Several months ago, we saw a wonderful exhibit at the Strathmore Mansion of the works of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, who told the story of her pre-Holocaust and Holocaust life in embroidered paintings, filled with color and pathos and humor, and accompanied by embroidered explanations. It was a beautiful exhibition of work by a talented artist, who made the panels for her grandchildren, in part I think because telling the story out loud was so hard.
Yesterday, I finished reading a wonderful book, “To Paint Her Life” by Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, the story of the tragic life of Charlotte Salomon, born in Berlin, exiled to the south of France and murdered by the Nazis in 1943 in Auschwitz. Salomon was an artist who, during the last year of her life, made over 700 drawings, also annotated with explanations, of everything she had gone through. The drawings survived at the villa where she had lived for a time near Nice.
I would argue that Krinitz’ work was better than Salomon’s, but the degree of her skill is not the point. The point is that Charlotte Salomon, gawky, shy, walled off, found a way to express herself, a way that transcended her life. And nothing in her life was the best. Her father was a physician in Berlin, who survived the war in Amsterdam. Her mother committed suicide, when Charlotte was quite young, although this fact was kept from her for many years. But is was not just her mother who committed suicide – her mother’s two sisters also killed themselves, as did her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. And even more.
What was it in her genes that led to so much self-killing? Her father remarried a well known German opera star who, unfortunately was Jewish, and whose career was cut short abruptly. But it was in wealthy and cultured circles that she moved, only she was not up to the challenge. She was a misfit, from her school days onward.
Her story is fascinating, her art work an accomplishment. Felstiner’s book is also an accomplishment, painting a full life picture of Salomon, her father and her step mother, as well as both her older lover and the man she married shortly before she was deported. It is also the story of Alois Brunner, deputy to Adolph Eichmann, a man forgotten by history, even by Holocaust history, who organized the deportments from the Drancy prison camp in France, and who lived after the war in Damascus, not whole, but alive.
I recommend the book highly.