jewish family. Her father Albert Salomon, a withdrawn, quiet man, had advanced from a modest family in the provinces to become a successful surgeon. After joining the faculty of the University of Berlin in 1921, he was promoted to full professor in 1927. Her mother Fränze Grünwald Salomon was the daughter of a prosperous Berlin medical family who prided themselves on their allegiance to German values and culture. When Charlotte was born, German Jews believed they were fully accepted by their Christian neighbors who would always protect them. Over 12,000 Jews died for the Fatherland in World War I, strengthening this belief.

Despite economic stability, Salomon's childhood was unstable for personal and historical reasons. Her aunt, also named Charlotte ("Lottchen"), committed suicide by drowning herself in 1913. (Years before, Charlotte's maternal great-aunt and her husband had also committed suicide.) As well, Germany's defeat in November 1918 led to political turmoil and bloodshed in the streets of Berlin and other cities. Communists unsuccessfully fomented revolution, while embittered war veterans founded the Nazi party. Anti-Semitism grew rapidly, and Jews were accused of treason and war profiteering. But until she was in her teens, Salomon was largely insulated from these corrosive forces. She loved to read and listen to music. After her nanny taught her how to dip a brush and paint, Salomon immersed herself in the world of color and images.

In February 1926, her mother Fränze committed suicide. Nine-year-old Salomon was not told the cause of her mother's death, and only years later did she discover this, as well as other family secrets. Germany's Jews had a high suicide rate, four times that of Catholics and almost twice that of Protestants. Many Jewish families, including Salomon's, were ashamed of this fact, which some regarded as another sign of their otherness and alienation from the larger society.

Despite this tragedy at a young age, Charlotte's childhood remained secure. She grew to love the singer Paula Lindberg , who became her stepmother in 1930. A talented mezzo-soprano who specialized in opera and the music of Bach, Lindberg had been born into a rabbi's family in a small German town, and had achieved considerable professional success by the time she married Albert Salomon. Never an outgoing child, Charlotte, or Lotte as her classmates called her, was happiest while alone, reading, dreaming and thinking—just like her father, the distinguished professor. Her peers at the Fürstin-Bismarck Gymnasium on the Sybelstrasse in nearby Charlottenburg would recall that Salomon was a quiet girl with more than a trace of lethargy in her personality. She lacked the self-confidence to be a group leader, and she never talked about or showed her works of art to her classmates. Salomon created an inner life, spending countless hours reading poetry, plays, and novels.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany and soon established a brutal dictatorship. A new and frightening world began to emerge for Salomon and other German Jews. A national boycott of Jewish businesses took place on April 1, 1933. Anti-Semitic legislation enacted at the same time cost her father his professorship at the University of Berlin; Paula's singing career also ended. At school, Salomon's situation was complicated, for not only were many of her classmates Jewish, but a significant part of the non-Jewish teaching staff and student body resisted Nazi racism. The school's motto, "To Unite You Not in Hatred but in Love," was an ideal many teachers and students believed in. Distressed by what was happening, Salomon voluntarily withdrew from the Fürstin-Bismarck Gymnasium in September 1933. A year later, when Jews were forced to transfer en masse to exclusively Jewish schools, she made no plans to enroll in university classes. She and her parents knew only too well that a Jewish woman with a university diploma had little chance of finding a job in a Nazi-controlled society.

Searching for a vocation, Salomon enrolled in a school of fashion design for Jewish girls, even though her stepmother felt at the time that she had little if any genuine artistic talent. Depressed and at loose ends in the spring of 1934, Salomon took a trip to Rome with her grandparents to celebrate her birthday. The trip transformed Salomon, who was entranced by the warm colors of the Italian culture and the architectural and artistic legacies of many epochs. From this point on, she regarded herself as an artist. Back in Berlin, her lack of interest in fashion design was all too apparent, however, and she was expelled from school. In a moment of uncharacteristic bravado, Salomon attempted to enroll at Berlin's Vereinigte Staatschule für Freie und Angewandte Kunst (Academy of Art), located in an imposing building on the Hardenbergstrasse. Even though she was Jewish, an official permitted her to take the exam, but in the end an "Aryan" candidate was chosen to fill her slot. This experience made Salomon more determined than ever not to abandon art which was the only means to express her emotions in a increasingly hostile world, and she asked her parents to hire a private art tutor. Although skeptical of her gifts, they agreed. Motivated more than ever to learn the basics of draughtsmanship, color, and composition, she finished her private studies in mid-1935 and once again applied for admission to the Art Academy. To her amazement, she was accepted as one of that institution's very few Jewish students, beginning her studies in October 1935.

In the convoluted racial theories which prevailed in Nazi Germany in 1935, individuals of part-Jewish ancestry whose fathers had fought for the Fatherland in World War I could still be admitted on a case-by-case basis. Although she was a "full Jewess," Salomon obviously made a highly favorable impression on the Admissions Committee. She was one of only two candidates of "full-Jewish ancestry" admitted that year. The surviving minutes note that despite her racial background, her artistic abilities were "beyond doubt," and there was "no reason to doubt her German attitude." Although a Nazi student leader objected that the presence of a Jewish female constituted "a danger" to Aryan males, the Admissions Committee argued that no such threat existed because of Fräulein Salomon's "reserved nature."

Salomon began her studies at the Art Academy just as the infamous Nuremberg Laws transforming German Jews into second-class citizens were enacted. Strangely enough, she was able to live a life that remained precariously "normal." Not all of the teachers or students at the Academy were Nazis, and she was generally treated with respect despite her unique status. In 1937, she fell in love with the music teacher and theorist Alfred Wolfsohn (1896–1962), an artist who had been seriously shell-shocked in World War I. As they became intimate, Salomon confided to Wolfsohn her anxieties, including the fear that hers was a life cursed by a family history of mental instability and suicide, which she suspected had led to the deaths of several people near and dear to her, possibly even her own mother. Wolfsohn, old enough to be her father, calmed her fears, encouraging her to work through these concerns by means of her art. In her great work Life? or Theater?, Salomon would recollect Wolfsohn's calming effect by presenting him as the character "Amadeus Daberlohn," who counseled her during a period of deep depression, stating, "Instead of taking your own life in such a horrible way, why don't you make use of the same powers to describe your life?"

This calm period was brought to an end with terrifying suddenness during the night of November 9–10, 1938. The Nazi regime, using the death of a Nazi diplomat shot by a distraught Jewish refugee in Paris as a pretext, unleashed a nationwide anti-Jewish reign of terror. In one night, known as Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), scores of Jews were killed; 191 synagogues were burned; and Jewish-owned shops and businesses were destroyed (25 million marks in damages occurred, of which fully 5 million was for broken glass). German Jews lost whatever vestiges of human rights they had retained since 1933. Salomon's father was imprisoned in the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp which further underlined the family's peril. Upon his release, the family made plans to leave Germany as quickly as possible.

Unlike many desperate German Jews in the late 1930s, the Salomon family had a place of refuge. Charlotte's maternal grandparents, Ludwig and Marianne Benda Grünwald , had lived in freedom since 1934. A wealthy German-American friend of theirs, Ottilie Gobel Moore (1902–1972), had settled on the French Riviera in 1928, and while visiting the Grünwalds in Berlin in early 1933, during the first terror-filled days of the Nazi regime, she offered refuge at her villa "l'Ermitage" in Villefranche-sur-Mer. After a brief attempt to settle in Italy in 1934, the Grünwalds moved to Villefranche, where Moore was committed to caring for a large number of orphans and exiles from Fascist persecution. In January 1939, Charlotte left Germany for France, where she was immediately welcomed by Moore, who offered her the same open-ended hospitality that her grandparents had enjoyed for more than five years. Back in Berlin, Albert and Paula made plans to join the rest of their family. With the help of a non-Jewish Swedish friend, they procured false passports to the Netherlands, where they settled in Amsterdam a few weeks after Charlotte arrived in southern France.

The war raged on, and I sat by the sea and saw deep into the heart of humankind.

—Charlotte Salomon

Salomon quickly settled in with her grandparents, who enjoyed pleasures that were denied the great majority of Jewish refugees. In her first months on France's breathtaking Côte d'Azur, an exuberant Salomon felt personally and artistically liberated. In her own words, she was now "renewed and clear, out of so much suffering and sorrow." Soon, however, dark and ominous forces entered this sunny, untroubled world. In conversations with her grandfather, she received confirmation of what she had long suspected—her mother had committed suicide in a fit of depression.

For the young artist, the forces of anti-Semitism seemed to combine with a genealogy of doom which had taken her mother, her aunt, and her great-grandmother. Wolfsohn had known the secret of her mother's suicide but did not tell her, fearing it might cause self-destruction. Thrown into despair, Salomon suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to jump out a window. Tragically, her grandmother's delicate psychological equilibrium snapped under these trying circumstances in 1940, and she took her own life, adding to the family legacy from which Charlotte Salomon believed she could not escape. She and her grandfather found it impossible to live together, so he moved to Nice while she remained in Villefranche, painting and dreaming.

The horror of learning of her family legacy was soon followed by the German invasion and defeat of France in May and June 1940. The little security remaining in Salomon's life was shattered forever. She and her grandfather were deported to the infamous Gurs detention camp in the Pyrenees. Fortunately, both were released in mid-July 1940 after several weeks' incarceration. They returned to Villefranche, where Salomon poured out her feelings in her art. Aloof and hypersensitive, she did not speak to her grandfather or Moore for days at a time, communicating instead with bright colors on paper.

As violence and insecurity grew, Salomon created a new world through her art. Drawing powerful images to represent her past, whether real or symbolic, she told her story, the essence of her life. In little over a year, from 1941 to 1942, Salomon created a massive sequence of gouache paintings on paper which fused autobiography and documentation of Nazi racism as it impacted on her and those near and dear to her. Entitled Life? or Theater? ( Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel), the work consisted of 1,325 paintings. Much more than a diary in pictures, which is what many critics first titled it, the paintings are an autobiographical drama recounting the lives of her lead character "Charlotte Kann" and her family. The work is unique. One critic has argued that it is neither exclusively art nor literature, but "cinema on paper" and thus an important part of the classic period of German film. Life? or Theater? has extraordinary power and intensity, in part because of the simple, almost folk-art technique employed by Salomon, who showed little or no objectivity or detachment from what she depicted. Furthermore, she supplied a text for each picture, often speaking to the viewer in the frankest possible terms. For example, one of the gouaches depicted her in gray, showing her grabbing her head with the legend: "Dear God, just let me not go mad." Life? or Theater? portrays the end of her beloved stepmother's musical career as a result of Nazi persecution as well as the sudden termination of her father's academic and medical careers. Salomon is depicted becoming alienated from former friends, her school, her native land, language, and family.

The psychological blows Salomon was forced to absorb were almost too much to bear and even then, they did not cease. By 1941, Amsterdam was under German occupation, so she was unable to communicate with her father and stepmother. Despite the kindness of Moore, Salomon was often profoundly depressed. In one of her captions, she observed: "The war raged on, and I sat by the sea and saw deep into the heart of humankind." Only her art was therapy for her emotional burdens. For over a year, she worked as if possessed. Because of the scarcity of paper due to the war, she painted on both sides of sheets to conserve materials, choosing for the final version the side she found most expressive of her ideas.

Despite the emotionally tense and even tragic subject matter of Life? or Theater?, parts of the cycle are radiant. Despair and ecstasy mingle as Salomon depicts her life in Berlin pursuing her artistic goals despite Nazi attempts to deny them. Her love for her stepmother, and her relationship with "Amadeus Daberlohn" (Wolfsohn), are touchingly depicted from one picture to the next. The entire work is evocative of post-Romantic German culture in that it mingles death and despair with a lyrical eroticism (Salomon loved music, one of her favorite works being Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," both the Lied and the string quartet). In one moving picture, she sings to her grandmother the vocal parts of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony while drawing her face. Much of the work is tagged with musical cues, carefully indicating where popular music of pre-Hitler Germany as well as where compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, and Bizet should be introduced. Besides her own words, Salomon incorporated quotations from Goethe, Nietzsche, Heine, and Verlaine as well as newspaper headlines and Biblical verse.

While she feverishly attempted to put in permanent form the story of her anguished life, the world around her continued to disintegrate. Although she and her grandfather lived in relatively privileged circumstances for several years because of the kindness of Moore, this situation was to change. In September 1941, when Moore left for the United States with nine refugee children, it was Salomon's last chance to escape the Nazi menace. But the U.S. State Department was unsympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees, refusing to issue visas, and she doubtless did not want to abandon her aged grandfather or her parents who were still in Amsterdam. Besides, the part of France she lived in was ruled by the collaborationist Vichy French regime, which was anti-Semitic but had many officials who were lax in enforcing its decrees. Even the German occupation of southern France, in November 1942, gave Salomon a ray of hope, for the Côte d'Azur was taken over by Italy, and it quickly became clear that Italian occupation officials would not participate in the deportation of Jewish refugees.

The Nazi death machine ground relentlessly forward, however, coming ever closer. When she completed Life? or Theater?, she became concerned about its fate and her own precarious prospects for survival. She entrusted two precious packages to a local physician, telling him, "Keep this safe, it is my whole life." With her great work completed and in safe hands, Salomon's world began to unravel. In February 1943, grandfather Ludwig collapsed on a Nice street and died. Now alone, she met another Jewish refugee who had benefited from Moore's kindness, Austrian-born Alexander Nagler. Nagler, from a wealthy family, had been pampered in his youth but was now shattered and beaten. He drank too much and seemed incapable of making any realistic plans for the future. Salomon perhaps was drawn to him as much for the emotional security she could provide as for whatever strength he might give her. She married Nagler in Nice on June 17, 1943. Unfortunately, while applying for his marriage license, he had unwisely revealed his true address to the police. By this time, the Côte d'Azur had been occupied by the Germans, and on September 21, 1943, a Gestapo truck arrived at l'Hermitage, arresting Salomon and Nagler. After several weeks' imprisonment at the Drancy camp near Paris, they were "resettled to the east" on October 7, 1943. After a trip of three days and nights, Transport 60 arrived at Auschwitz on October 10. Salomon, five months pregnant, was selected for immediate gassing and was dead before the end of that day.

Her father Albert and stepmother Paula survived the war, learning about Charlotte's death from her French friends. Moore returned to Villefranche in 1946 and retrieved most of her own possessions as well as Charlotte's paintings. At first, she did not wish to give these to the Salomons, but in 1947 she relented. For a number of years, they remained in Amsterdam unknown to the world. Her work was introduced in 1963 in Germany and the United States when 80 selections from Life? or Theater?, labeled a "diary in pictures," appeared in simultaneous publications. This first edition was incomplete and indeed was "edited" in places to the point of bowdlerization because of family sensibilities. (One painting, which depicted her grandfather saying to her, "Oh just do it, kill yourself too, so this yakking of yours can stop!," appeared in print with these words airbrushed out.) In 1981, a virtually complete edition of her work was published, so that the full power of her vision was visible for all to behold. The critic Ad Peterson, who first viewed Salomon's legacy as a "curious document," now spoke of it as a "unique work, with nothing else of its conception and size in art history."


Costanza, Mary S. The Living Witness: Art in the Concentration Camps and Ghettos. NY: The Free Press, 1982.

Eichenbaum, Pola. Jewish Artists Who Perished in the Holocaust. Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv Museum, 1968 (exhibition catalog).

Felstiner, Mary. "Charlotte Salomon's Inward-turning Testimony," in Geoffrey H. Hartman, ed., Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994, pp. 104–116, 279–282.

Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal. "Engendering an Autobiography in Art: Charlotte Salomon's 'Life? or Theater?,'" in Susan Gorag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, eds., Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. 183–192.

——. To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Griffin, Susan. A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War. NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Heller, Nadine V. "Cinema on Paper: Charlotte Salomon's Life or Theater?," in Arts Magazine. Vol. 64, no. 8. April 1990.

Kaplan, Marion. "Jewish Women in Nazi Germany: Daily Life, Daily Struggles, 1933–1939," in Feminist Studies. Vol. 16, no. 3. Fall 1990, pp. 579–606.

Levine, Amy E. "Charlotte Salomon: Psychological Resolution through Art," M.A. thesis, Smith College, 1984.

Rupp, Leila J. "Committing survival," in Women's Review of Books. Vol. 12, no. 2. November 1994, pp. 8–9.

Salomon, Charlotte. Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures. Comment by Paul Tillich. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

——. Charlotte: Life or Theater? An Autobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon. Trans. by Leila Vennewitz. NY: Viking, 1981.

Stevens, Mark. "Portraits of Pain," in Newsweek. Vol. 98, no. 11. September 14, 1981, p. 97.


Salomon's Life? or Theater? is held by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where 60 of her paintings are on permanent display.

related media:

Charlotte (film), by Judith Herzberg and Frans Weisz.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia