Charlotte Salomon was born in Berlin on 16 April 1917, the only child of Albert Salomon, a surgeon, and his wife Franziska, née Grunwald. An assimilated Jewish, upper middle-class family, they lived at Wieland Straße 15 in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Charlotte’s childhood was overshadowed by the suicide of her mother on 27 February 1926. Henceforth, her everyday life was managed by a series of nannies. In spring 1927, she started attending the Fürstin Bismarck School (today the Sophie Charlotte Gymnasium) in Sybel Straße. In 1930 Albert Salomon married the Jewish singer Paula Lindberg, who soon became the central figure in young Charlotte’s life.
In 1933 Albert Salomon’s professorship was withdrawn, and Paula Salomon-Lindberg was banned from giving public performances as a singer. Confronted with increasing anti-Semitic hostility, Charlotte Salomon left school a year early, before taking her Abitur school-leaving exams. Hoping to become an artist, she attended a private art school to prepare for her entrance exam into the Berlin college of art, then known as the “united state schools for free and applied arts”, at Steinplatz in Berlin-Charlottenburg.
Charlotte Salomon was accepted into the art college for a trial period, starting in the 1935 winter semester. After a first semester studying under the commercial artist Ernst Böhm, she transferred to Ludwig Bartning’s course. Having completed the trial period, she was able to enroll for a course, starting in summer semester 1936, despite being Jewish as her father was a First World War combat veteran. The college was legally permitted to accept a quota of 1.5 percent Jewish students. But finding herself again facing openly anti-Semitic attacks, Charlotte broke off her studies in autumn 1937.
Around this time, she met Alfred Wolfsohn, a Jewish voice instructor who worked with Paula Salomon-Lindberg. He fostered Charlotte’s artistic development, and gave her encouragement and commissions, and she fell in love with him. He provided the inspiration for the character of “Daberlohn”, who appears alongside “Paulinka Bimbam”, the figure representing Paula Salomon-Lindberg, in Charlotte’s major work “Life? Or theatre?”.
In February 1939, Charlotte Salomon escaped Germany to Villefranche in the South of France on the pretext of visiting her grandparents, the Grunwalds, who had emigrated in 1933. Her parents fled to Amsterdam in March 1939. From here they tried to prepare their and Charlotte’s emigration to the United States, but their plans were frustrated by the advance of the German army. Albert and Paula Salomon were deported to the Dutch camp Westerbork.
Charlotte Salomon created her renowned series of paintings entitled “Life? Or theatre?”, which she described as a “lyrical drama”, between 1940 and 1942. It told the story of her family, (renamed “Kann”), in over a thousand gouaches and pages of text. On completion, she entrusted the work to a friend in Villefranche, Dr Moridis, for safekeeping until the war was over.
In June 1943, Charlotte Salomon married Alexander Nagler, an Austrian émigré who looked after Jewish orphans in Villefranche. The marriage, which took place in Nice, drew the authorities’ attention to the couple. In September 1943, Charlotte and Alexander Nagler were arrested in Villefranche and deported via Drancy to Auschwitz. Charlotte was five months’ pregnant at the time and probably murdered on the day of her arrival in Auschwitz. Alexander Nagler died in the extermination camp Auschwitz III/Buna in 1944.
In 1947 Albert and Paula Salomon travelled to Villefranche where Charlotte Salomon’s work “Life? Or theatre?” was given to them. Since 1971 it has been in the care of the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam and has been shown in exhibitions worldwide. In 2012, it was part of the “documenta” international contemporary art exhibition in Kassel.
In the 1960s, a plaque was mounted in memory of Charlotte Salomon on the house at Wieland Straße 15 by the Berlin youth organization Berliner Landesjugendring, on the initiative of Gerhard Schoenberner. In 1991, a primary school in Grossbeeren Strasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg was named after Charlotte Salomon in the presence of Paula Salomon-Lindberg.