On Charlotte by David Foenkinos
(translated from French by Sam Taylor)
Guest Post by Martha Anne Toll
Today’s FF2 SWAN-of-the-Day is Charlotte Salomon who was born in Berlin (Germany) on this day in 1917.
Visual artist Charlotte Salomon was 26 and pregnant when she was murdered at Auschwitz. Her violent death spotlights a short, brilliant artistic life. French writer David Foenkinos chronicled Salomon in a book length poem called CHARLOTTE, translated into English by Sam Taylor. CHARLOTTE is a work of art in and of itself.
David Foenkinos’s spare storytelling reminds us that the Holocaust was not a single event. Each of the six million Jewish people murdered was an individual with their own complex family history, their own curiosity and loves and passions, their own fears and terrors, their own attempt to save themselves and their families, and their own unfilled creativity. And we must never forget that additional murdered include Roma, and homosexuals, and political dissidents whom the Nazis deemed unworthy to live.
Charlotte Salomon was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin on April 16, 1917. By the time of her birth, suicide was embedded in her family tree. Her mother’s first suicide attempt occurred when Charlotte was eight; she succeeded in killing herself shortly after. Her maternal aunt had drowned herself at age 18.
In David Foenkinos’s rendering, Charlotte’s tumultuous childhood – lived partly with the grandparents who had lost both daughters to suicide – was spent largely in silence.
People like to say that she is in her own world.
Being in one’s own world, where does that lead?
To daydreams and poetry, undoubtedly.
But also to a strange mix of disgust and bliss.
Charlotte can smile and suffer at the same time.
When Charlotte was a teenager, her workaholic father Albert married an opera singer named Paula who opened their home to celebrities: architect Erich Mendelsohn, physicist Albert Einstein, theologian Albert Schweitzer. Music and dance filled the house.
Charlotte starts reading, with a passion.
Charlotte grew attached to Paula, who argued that she should know the truth about her past. Albert would not permit it, even as David Foenkinos discloses additional family suicides. Grandmother’s brother had killed himself at the age of 28, and
[Grandmother’s] brother’s only daughter committed suicide.
And then it was her father’s turn, and then her aunt’s.
So there would never be any escape.
The morbid atavism was too powerful.
The roots of a family tree gnawed by evil.
In January 1933, the “hatred” came to power. Charlotte’s grandparents took her to Italy for the summer where she discovered painting. Charlotte embraced it with a fury, and despite obstacles severely limiting Jews, she ultimately fought her way into Berlin’s preeminent art school.
David Foenkinos periodically inserts himself in the story – perhaps too much – as he discovers Charlotte’s life and work for himself, and learns about the Nazi genocide. He takes much from Charlotte’s grand work, Life? Or Theater? [ Leben? Oder Theater? ], a complex work of over 769 paintings, poetry, and autobiographical notes setting out her first love.
In real life, Alfred Wolfsohn was Paula’s singing coach. In CHARLOTTE, Alfred is portrayed as a psychological torturer, his impact made worse by the lovers’ efforts to keep their affair clandestine.
Where was the logic of his silence?
When he seems so thrilled to see her again….
Charlotte becomes lost in a labyrinth of futile thoughts.
With Kristallnacht in 1938, Germany descends into hell. Albert – Charlotte’s father – is arrested. Paula – her stepmother – insists Charlotte escape to southern France where her grandparents have re-located. In France, Charlotte is plunged into loneliness and despair even as she comes under the protection of Ottilie Moore (an American woman who encourages her painting).
There is so much more to Charlotte’s story, including her love affair with an Austrian refugee who was once Ottilie Moore’s lover, and whom Charlotte ultimately married. Charlotte learns the truth about her suicide-pockmarked past, and wrestles with this impossible inheritance. Her grandmother dies. Then her grandfather dies (perhaps poisoned by Charlotte). All the while Charlotte paints and paints and paints, until she is captured by the Nazis and can paint no more.
Charlotte Salomon’s spectacular artistic career begs questions. What if all those murdered babies had grown up, those children had gone to school and fallen in love, those parents had had the chance to raise their children, those old people had lived to hug their grandchildren and share their stories?
We will never fully understand the impact on survivors, including those relatives and neighbors and friends and townspeople and colleagues who witnessed the disappearance of whole groups of people. Charlotte Salomon, as portrayed in David Foenkinos’s book, is a woman of depth and insight, who deployed her shattering personal history, her great loves, her suffering, and her keen observations into the creation of a brilliant artistic legacy.
Sometimes, just sometimes, art survives to tell a story.
© Martha Anne Toll (4/16/22) Special for FF2 Media®
Martha Anne Toll is a Washington, DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, recently won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. It is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing on September 20, 2022 and available now for pre-order.
Visit Martha’s website and/or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Order Charlotte by David Foenkinos on Amazon.
Charlotte Salomon’s Wikipedia page contains numerous images of her paintings (all still under copyright by the Charlotte Salomon Foundation).
Additional examples of Charlotte Salomon’s work are also included in this 2017 analysis published by the New Yorker magazine.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Charlotte Salomon with Her Grandparents (Image is now in the public domain and posted courtesy of WikiMedia).
Bottom Photo: Charlotte Salomon’s Stolpersteine in Berlin.
Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) is a project of the artist Gunter Demnig. The project commemorates people who were persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
Stolpersteine are concrete blocks measuring 10x10cm which are laid into the pavement in front of the last voluntarily chosen places of residence of the victims of the Nazis. Their names and fate are engraved into a brass plate on the top of each Stolperstein.