By David Foenkinos
Charlotte Salomon is born into a family stricken by suicide and a country at war - but there is something exceptional about her. She has a gift, a talent for painting. And she has a great love, for a brilliant, eccentric musician.
But just as she is coming in to her own as an artist, death is coming to control her country. The Nazis have come to power and, a Jew in Berlin, her life is narrowing - she is kept from her art, torn from her love and her family, chased from her country. And still she is not safe, not from the madness that has hunted her family, or the one gripping Europe . . .
This Review Contains spoilers
This book is without a doubt the best book I have read this year, it was outstanding. I chose to read this book because I am an avid reader of anything set during the Holocaust period, a period I often struggle to comprehend.
Charlotte tells the true story of artist Charlotte Saloman, a young Jewish girl living in Germany whilst Hitler was in power and her struggle to make sense of the world around her using art.
Charlotte’s family dealt with several tragedies prior to the Holocaust due to a strong family history of mental illness. In fact, the portrayal of mental illness in this book is handled incredibly sensitively.
“This novel is inspired by the life of Charlotte Saloman.
A German painter murdered at the age of twenty-six, when she was pregnant. My principal source is is her autobiographical work, Life? Or Theatre?”
For Charlotte Saloman death has always been a part of her life.
“Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.
So she wasn’t the first Charlotte.
Before her, there had been her aunt, her mother’s sister.
The two sisters were very close, until one evening in 1913.”
Charlotte and Franziska spent their time laughing and joking together as much as their parents would allow. Their father is strict and unyielding and their mother is the more gentle of the two
but it is a gentleness tinged with sorrow. Her life has been a series of tragedies.
“It is a cold November night.
While everyone is sleeping, Charlotte gets out of bed.
She gathers a few belongings, as if she is going on a trip.
Charlotte has just turned eighteen.
She walks quickly toward her destination.
A bridge she loves.
She has known for a long time that it will be the last bridge.
In the black of night. Unseen she jumps.”
Her body is found the next day and her parents are beside themselves. Franziska feels she is to blame, she should have known what was happening, should have been able to prevent it.
The guilt of those living with the death of a loved one by suicide is perfectly captured in this book and dealt with in an empathetic manner.
Shortly after Charlotte’s death the war begins and Franziska decides to become a nurse. There she meets her husband and on the 16th April 1917 she has a baby girl.
“Franziska wants to call her Charlotte. In homage to her sister.
Albert does not want his daughter to bear a dead woman’s name.
Still less one who committed suicide.
Franziska weeps, outraged, infuriated.
It is a way of making her live again, she thinks.
Please, Albert begs, be reasonable.
But he knows that she isn’t.
It is part of why he loves her, this gentle madness.
The way she has of never being the same woman.
She is by turns free and submissive,
Feverish and dazzling.
He senses that conflict is pointless.
Besides, who ever feels like fighting during a war?
So Charlotte it will be?”
After a while Albert notes that Franziska has become unstable in her actions, increasingly absent from her family. In fact, there are days when she hardly bothers with Charlotte. After some time she tries to commit suicide. In an act of desperation Albert sends her to her parents where she is observed at all times by a nurse.
“The Grunwalds eat in the large dining room.
The nurse crosses the room, sits down next to them for a moment.
Suddenly, the mother is seized by a vision.
Franziska alone in her room, walking over to the window.
She glares at the nurse.
Jumps to her feet and runs upstairs to her daughter.
She opens the door, just in time to see the body falling.
She screams her head off, but it’s too late.
The mother moves forward, trembling.
Franziska is lying in a pool of her own blood.”
Charlotte’s family tell her that her mother died of flu, a lie that she won’t discover until much later.
When Charlotte is a teenager her father meets an opera singer named Paula and he marries her. Paula and Albert get married in a synagogue.
“Raised by her rabbi father, Paula is a true believer.
Judaism has had little importance in Charlotte’s life.
One might even say: none at all.
Her childhood is based around an absence of Jewish culture.”
I loved the writing style of this book, the way we get snapshots of the character’s lives and thus we learn to care about what happens to them.
Charlotte’s grandmother has had a life beset by family tragedies.
“There are her two daughters, of course.
But they are only the culmination of a long line of suicides.
Her brother too threw himself in a river…
But it wasn’t over for Charlotte’s grandmother.
No sooner was their mother in the ground than her younger sister committed suicide.”
When things start to look bad for those of Jewish faith it is a gradual process, a series of changes so small you might not notice it from the outside.
”When it all starts, some of their friends are going to leave Germany.
These friends encourage them to do the same.
Paula could sing in the United States.
Albert could easily find work there.
No, he says.
It’s out of the question.
This is their homeland.
This is Germany.
They must be optimistic.”
Then in January 1933, the Nazi’s come to power. Paula is no longer allowed to give public performances and they know it won’t be long before Albert is also prevented from working.
“Attacks are spreading, books are burning. In the Salomon’s apartment, they meet up in the evenings.
Artists, intellectuals, doctors.
Some continue to believe this is a passing phase. The logical consequence of an economic crisis.
Someone must always be blamed for a nation’s woes.”
It is around this time that Charlotte’s grandparents decide to leave the country.
“Charlotte stays in Berlin with her father and Paula.
She goes back to school where the humiliations never end.
Until the day when a law forbids her from pursuing her studies.
One year before her baccalaureat exams, she has to drop out.
She leaves with a school report praising her impeccable behaviour.”
Whilst the world around Charlotte is in turmoil she seeks refuge in painting.
For Charlotte it is a source of joy.
After feeling so lost, she has at last found her way.
She was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin but only after they had carefully considered the potential dangers to Aryan girls from associated with a Jewish girl when
all Jewish girls are temptresses, deviants.
Nineteen thirty-eight is the year of the disintegration.
Charlotte’s final hopes will be smashed to pieces.
A terrible humiliation awaits her.
Charlotte has entered her work into a competition.
“The first prize is awarded to Charlotte Saloman.
Instantly the room becomes tense.
It is impossible that she should receive his prize.
The ceremony attracts too much attention.
People would talk about the Jewishness of the art school.
The prizewinner herself would be too exposed.
She would immediately become a target.
She might be imprisoned.”
Charlotte is informed she has won the contest but she cannot receive the trophy and so she chooses for her best friend to win it and leaves the school never to come back again.
Albert is taken in for questioning and without any warning he is thrown into Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp to the north of Berlin. When he gets out he decides to send Charlotte to her grandparent’s house in France.
He knows now that there is no hope.
He was on the front line of the horror.
She must flee, quickly.
While it is still possible.
It is around this time that Charlotte learns the truth of her mother’s death and the news makes her feel adrift.
After some times all Germans living in France have to declare themselves and she and her grandfather get sent to the Gurs camp in the Pyrenees. Her grandfather becomes ill and they are released so she can get him proper care.
“To survive she must paint her story.
That is the only way out.
She repeats this again and again.
She must bring the dead back to life….
She is going to paint her memories like a novel.
The drawings will be accompanied by long texts.
It is a story that will be read as well as looked at.
To paint and to write.
This combination is a way of expressing herself entirely.
Or let’s say totally.
It is a world.”
In a world where she isn’t allowed an indentity anymore painting is the one way of preserving it.
During the summer of 1942 all Jews are required to present themselves to the authorities. When they go to present themselves they are surrounded by gendarmes. Charlotte manages to escape.
The Jews must and will pay.
To ensure this they send one of the highest-ranking SS officers.
And also perhaps the cruellest: Alois Brunner.
His biography is sickening.
In 1987 Brunner declares
'All of them deserved to die.
Because they were the Devils.’
Before adding: ‘I have no
Regrets and I would do it again.”
That comment alone sickened me.
I think the reason this book was so hard hitting is because I know it really happened. I have been to the museums recording some of the horrific things that happened and seen photos of the victims and remnants of their possessions but this is the first time I have read an account from the era.
This was an outstanding and truly haunting read.
Our Final Rating...
Read & Shared 81 Times.