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Legacies lost and refound
Greer Fay Cashman
An exhibition of the works of Charlotte Salomon at Yad Vashem poses questions that have no answers about what might have been.
On my second visit to Israel before making aliya, I came to attend a conference of the World Union of Jewish Journalists. Though most of the conference was in English, there was a Yiddish session addressed by Golda Meir, who chose to focus on the Holocaust where Yiddish culture had almost but not quite met its demise. Meir referred not only to Yiddish culture but to the overall contributions to civilization that many among the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust might have made. It was a mistake, she said, to refer to six million Jews. The numbers were far greater, taking into account their children and their children's children ad infinitum. The Nazis had snuffed out the lives not only of six million people but of all their potential progeny. An example is German-born artist Charlotte Salomon, who lived in France prior to her deportation to Auschwitz and is best known for the wonderful series of close to 800 works that she completed prior to her final and fateful journey. Salomon was 26 years old and four months pregnant when sent to the gas chamber on October 12, 1943. Who can tell what talents her unborn child might have possessed? Salomon came from a very artistic and highly strung family in which several relatives had committed suicide. This information was kept from her during her childhood, but revealed to her in 1940 by her grandfather after her grandmother took her own life. Grandfather and granddaughter were rounded up in the same year and sent to the Gurs internment camp where they remained for almost two months before they were released owing to her grandfather's advanced age. By now, Salomon had become profoundly anxious and deeply depressed, and her doctor recommended art as therapy. This led to the creation of her remarkable legacy to posterity "Life? or Theater?" - an autobiographical series of colorful expressionist-style gouaches accompanied by texts and music which she wrote herself. While they were in France, Ottilie Moore, an American expatriate, had given Salomon refuge and encouraged her to express herself through her art. But with war in the air, Moore returned to the US. Before her deportation to Auschwitz, Salomon entrusted her works to her physician, with instructions that they be forwarded to Moore. When Moore discovered after the war that Salomon's father and beloved stepmother had survived, she gave the collection to them. Albert Salomon decided in 1971 to donate it to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. While this is its permanent home, large sections of the collection have been made available for exhibitions in different parts of the world, including Israel. The latest, organized by the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, is now on view at the art pavilion of Yad Vashem, where some of her works are in the permanent collection. The exhibition, which will remain open until October 1, has been viewed by thousands of visitors from Israel and abroad. One can only imagine what else Charlotte Salomon might have achieved had she survived. Even now, more than 60 years after the war, lost treasures of Jewish artists who perished are resurfacing as Europeans clean out attics, discover secret panels in walls and furniture or find a reason to dig up floorboards. Yad Vashem's Museum of Holocaust History, which includes art pavilions and a special Judaica section, is the most appropriate repository for such treasures, but sometimes Jewish museums in other parts of the world lay claim to them, and Yad Vashem can receive them only on loan. While this may not be the most satisfactory arrangement, it is better than not having them at all - and it does enable the Israeli public to identify on yet another level with that branch of Jewish life that was severed so cruelly.
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