Charlotte Salomon
Drawing of Jewish Historical Museum Collection, Amsterdam. ©Charlotte Salomon Foundation

‘Charlotte’: sharp prose against Nazi horror

The novel by French writer and musician David Foenkinos, awarded with the Renaudot prize and the Goncourt des Lycéens, narrates the short life of the Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon, whose works can be seen at the Pedralbes monastery until February 17th. Charlotte combined her "gouaches" with writings and music. Reading Foenkinos and contemplating the works of the young artist represents an exceptional legacy of one of the most terrible chapters of the 20th century.
I'

m not here for money. If someone wants to give me a tip I will appreciate it, but the reason is to make you understand the horror of Auschwitz. I was confined two years, until the camp was freed in January 1945, all my relatives died here. I did not want to go to Israel, I think that the right thing for everyone who has passed away in this camp is that everything we had to endure is explained”. I cannot remember her name, but I have inculcated these words, addressed to my parents and me -I was 8 years old- by a Polish woman, Sephardic descendant, who spoke Spanish intelligibly. She was almost octogenarian and had tattooed on the arm her prisoner number. She spoke so when starting a tour at the concentration camp, going through places where were committed acts that cannot be described -neither words like frightful nor atrocious are proper.

She was our guide at Auschwitz and Birkenau, she showed the punishment cells, the crematoria, the gas chambers and the barracoons with wooden bunk beds where hundreds of prisoners slept. The toughest shock for me was, however, to see the prisoners’ belongings: a large room full of the remains of hair of all colours, that -the guide explained to us- were cut from Jewish women when they reached the camp, and that were used to make wigs for elderly Germans who wished to wear a thick hair.

Justine Ferrec, literary critic of Le Monde, explains: “So far, writers have not dared to write about this historical chapter without profusion of details, cautious not to make bare pamphlets of one of the most terrifying moments in the history of the humanity”

Uncomfortable emotions. Now that there is a legal battle for the copyright of The Diary of Anna Frank, after great books like If this is a Man, by Primo Levi, and the return of fascist, extreme right-wing  parties in many European countries, reading a book like Charlotte, by David Foenkinos and watching the paintings of Charlotte Salomon is cathartic.

Many other writers have written about the Holocaust, but so far it had never been done with such a blistering style, that soaks to the bones as the most furious rain and by means of sentences which are almost lyrical, very short and sharp. The reason, as explained by the literary critic of Le Monde, Justine Ferrec, is that “so far, writers have not dared to write about this historical chapter without profusion of details, cautious not to make bare pamphlets of one of the most terrifying moments in the history of the humanity”.

The owners of Obaga bookstore, at Girona street, in Barcelona, explain it thus: “Charlotte’s story is a blast for the reader, but also an irresistible pleasure, because of the hypnotic prose of the author, who decided to write the novel with full stops. It is a technique that allowed her to breathe and show, even with a wild touch, the tragic existence of Charlotte Salomon“.

In fact, the booksellers became aware of the magnitude of the work of the prolific Foenkinos thanks to a client, Bea Porqueres, art connoisseur and specialized in women artists, author of the work Sofonisba Anguissola. Retratista de Felipe II, among other Art History books.

Charlotte Salomon
Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden of Villa L’Ermitage, circa 1939. Author: Unknown

The novel by Foenkinos is divided into three parts: prelude, focused on the childhood and adolescence of Charlotte in Berlin and her expulsion from the Academy of Fine Arts after the Night of Broken Glass; the main part, devoted to the musician Alfred Wolfson, who encouraged her to paint and introduced her to the world of art; and the epilogue, that narrates her relocation due to family reasons to her grandparents’ house in southern France and her marriage to Alexander Nagler and pregnancy. Nagler was a Jewish refugee, with whom she fell in love and that, like her, died at Auschwitz the day after he arrived, just 24 hours after the gas cameras were activated in the camp.

The exhibition Life? Or Theatre? Charlotte Salomon (1917- 1943) showing the multidisciplinary works she painted before her death, at 26 years old and 4 months pregnant, demonstrate her artistic talent and her fragile, frightened, and at the same time courageous spirit, painted with vivid colours, vigorous strokes and references to great composers such as Mozart and Mahler. In fact, living in France, she herself wrote her biography. Still sunned, when about to be arrested, she gave it to her doctor in a suitcase saying: “It’s all my life.”

A fascinating story, just like her works, created between 23 and 24 years old, that reveals the purity of love and pain, loneliness and trembling

In the words of the curator of the exhibition at the Pedralbes Monastery, the historian Ricard Bru: “Is it a history of the Holocaust? Yes. It is clear that, without the Holocaust, there would be no work, but it is also true that the Holocaust itself does not explain Salomon’s work”.

A fascinating story, just like her works, created between 23 and 24 years old, that reveals the purity of love and pain, loneliness and trembling of that individual who lived a journey and “a death that will never have, like any victim of the Holocaust, neither justification nor a spark of explanation”, says Grishilde Liebman, a member of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Arbeit macht frei (“working makes you free”), a phrase used as a malicious welcome to the entrances of the Nazi concentration camps. Not at all, work (forced labour) made no prisoner free in any concentration camp, nor does it in those that exist today. Freedom happens when one is able to be oneself, without being persecuted, abused or insulted because of one’s race, gender, illness, sexual orientation or political or religious ideas.