The Woman Who Created a Private World Amid Nazi Horror
Charlotte: A Novel By David Foenkinos. Translated by Sam Taylor (Overlook Press, 224 pp. $26.95)
To merely recap the basic premise that Charlotte is a novel based on the life of the German artist Charlotte Salomon who, at 26 years old and pregnant, perished at Auschwitz, barely conjures up the powerful emotions the book conveys.
A huge best seller in France and now translated into 20 languages, Charlotte breaks the mold of traditional biography by presenting a tragic but moving story in a fictional free verse, each sentence embodying a paragraph in an astute, sometimes humorous and often startling mixture of fact and passion. Charlotte is as much a tribute to genius unfulfilled as the author’s mesmerizing search to connect with the subject’s artistic soul. “Her life became my obsession,” French writer David Foenkinos says in a fine-tuned, sensitive translation by Sam Taylor. And by injecting himself into the story, Foenkinos enlarges the narrative of this brief, torturous life and enhances our interest. “I am an occupied country,” he asserts, drawing us into his desire to know everything about Charlotte.
Charlotte was born into a prosperous Berlin family with a horrifying history of suicide, including her namesake aunt, great-grandmother, great-uncle, a cousin, her grandmother and even her own mother, who took her life when Charlotte was 9.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Charlotte refused to go to school. Three years later, when German universities were restricting Jews, she nonetheless gained entry to a prestigious art academy in Berlin and studied painting there for two years. By 1938, it was clear that the ascendancy of the Third Reich made it dangerous for her to remain, so she dropped out. She made her way to the south of France to live with her grandfather. The French authorities sent them to an internment camp but released them because of her grandfather’s infirmity.
In Nice in early 1941, she began the great work that would outlive her tragic life. Driven, she said, by “the question: whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual,” Charlotte embarked on a series of paintings entitled “Life? or Theater?” In two years and in almost total seclusion, she painted over 1,000 gouaches, editing them, rearranging them and adding texts, captions and overlays. The entire work, boiled down to 769 paintings, served as an unusually graphic autobiography that preserved the main events of her life.
As the Nazis intensified their search for Jews living in southern France, she entrusted her art to her kindly doctor, George Moridis, a member of the Resistance, saying, “Keep this safe. It is my whole life.”
In September 1943, Charlotte Salomon married Arthur Nagler, a fellow refugee in France. When Arthur went to the police for a marriage license, he ended up tipping off the Nazis to the couple’s whereabouts and to the fact that they were Jews. Shortly after marrying, they were dragged from their house and transported by rail from Nice to the Nazi “processing center” at Drancy. By then, Charlotte was five months pregnant. She was transported to Auschwitz on October 7 and was most likely gassed shortly after arriving there. Presumably, so was her husband.
The paintings that make up the collection began to be exhibited in the early 1960s. In 1971, her aged father and beloved stepmother gave the works to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, which eventually lent them to various museums in Europe and the United States.
Although Charlotte is a haunting work, fraught with beautiful and sensitive imagery, it is something more: a testament to creative artistic expression and, in telling the life of the artist, a tribute to the will to survive.
Stewart Kampel is a frequent reviewer for Hadassah Magazine.