It’s My Whole Life: Char­lotte Salomon: An Artist in Hid­ing Dur­ing World War II

January 3, 2022

A grip­ping mid­dle grade biog­ra­phy of Char­lotte Salomon, and an ode to how art can cap­ture both life’s every­day beau­ty and its mon­u­men­tal horrors.

Char­lotte Salomon was a Ger­man-Jew­ish artist born in Berlin. She is remem­bered for her auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal series of paint­ings, Life? or The­ater?, which con­sists of 769 indi­vid­ual works paint­ed between 1940 and 1942 while she was in hid­ing from the Nazis in the south of France, and which has been called a paint­ed par­al­lel to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and an ear­ly graph­ic nov­el. In 1943, she entrust­ed her col­lec­tion of paint­ings to a friend. In Octo­ber of that year, she was cap­tured and deport­ed to Auschwitz, where she and her unborn child were gassed to death upon arrival.

It’s My Whole Life cov­ers Charlotte’s remark­able life from her child­hood and art school days to her time as a refugee in Nazi-occu­pied France, where she cre­at­ed the largest sin­gle work of art cre­at­ed by a Jew dur­ing the Holo­caust. Com­pelling­ly writ­ten and accom­pa­nied by vivid col­or pho­tographs of Salomon’s art­work, Susan Wider has craft­ed an illu­mi­nat­ing por­trait of an enig­mat­ic and evanes­cent young artist.

25 col­or illustrations

Discussion Questions

From the age of twen­ty-four to twen­ty-six, Char­lotte Salomon cre­at­ed over 769 indi­vid­ual paint­ings while in hid­ing from the Nazis. The body of work titled Life? or The­ater? is auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and can be com­pared to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl except that Salomon’s chron­i­cle of her life reads more as a pre­cur­sor to the graph­ic nov­el genre. Salomon and her hus­band were even­tu­al­ly cap­tured by the Nazis and sent by train to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, just before dawn on Octo­ber 10, 1943, she and her unborn child were mur­dered in the gas cham­bers. A few months ear­li­er, Salomon and her hus­band had giv­en Life? or The­ater? to a trust­ed friend for safe­keep­ing. While giv­ing him the wrapped parcels she is thought to have said Keep this safe, it’s my whole life.”

It’s My Whole Life by Susan Wider tells Salomon’s sto­ry in an acces­si­ble and engag­ing way, espe­cial­ly for a younger read­er, per­haps for a young adult like Salomon her­self. Salomon’s sto­ry is not an easy one to tell; her paint­ings, and Wider’s book, speak about fas­cism, sui­cide, abuse, famil­ial trau­ma, mur­der, and more. Yet with warm lan­guage and vivid details, a por­trait of an extra­or­di­nary artist emerges. Wider’s research is metic­u­lous but effort­less­ly incor­po­rat­ed as she weaves the sto­ry togeth­er using Salomon’s paint­ings, fam­i­ly pho­tos, and his­tor­i­cal pho­tos, all beau­ti­ful­ly print­ed. Char­lotte Salomon’s work is often over­looked and Susan Wider’s bril­liant book is poised to change that.