Dark years on the Côte d’Azur

An exhibition of the work of Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, sent to her death in Auschwitz, brings to light the role played by locals in deporting the region’s Jews in WWII.

A self-portrait of Charlotte Salomon in Villefranche-sur- Mer, where she resided with her maternal grandparents after leaving Germany in 1939 (photo credit: JEWISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM AMSTERDAM)
A self-portrait of Charlotte Salomon in Villefranche-sur- Mer, where she resided with her maternal grandparents after leaving Germany in 1939
THERE IS no way of, and no point in, avoiding the obvious when writing about the French Riviera: the green slopes watching over the blue bays that have given the region its so apt name ‒ Côte d’Azur; the dandy, yet at times frayed, belle-époque architecture of its dense, relatively low-built cities; the small hilltop villages and coastal fishing hamlets; the ancient Roman ruins and medieval fortresses; the white ridges of the Alps brighten in the distance; and the undeniable cosmopolitan atmosphere that has made the region so appealing to artists and affluent vacationers alike since the turn of the last century.
Little wonder, then, that the Côte d’Azur is rarely linked in our collective memory with the horrors of the Holocaust. This is precisely why Marie Lavandier, director of Nice Museums, decided to curate an exhibition this past spring at the Musée Masséna on Charlotte Salomon’s seminal work “Life? Or Theater?” created by the young German Jewish artist during the years she took refuge in the Côte D’Azur before being deported from Nice in 1943, at the age of 26 and pregnant, to her death in Auschwitz.
The exhibition is part of a year-long commemoration throughout 2016 of Nice’s “dark years” of World War II, which also includes a symposium with Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, whose father, Arno, like Salomon was deported from Nice to Auschwitz. Lavendier, who in June was appointed the new director of Louvre-Lens, the prestigious Northern France branch of the Louvre, tells The Jerusalem Report the Salomon exhibition “aimed to provoke a much needed debate about those dark years.”
Côte d’Azur played a significant role in the dire fate of the Nazi’s victims, says Lavendier, a role that is often blurred by the complex history of the region during the war when Nice sat uneasily in the demilitarized area between the Vichy collaborator- controlled zone and the Italian occupied zone, before being invaded by the Italians, who refused to deport Jews, and then by the Nazis, after Italy signed an armistice deal in September 1943.
To lift some of that fog, materials from Nice’s municipal archives were presented in the Salomon exhibition that revealed the relentless efforts of the French bureaucracy refugees’ precise whereabouts – Salomon among them – even prior to the Nazi invasion. These documents, Lavandier says, indicate just how deeply the locals were involved in the evil to come.
“You see these administrative papers,” she points out, “and understand that it was not the Italians who oversaw these procedures, it was not the Germans, it was the French.”
When the Germans finally took over Nice and its vicinity, they had no problem tracing and seizing the Jews hiding there, says Lavandier.
Accountability for the past, especially in these alarming times of rising antiimmigrant sentiment in Europe, was a major motivation for the Nice exhibition. But it was not the sole one. Ever since Salomon’s work was first displayed in Amsterdam’s Fodor Museum in 1961, its artistic achievements have been largely overshadowed by the historical significance of her life story. Lavandier, therefore, also aimed to expose the multi-layered depth and extraordinary scope of Salomon’s unique creation.
Charlotte Salomon was born in 1917, in Berlin. An only child to Albert Salomon – a physician, and Fränze (née Grunwald), a nurse, who, following the conventions of the time of their bourgeoisie class abandoned her profession after she married. In 1926, Fränze jumped to her death through an open window and nine-year-old Charlotte was told that her mother had died of influenza. Only years later, in the midst of the horrible reality of exile and following the suicide of her beloved grandmother, was the artist brutally confronted with the fact that both her mother and an aunt, after whom she had been named, had taken their own lives.
But back in 1930, a glimmer of happiness illuminated Salomon’s youth when her widowed father married the renowned opera singer Paula Lindberg, with whom she immediately developed a warm, admiring, relationship. It was a short-lived period of hopefulness, however; as soon as the Nazis came to power, both father and stepmother lost their jobs, and the family rapidly felt the tightening grip of Nazi persecution.
In fact, Charlotte was the last Jewish student to be accepted to Berlin’s Academy of Fine Art. Salomon’s biographer, American historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, remarked that the academy’s director made a note at her admission that Salomon was “so modest and reserved that she wouldn’t present a threat to any Aryan male.”
In late 1938, Albert Salomon spent a short term in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After he was released, he and Paula decided to send Charlotte, in January 1939, to Villefranche-sur-Mer to join her maternal grandparents, who had fled Berlin to the French Riviera in 1934. It was a lastchance opportunity for the family to get her out of the country ‒ under the pretext of a weekend visit to her sick grandmother ‒ before she turned 21 and lost the right to travel without a passport. A couple of months later, Albert and Paula managed to flee to Amsterdam, where they survived the Nazi occupation in hiding.
Côte D’Azur was, at the time, a desired destination for refugees who could afford it. Even after the Nazi occupation of France and the establishment of the Vichy puppet government in the south, large areas of the French Riviera were considered relatively safe for Jews due – ironically – to the capture of large areas by fascist Italy.
The elderly Marianne and Ludwig Grunwald were among the first wave of immigrants seeking refuge in the Côte D’Azur from the looming Nazi threat. They were invited by an American, Ottilie Moore, to dwell in a house on the large grounds of her Villa L’Ermitage in Villefranche, where she operated a long-term shelter for refugee children and day care for local children in need.
When Charlotte arrived at L’Ermitage in 1939, her grandparents had already exhausted much of their own means of living and, being dependent on Moore’s apparently uneroding sense of responsibility, were struggling emotionally with their new status as sort of guests, sort of refugees.
Shortly after the outbreak of WWII, Charlotte resolved that moving together into the privacy of a rented apartment in Nice would benefit their dwindling spirits.
It didn’t.
In March 1940, shortly after the three settled in Nice, Marianne committed suicide. Charlotte, whose affection for her grandmother comes across in her paintings, found herself on her own with a tyrannical, self-centered and – according to all testimonies – vicious patriarch whose physical and mental maladies she was compelled to attend to. It was at this time that he told her, according to her account, the truth about the circumstances of the deaths of her mother and aunt, urging her bluntly, sadistically even, to follow in their footsteps.
In June 1940, before the German-Franco armistice was signed and prior to the establishment of the Vichy regime in July, French authorities interned all German immigrants. Charlotte and Ludwig were detained for a short but traumatic time in harsh conditions in a French internment camp in the Pyrenees from which they were allowed to return to Nice after the armistice was signed.
Sometime during that ordeal, it seems, Charlotte decided not only to choose life, but to dedicate whatever time she had left to investigating the entangled currents and undercurrents of her life through the lens of her artistic vision.
Within a year or so, she completed an unimaginably extensive oeuvre of more than 1,370 gouache paintings. Of those, she chose 795 for her final version. The work also includes painted texts, poems and transparencies she paired with some of the paintings. On these translucent sheets, Salomon designed instructions on specific musical themes and compositions to match – or sometime confront – the visual images she created.
It’s an unprecedented genre that combines and spreads philosophical queries, artistic, musical, literary allusions to her past and contemporary works alongside political, historical, social and psychological annotations. It presents a rare talent for color, line and composition. And it is also a poignant craft for storytelling. Salomon named it “Life or Theater?” and tagged it a “musical play.”
The storytelling facet of “Life or Theater?” is so compelling – even when narrowed to the 300 paintings Lavandier chose of the already limited selection of 340 or so paintings loaned to the Masséna Museum by Amsterdam’s Jewish Museum, the current owner of the complete work ‒ that it is enticing to simply read its narrative as an autobiography, a sort of a memoir.
The oeuvre starts with a painting of the maternal aunt drowning herself in a river. It continues with the love affair of the protagonist’s parents, their wedding night, the birth of their daughter, the mother’s long, frail farewell from her daughter followed by her death. It shows the vitality brought to the family home by the stepmother – Salomon named her, like other figures, with a semi-comic pseudonym. It depicts the rise of the Nazis, the flight by the grandparents to France via Rome, where the protagonist paid them a visit. It shows her art studies at the academy, the raging violent anti-Semitism on the streets and the eventual forced seclusion of the family members at home. It then focuses on a young singing coach, a post-traumatic WWI veteran who offered to help the stepmother ‒ a formerly famous opera star throughout some vocal difficulties she suffered. The man, young, brilliant and a Jew, was restricted to working only with Jewish artists, and idolized the stepmother. His attempts to coerce her into an intimate relationship were rejected, and he secretly initiated, instead, an intimate and sexual relationship with her teenage stepdaughter, Charlotte, who adored him.
The man, whose character in the work was named Amadeus Daberlohn, was the artistic reflection of Alfred Wolfson, a WWI veteran who indeed became a frequent visitor at the Salomon household and had an immense influence on the young artist in those formative years. So much so, that despite what comes across not only today – when we call sexual exploitation by its name ‒ but also in Salomon’s own painted depiction of his effigy as exploitative conduct, Wolfson is seen by biographers and art pundits as her greatest love and her most comprehensive source of inspiration.
“Life or Theater?” illuminates Daberlohn’s weakest, despicable sides. But it also portrays him as the protagonist’s muse, the driving force behind her resilience, as well as the font for the self-confidence required to imagine, and then complete, such an ambitious artistic project.
Salomon created most of the paintings within a year or so, renting for some of that period a room in Pension La Belle Aurore in the village of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat near Villefranche and using materials supplied to her by Moore, to whom she later also dedicated the work.
Unlike Villa L’Ermitage, La Belle Aurore still stands. Its lobby welcomes its guests with newly built decorations dedicated to Salomon’s colorful gouaches. The vivid view of the port and the vibrant essence of the art she created there stand in sharp contrast to the harsh, unbearable reality she was addressing ‒ the collapse of the world she left behind; the recent violent death of her grandmother; the incarceration in the Pyrenees and the revelations about her family’s suicidal history; and the ever-growing abuse by her grandfather, who at that stage went as far as demanding she have sexual relations with him. Leeds University art historian Prof. Griselda Pollock suggested, in a 2013 Yale lecture, that his rapist, incestuous inclinations were the actual reason for the suicides of his family members.
Salomon completed “Life or Theater?” sometime in mid-1942. Moore had already left France, smuggling Jewish children and infants with her luxury car into an ocean liner headed for America. Salomon returned to her ailing grandfather in Nice, spending as much time as possible with the man Moore left to tend Villa L’Ermitage (her former lover Alexander Nagler), who also was a Jewish refugee.
IN FEBRUARY 1943, Ludwig Grunwald died, and four months later Charlotte and Nagler married. Lavandier says completing “Life or Theater?” freed Salomon from the burden of her tormented family history, and that in these last months of her life she was happy. “Moreover, she felt successful and content,” Lavandier says.
On September 8, 1943, after Italy’s armistice with the Allies, the German army entered the Riviera. Nagler and Salomon, who was four months pregnant, were taken to Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Excelsior, a 10-minute walk from the museum that exhibited her work for the first time in Nice 73 years later. They were deported, via Drancy, to Auschwitz where they both died.
Moore, who returned to Villefranche after the war, was surprised to discover the epic work her protégé had created. Salomon had entrusted it, packed in a suitcase, to a family friend, Dr. Georges Moridis who kept it at his home in Villefranche sur Mer in meticulous condition.
Though named as the rightful owner of the collection, Moore passed it on to Paula and Albert Salomon, who also were shocked when introduced to this unexpected legacy. Lavandier says it was Anne Frank’s father who convinced them to expose their daughter’s life’s work to the public.
Since it was first exhibited in 1961, Salomon and her complex, ever-surprising work have become a subject of academic research, as well as the focus of dramas and documentary films, biographies and various artistic albums. But wider, more popular recognition came only after French best-selling author David Foenkinos published in 2014 a novel about her life, “Charlotte: A Novel.”
A couple of years earlier, Dutch film director Franz Weisz threw a bombshell when presenting in a new documentary ‒ which he similarly titled “Life? Or Theater?” ‒ the content of eight pages from Salomon’s original work bearing that name. The pages are a textual painting, an epilogue in the form of a letter, in which the protagonist writes to Deberlohn about her creating the musical play.
In it, she confesses to have laced an omelet she had just served her grandfather with a poison brought by the Grunwalds with them to their exile a decade earlier. “It is acting as I write,” the texts read, describing how she is drawing his image as the venom puts him to sleep ‒ “Perhaps he’s already dead. Forgive me,” it says.
Charlotte’s parents had shown Weisz the letter more than two decades earlier when the filmmaker wrote the screenplay for his 1981 cinematic drama “Charlotte.” Following his advice, they kept the pages a secret, concealing their contents even from Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum to which they had donated the work.
The revelations in the letter stunned many of Salomon’s scholars who accepted it as a factual confession, despite Nice’s coroner reports which describe a totally different death – that Grunwald collapsed on the street after a train ride rather than a meal with his granddaughter.
But, as Griselda Pollock noted, Salomon’s work is so powerful that, gripped by the enticing notion that the artist and the protagonist are the same person, one may miss the poetic intricacy within this unique ensemble of gouaches in which daily life, memories, politics and history shed their reflection on art just as much as art sheds its own, rebellious reflection back onto them.