5. Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?”

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5. Charlotte Salomon: “Life? or Theater?”

It is Mary Lowenthal Felstiner’s research into the extraordinary autobiographicaloperetta of Charlotte Salomon which begins to provide a direction and asatisfying answer to my questions. Salomon, a German Jew, fled Berlin for thestill–unoccupied French Riviera in 1939, and lived there for three years as arefugee until her deportation. She died in Auschwitz. But between 1940 and 1942,she painted 1,325 notebook-sized gouaches, accompanied by textual narration andmusical cues, the words first carefully painted onto transparent overlays whichfit over each picture, then onto the paintings themselves. Of these, she selected769 paintings, arranged them into acts and scenes, and titled the final workLeben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?), with the subtitle Ein Singespiel (APlay with Music/An Operetta). The heroine of this singular work is namedCharlotte Kann, which translates from the German into Charlotte Able, and indeed,the life she painted was her own, in more than one sense. She indicated thesignificance of her work, not only as a visual record of the Nazi era, but as thekey to her own existence, when she said to a friend as she packed it away, “Keepthis safe. It is my whole life.101 In 1947, Charlotte’s father and stepmotherreturned to the Riviera to look for their daughter, and found her paintings,still safe on the estate where Charlotte had lived. The work melds in astonishingfashion the encroaching terror of Nazism and Salomon’s own trauma…one connected,in her case, directly and intimately with female self-articulation andsubjectivity.

Felstiner discovered the work of Salomon in Amsterdam in theseventies, and recalls that her initial impression was one of rapture and ofastonishment: “Why had I never heard of this?”102 In the articles which followed,and in her 1994 biography To Paint her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era,Felstiner became as occupied with answering that question as with decoding anddescribing the transformation of Salomon’s life through, and into, art. Theanswer to Felstiner’s query has to do with the overwhelming complexity ofSalomon’s invented oeuvre and with the failure of early efforts to do it justice;with the reluctance to let another, undeniably adult figure tamper with AnneFrankesque messages of uplift and portrayals of a victim’s consciousness, andwith Felstiner’s growing suspicion that the issue of gender is much more than amere coda to the study of the Shoah, that it is central to piercing realizationsconcerning the first truly modern genocide, and that the reluctance to study itis stems from more than mere sexism: it is an expression of dread.

But beforeturning to these points it is necessary to examine Salomon, and Felstiner’s studyof Salomon in depth. What makes Felstiner’s own work as provocative as that ofher subject is her shift from analyzing and describing Life? or Theater? as anautobiography in art, to the realization that it is, on the contrary, an artwork,the medium of which is autobiography.103 As Judith C.E. Belinfante succinctlyremarks in a 1992 catalogue of Salomon’s work published jointly by the JoodsHistorisch Museum in Amsterdam and the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, “CharlotteSalomon used her life story to create a unique work of art.”104

The vivid natureof To Paint her Life–a work which permits Felstiner’s immense love for Salomonand her rage at her murder to flow freely, which combines artistic analysis withhistorical recapitulation of events and social theory–is in the realization ofthis: besides paint and paper, Charlotte Salomon manipulated character portrayal,self-awareness, self-composition, identification, and a life, in order to createa theatrical spectacle, a “soul-piercing work” (in Salomon’s own words) whichdemanded an audience at a historical moment when audience was inconceivable. Thetitle of the work is Life? or Theater?, and to the end, the author/artist refusesto resolve the question. That is precisely the point which Felstiner brings out,and does not betray.

Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin on April 16, 1917, theonly daughter of a prominent surgeon, Albert Salomon, and his wife, FranziskaGrunwald. In 1913, Franziska’s beloved younger sister Charlotte had drownedherself. In the papers and among family and friends, the death was not spoken ofas a suicide. In her grief, Franziska turned to a nursing career (andintriguingly, the word for nurse in German–Schwester–is the same as that forsister), and so met Salomon. When the couple had their first and only child,Franze named her Charlotte.

In the winter of 1925-1926, Franziska threw herselfout the window of the Salomon’s fourth-floor apartment. Again, no mention ofsuicide appeared in the obituary, and Charlotte was told that her mother had diedof influenza. It took thirteen years before anyone would tell her the truth. Dr.Salomon met and married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg, in 1930, andby all reports (including Charlotte’s own) the lovely Paula soon won over herquiet young stepdaughter.

When Germany turned Nazi, when Hitler was namedchancellor in January 1933, the effect was devastatingly felt by the Salomons.Charlotte’s identity as a “full Jew,” (all four grandparents, as defined by Nazirace science), increased her vulnerability to anti-Semitic hostility in herschool. But the Salomons, like so many other German Jews, adjusted: Albertcontinued as a surgeon for the Jewish Hospital; Paula began to sing with theall-Jewish Kulturbund, a cultural organization founded by her colleague KurtSinger, who had recently been dismissed from his position as the director of theBerlin City Opera.

More remarkably, in the winter of 1935-1936 Charlotte Salomonwas admitted to the State Art Academy in Berlin, as the only student of “100%Jewish blood.’105 At the Academy, Charlotte learned the Nazi-approvedanti-modern techniques, but was probably, to judge from her work, much moreinspired by the modern art books miraculously still available in the Academy’slibrary and by the infamous 1938 “Degenerate Art” show put on by the governmentand featuring some of the most provocative works of German expressionism, cubism,and the other artistic “isms” which flourished so luxuriously in the first partof the twentieth century.106 But by November 8, 1938, Kristallnacht, she had leftthe Academy; a prize for which she had been nominated had been diverted toanother student, for fear of calling attention to Charlotte’s Jewishness. It wasclear that her continued enrollment would place her in too much jeopardy.

InJanuary 1939, after the “Night of the Broken Glass,” after Albert Salomon hadbeen temporarily interned in Sachsenhausen (and released only thorough theuntiring efforts of Paula, who called up all her dramatic presence andconsiderable charm to plead his case), Charlotte Salomon was abruptly packed offto the coast of southern France to stay with her mother’s parents, theGrunwalds.107

In September 1939, Charlotte’s grandmother stole into the bathroomand put her neck in a noose. Charlotte found her there, near death. As GrossmamaGrunwald lay recuperating in the next room, Charlotte’s grandfather told her thetruth about her ghastly legacy. This was the moment when Charlotte Salomon beganto paint her life.

In 1988, Felstiner wrote, by way of introduction to CharlotteSalomon:

Charlotte was 23 and a refugee when she learned that the women in herfamily–her mother’s sister, her mother’s aunt, her mother’s cousin, and hermother–had killed themselves. From 1926, when Charlotte’s mother took her life,till 1939, when her mother’s mother tried to take hers too, the family kept itssuicides secret for fear of perpetuating them. Chances were that whatever struckher relatives would take Charlotte too, and unawares. So the recovery of asilenced past became her project, her protection.108

In 1994, her description,gleaned from years of study of the pages devoted to this incident in Charlotte’swork, is far more expressive of the young woman’s pain and horror:

Soon afterGrossmama’s suicide attempt, Grosspapa spilled the secret kept for thirteenyears, not caring how it hurt. In this family of yours, he tells Charlotte in thescenes, every single person commits suicide…

As he delivers the shock ofCharlotte’s life, the grandfather’s words snake around him, till deine Mutter,”your mother,” stops just over his head. His face–then six of them, twelve,twenty–turn to gray slabs, show up tragic, then malevolent, then drain blank.While his lament goes on, Grossmama veers, disjointed, off the bed, and Charlottesheds all identity of her own, down to two colors and an outline, as deprived offeatures as she had been of facts. In this unguarded state, like a blank surfacewaiting to be etched, she has to absorb the family legacy.

I knew nothing of all that.”

Now she knew. The traumatic revelation out atlast.109

There is no way to decipher the truth except by examining the story leftby Charlotte; until now, the facts of her life are a matter of public record, oreasily confirmed by Berlin acquaintances or by her still surviving stepmother.After September 1939, all we know is what Charlotte Salomon painted. But what shepainted kept her alive and sane, at least for a time, in a poisonous and insaneworld.

Life? or Theater? is divided into three parts–a Prelude, a Main Part, andan Epilogue. The Prelude is devoted primarily to exquisitely detailed scenes fromCharlotte’s childhood, the Main Part to Alfred Wolfsohn, Paula’s voice teacher(and, apparently, Charlotte’s first lover) and Charlotte’s discovery of his ideasabout art and the soul, and the Epilogue to Charlotte’s life on the Cote d’Azur.The style varies considerably: the earlier paintings are delightfully colorfuland bear witness to Charlotte’s extraordinary memory for the places of herchildhood. Gradually the paintings become more and more abstract as her focusshifts from material memories to psychological complexities.110 The differencebetween the paintings of her mother’s suicide (imagined) and those of hergrandmother’s (witnessed) is of that between a child’s misty sense of loss and anadult’s searing pain. The former are sad, but still delicately drawn and tinted,and despite the story they tell, beautiful. [See plates 1 and 2.] The paintingsof Charlotte’s grandmother’s suicide are almost too painful to look at: outlinesand washes of raw color kept barely under control. [See plates 3–5.]

Much of thework deals specifically with the experiences of female consciousness: with thatof her mother, whose life she now had to re-imagine entirely, and with that ofher grandmother, whom she tried (and failed) to save. She juxtaposes memories ofher own childhood with her newly informed perception of her mother’s burden, bothas a woman and as the heir to a mysteriously seductive and ghastly legacy. Sheimagines the pain of her grandmother at the loss of both her daughters, and nowof the order and comprehensibility of her world. Yet the narrative is delicatelybut firmly disassociated from Salomon: the autobiographical “I,” in the textaccompanying the paintings, becomes a fictional “she”–a principal character namedCharlotte Kann, interpreted by an unseen narrator named The Author.111

What appears most remarkable, however, is that this thematic focus on gender occurredprecisely in a situation where gender had become hardly the sole determinant ofSalomon’s future:

Otherness (to use Simone de Beauvoir’s term for the femalecondition) certainly determined the lot of Charlotte Salomon, but more becauseshe was Jewish and exiled than female. Relative to those conditions, a femaleidentity–usually considered the least variable of features–was not forced uponher. To some extent, she could choose female affiliations; she could try outvariants of female behavior through her characters. So female identity surfacesin Life? or Theater? not because Charlotte Salomon was born woman but becausewoman was one part she could still play.112

According to the authorities ofSalomon’s day, suicide–female suicide in particular–was attributed to madness,and madness to weakness and inferiority. Charlotte rejected that definitionoutright, and chose to see her grandmother as an atrophied spirit, wasting awayfor lack of love and engagement with the world. In the paintings, Charlotteattempts to save her grandmother through a recourse to art and to beauty,spending time crooning to the old woman about the loveliness of the sun and theflowers, trying to cultivate within her a will to live, but does not succeed.113As with her mother, Charlotte loses her grandmother to despair and to an openwindow, and realizes with astonishing clarity the depth of the world’s crueltytowards women.114

Seeing the bloodied body on the ground, Charlotte knows at oncehow her mother was torn apart; in one vision she grasps two fatal falls…

Fromthat moment Charlotte starts muttering through her days and nights, “I hate themall!” and she is not referring to the fascists. No one in her family has evertrusted her…They [Albert and Paula Salomon] urged her…not to worry about thefamily legacy. Her maternal line had “degenerated,” as her father would show herin medical books one day, but she should remember she inherited vigorous stockfrom him…Anxiously [Albert and Paula] showed her letters to psychiatrists inAmsterdam who told them to send supplies so she could paint. In a letter justbefore invasion cut them off in May 1940, Lotte answered for herself: “I willcreate a story so as not to lose my mind.”

That story put its stress on women’sgrief and wartime dread, never on genetic flaws.115

For Charlotte, suicide was adouble threat–not only a maternal legacy, but an ever–present question in themind of the exile community: “As destructive forces radiated outward, exilescould not escape their choice: You may kill yourself or you may watch yourself(your nation, your people) be killed. Her own view added female defenselessnessand family disorder to the ‘world…filled with pain’ that had crushed hergrandmother.”116

The question was, as Charlotte declares, “whether to take herlife or undertake something wildly eccentric.”117 She chose the latter, andretreated into herself, writing that “The war raged on and I sat by the sea andsaw deep into the heart of humankind. I was my mother my grandmother indeed I wasall the characters in my play. I learned to walk all paths and became myself.”118Exhaustively, she attempted to detail the cruel female world. In order to fightthe charge of madness, she must identify with her suicidal ancestry, even thoughdoing so means to take the risk of receiving their inheritance. “Herautobiography,” exulted Felstiner in 1988, “embraced the female condition whenhistorical circumstances recapitulated it.”119

But that this artist came veryclose to losing her struggle is clear in her paintings, and in Felstiner’s laterassessments. “In torpor, rage, and grief,”‘ she writes, “CS slowly let hercharacter exit from the center of the scenes:”

Halfway through the Main Part, thepainter lost any focus on Charlotte’s face, rotated the angle to show othersinstead of her, cropped her three-quarters out of the frame, portrayed her bodywithout a head, and only twice delivered her words around repeated faces [note: afavorite technique of Salomon]–and these faces in profile with one ear, no hair,one eye. By the Epilogue, the central character fuses with her grandmother andloses most features of her own…Though an author’s voice asserts itself awhile onthe overlays, even the narrator slips out toward the end, leaving disembodiedwords filling the space.120

The condition of exile is one of the utmostisolation. Countless manuscripts were produced by the exiles on the FrenchRiviera in these years, and, as we have seen, even those already trapped in thecamps who were not too starved or too crazed continued to write, to createpoetry, to draw pictures. All of these activities imply an audience, maybe notnow, but someday… The theatrics of Salomon’s technique, Felstiner has suggested,speak as well to the “stage-like ambiance,”121 to the eerie unreality of anunofficial existence. “The movement of memoir toward operetta–surely a uniqueturn–draws our attention to a phenomenon not uncommon in Holocaust diaries andself–portraits: the invention of a captive audience and of rhetorical devices tokeep it there.”122 On a painting which Charlotte edited out of her final version(but which is still part of the collection in the Joods Historisch Museum), heraddress to this audience mimics the overdetermined and alienating narration ofBertolt Brecht’s epic theater: “You are hereby informed that you are located inan exclusively Jewish milieu which–for the honor of Germany–was assaulted at thattime by one party…Hitler was the name of the founder and creator of this party.In common parlance the party’s supporters were simply called Nazis. Their symbolwas the swastika.”123 As Felstiner notes, “No European needed to be told this:such writing presents an ineluctable fact as the prologue to a show…It is on thismetaphorical level that a work of art encodes its ethos. As Life or Theater?placed a theatrical cast over historical facts, it attested to a quality of theCote d’Azur that more objective documents fail to express: the place itselfseemed staged.”124

Many of the dramatic devices of Charlotte’s work were notthere from the beginning, but were invented when she was already deep into theprocess. In the frontispiece to the work (surely painted once the work itself hadbeen completely edited and assembled), Charlotte writes that “Even I needed ayear to figure out the meaning of this singular work, for many of its texts andmelodies, especially in the first sheets, have slipped my mind,”125 and Felstinerexplains:

On the backs of those first sheets she had often penciled musical andtextual comments. But a year or so later, she expanded these notations,transferred them onto transparent sheets, and taped them over the paintings. Thetransparencies introduce the characters, direct the dialogues, order the actionwith numbers and arrows, mark out acts and scenes. It would be hard to imagine amore graphic invention for staging a story while keeping its director on the set.In other words, as “the meaning of this singular work” came to the artist, shemoved the dramatic signifiers from the back of the paintings right out front. Sheapparently decided to unwrap a private memoir, to render transparent to otherswhat would otherwise remain opaque.126

Or to turn what had been, despite itsunusual medium, an autobiography, into a work of art, and to discover a fittingtitle: “Life? or Theater?”

It was this move which rescued Charlotte from despairand which permitted her to complete her project. Surely, it is linked to aterrible, yet strangely touching episode which occurred in the summer of 1942,when Charlotte came out of hiding and willingly presented herself to theauthorities as a Jew. Madame Pecher, in whose hotel Charlotte was living at thetime, remembers the incident:

A law at the time obliged foreign Jews and I thinkFrench ones too, to present themselves to the authorities…So she went to Nice tosay she was Jewish. I asked her, ‘Why go and present yourself?” She told me,’Because there is a law, and since I’m Jewish, I thought it was correct topresent myself.’ So that was her conviction. That’s how I learned she was aJew.127

This story nearly ended in horror–Charlotte was being placed on a bus toan unknown destination when a gendarme, for whatever reason, looked at her andtold her to get off and go back, quickly. The final destination of that bus, ofcourse, was Poland, but the Jews in France did not yet understand that. It ispossible that this episode was merely a reflection of Charlotte’s deep depressionand anomie. But it fits neatly, this decision to “present herself,” with theoutward, boldly declarative turn her work had now taken. Charlotte was not naive.Perhaps she could not resist this opportunity to do in real life what sheendeavored to do in her work: to demand the acknowledgment of her existence.

After this event, however, Charlotte made haste to finish her play. It was quiteclear that there was no longer any time to waste. She turned from paintingpictures to filling her paper with words alone. She added a bitter signature toher introduction, her playbill:

The author
St Jean August 1941/1942
Or between heaven
and earth outside
our era in the year
1 of the
New Salvation.128

And yet, despite the reality outsideCharlotte’s ability to create or modify, she had achieved two things of greatworth: she had completed a monumental work of art, and she had managed totransform it from what would have been, at best, “a temporary reprieve,” into “ascript for perpetual recurrence.”129 Life? or Theater? ends with these words:

She knew: she must disappear for a time out of the surface of life and make everysacrifice to bring forth her world anew out of the depths.

And from there came LIFE OR THEATER? 130

Salomon closes, in other words, at the moment at which shecommences her work and the exploration of her matrilineage. Salomon herself wasgassed at Auschwitz, probably within an hour after she had stepped off the train.But before she died, she managed to transform her life, and herself, into art.

The play’s final word-crammed pages send the character on ahead. Let Charlottedecide to paint the past and become the “living model” for Daberlohn’s axiom,quoted four different times: “You must first go into yourself–into yourchildhood–to be able to get out of yourself.” Let her discover what “suddenly sheknew…She did not need to do away with herself like her ancestors, since a personcould and should rise up after having died, to love life even more.” Let her takeher life history instead of her life.

This ending made sure she’d go on livingher story at least.131

Felstiner’s analysis of Charlotte Salomon and her work isa profoundly feminist one. At all times, she stresses the autonomy of hersubject; that Salomon strove to be the author, quite literally, of her own fate,despite the Nazis, despite the atmosphere of despair among the exile community,despite the seduction of suicide. Charlotte was able to take the suicides of thewomen in her family and analyze them, not as evidence of women’s hysteria orinnate weakness, as the authorities of the day were wont to do, but as evidenceof a deep need for affinity, for recognition of the difficulty of being a womanin that world. Charlotte’s family had erased these suicides–so many of them–fromtheir collective memory, had refused to acknowledge them as such. It would havebeen easy for Charlotte to do the same, easy and almost fitting for her to killherself. She painted as a strategy to save her life and as a means to restore asort of life to her mother and grandmother–at least to portray the how and why oftheir deaths. As she painted, she became aware of the decisions she made inpainting her life–what to paint, how to paint it, which self was spoke and whichlooked out from the pages–and chose, in the end, to bring these issues out to theforefront, to highlight their manipulation and make them identifiable elements ofher work, and so to transform autobiography into art.

High on a cliff grow peppertrees–softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies andmelts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams–my dreams on a bluebackground. What makes you shape and reshape yourself so brightly from so muchpain and suffering? Who gave you the right?

Dream, speak to me–whose lackey areyou? Why are you rescuing me? High up on a cliff grow pepper trees. Softly thewind stirs the small silvery leaves.132

These are not the points which thereviewers of Life? or Theater? have chosen to make. The first English-languageedition of Charlotte’s work came out in 1963, under the title Charlotte: A Diaryin Pictures, and containing eighty reproductions,133 with brief captions culledfrom the original lengthy narration. Felstiner’s comments on this book arerevealing:

Charlotte: A Diary in Pictures…was welcomed to confirm the lesson ofAnne Frank: humane spirits outlast monstrous ones. In the righteous mood afterthe Nuremberg trials, Anne Frank’s “I still believe that people are really goodat heart” became the victims’ most quoted phrase. Her accusations went unnoticed,like CS’s irony. The 1963 book omitted the skeptical title Life? or Theater?,ignored the irreverent captions, and closed with a picture exulting, “God my Godoh is that beautiful” in place of CS’s somber finale–“She knew: for a while shehad to disappear from the surface of life.”134

The preface to this book, by PaulTillich, indeed strikes the note familiar to the readers of Anne Frank: it is atestimonial to the simplicity, the youth, the sensitivity of Charlotte Salomon,and like the initial reviews of Diary of a Young Girl, insists that the primarynature of Charlotte’s work is personal, not political:

I was drawn into a humanlife that began and ended far away, but in which nothing was strange to me. Forin these pictures and notes there is something universally human, something thatbridges the distance between man and man. But what makes this life a true symbolis something more than its universality. It is specifically the life of a verygifted and sensitive young woman, lived in one of the most terrible periods ofEuropean history, that speaks in the almost primitive simplicity of thesepictures. One reason why they are so expressive is that instead of concentratingon the horrors of the end, they tell a life story that is close to our ownexperience. Against the background of this story, Charlotte’s fate–known to usfrom others–moves us all the more deeply.135

Tillich suggests here that thedepiction of Charlotte’s life serves primarily as a foil to the historical eventsunfolding around her. The supposed familiarity of her life–as reflected in whatTillich sees as the “primitive simplicity” of her really very complex andmulti-layered paintings–permits the work to transcend its own particularity andCharlotte to come to represent, like Anne Frank, all the victims of theHolocaust. Moreover, once more, the ultimate value of Charlotte Salomon’s ownunique voice is its ability to submit to a “higher purpose”–universality, hereall too revealingly defined as bridging “the distance between man and man.”Charlotte’s painstaking attempt to depict, as vividly as she could, thespecifically female affiliations of her life, her clever theatrics, her irony andwit, are lost here.

In 1981, the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam (to whichAlbert and Paula Salomon had made a gift of the paintings in 1971) put together a magnificent book, containing 769 color plates and full translations ofCharlotte’s narration and dialogue, entitled Charlotte: Life or Theater? AnAutobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon. Whereas A Diary in Pictures hadattempted to summarize, and in the process had butchered, Charlotte’s work, the1981 book simply reproduced all the paintings Charlotte herself had selected asthe final edition, along with full translations of the accompanying texts.

Withthe appearance of this book came critical reception, and reviews in many of themost important forums, including The New York Times and the London Review ofBooks. The reviews, as with Diary of A Young Girl, were unanimously laudatory; aswith the Diary, however, some tended to belittle Charlotte’s ambition and soughtto narrow her scope:

It’s unlikely that she wanted to produce a wholly new kindof performance art, or that her opposition of life and theatre is as deeplypondered as that of Dichtung and Wahrheit in Goethe’s autobiography. A simplerexplanation of the confused fictionality and reality of her book is just thatCharlotte Salomon, with her range of talents, was naive enough to employ them allin trying to record her life.136

None of the reviews, moreover, make significantreference to Charlotte’s gender, and certainly none use the word “feminist” todescribe her work. Had Felstiner not seen her work one day and found herselfenraptured by its strength and scope, Charlotte Salomon might have remainedmerely a coda to Anne Frank, another example of the sensitivity and delicacy of”a young girl.” .

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