Left: Char­lotte Salomon self-por­trait, 1940, gouache on cardboard

Right: Char­lotte Salomon paint­ing in the gar­den at Vil­la L’Er­mitage, Ville­franche-sur-Mer, 1939

Col­lec­tion Jew­ish Muse­um, Ams­ter­dam © Char­lotte Salomon Foundation

What’s a biog­ra­ph­er to do when the Holo­caust has wiped out let­ters, diaries, pho­tos, and the indi­vid­u­als who cre­at­ed them? Who is left to speak to these lives?

When I was research­ing Ger­man Jew­ish artist and writer Char­lotte Salomon (19171943) for what would become It’s My Whole Life: Char­lotte Salomon: An Artist in Hid­ing dur­ing World War II, I first looked for sur­viv­ing Salomon fam­i­ly mem­bers who might be able to shed light on Charlotte’s life. Per­haps a descen­dant of one of Charlotte’s cousins on her father’s side? Or some­one from her husband’s fam­i­ly, or maybe some­one on her stepmother’s side? But when I began research­ing for this project there were no longer any liv­ing rel­a­tives, because of age and the Holocaust.

I built a fam­i­ly tree for Char­lotte, research­ing as deeply as pos­si­ble to try and iden­ti­fy poten­tial liv­ing descen­dants. I did make some use­ful dis­cov­er­ies, though they weren’t what I was look­ing for in terms of descen­dants. Instead, I found evi­dence that Char­lotte was relat­ed to the Ger­man impres­sion­ist painter Max Lieber­mann (18471935) through a mar­riage tan­gle in her mater­nal grandmother’s fam­i­ly. I’d seen hints about this in two sources, but it was val­i­dat­ing to final­ly stare at the mar­riage con­nec­tions in front of me. 

Char­lotte was around eigh­teen when Lieber­mann died at age eighty-eight. It would have been easy to assume that they had met at fam­i­ly gath­er­ings and that she was famil­iar with his art, but I could find noth­ing con­crete to sub­stan­ti­ate this. Yes, he had been a guest in the Salomon home in Berlin, along with Albert Ein­stein, Käthe Koll­witz, Albert Schweitzer, and many oth­ers. And yes, Charlotte’s step­moth­er, opera singer Paula Salomon-Lind­berg, had sung Robert Schumann’s Tal­is­mane (lyrics by Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe) at Liebermann’s funer­al, as request­ed by Lieber­mann in his will. The song itself had clear­ly made an impres­sion on Char­lotte because a record­ing of Paula per­form­ing it was one of the few pos­ses­sions that Char­lotte had tak­en with her when her par­ents sent her to the south of France after Kristallnacht.

I used Ger­man birth, death, and mar­riage cer­tifi­cates fre­quent­ly in my research, in order to cre­ate fam­i­ly trees. This also meant hav­ing to tack­le Kur­rentschrift, the old-style hand­writ­ing from the late medieval peri­od that was still used on offi­cial Ger­man doc­u­ments until the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Odd­ly, this is where sports helped. Ten­nis friend and Ger­man trans­la­tor Gra­cie Schild explained Kur­rentschrift to me and armed me with a cheat sheet to help deci­pher this hand­writ­ing let­ter by let­ter, includ­ing upper- and low­er-case vari­a­tions, and Ger­man lig­a­tures like sch, th, sz, and so on. Because the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments had con­sis­tent, repet­i­tive cat­e­gories — birth, death, reli­gion — I quick­ly got the hang of it, apart from the annoy­ing instances of slop­py pen­man­ship where noth­ing was legible.

Kur­rentschrift cheat sheet

After fail­ing to come up with fam­i­ly descen­dants for Char­lotte, I decid­ed to make fam­i­ly trees for peo­ple close to her to see if there might be liv­ing descen­dants amongst them. I did this for many peo­ple, includ­ing Charlotte’s friend in Nice, Emil Straus; her French doc­tor Georges Moridis who hid Charlotte’s paint­ings and writ­ings at his home in the south of France dur­ing the war; her close friend and bene­fac­tor Ottilie Moore, who shel­tered Char­lotte and her mater­nal grand­par­ents at her French vil­la in the ear­ly years of World War II. I hoped that hunt­ing for their off­spring might be more fruitful.

I struck out almost imme­di­ate­ly with Emil Straus, even though Straus had a dis­tin­guished polit­i­cal career after the war in Ger­many. I found no evi­dence that either of Straus’s now-deceased twin sons had families. 

Find­ing George and Odette Moridis’s daugh­ter Kika was much eas­i­er. Kika was born ear­ly in the war, and I could imag­ine Char­lotte hold­ing baby Kika and play­ing with her on vis­its to the Moridis home. I had seen quot­ed mate­r­i­al and pho­tos of Kika in online arti­cles and it was clear that she was a sup­port­ive voice for Charlotte’s sto­ry and for her own father’s cru­cial role in Charlotte’s life. Not only did he hide her art, keep­ing it safe for the rest of us, but he also encour­aged her to paint dur­ing dif­fi­cult peri­ods of fam­i­ly strife and wartime terror. 

I could eas­i­ly imag­ine Char­lotte in that office, some­time in the sum­mer of 1940. She and her grand­fa­ther had just returned from pos­si­ble incar­cer­a­tion at the Gurs intern­ment camp in the Pyre­nees. Char­lotte was depressed and trau­ma­tized. She trust­ed Dr. Moridis as he told her that she should paint with all her heart. 

I reached out to Kika. She quick­ly and deft­ly field­ed my email ques­tions, offer­ing fam­i­ly pho­tographs, and becom­ing a source for many details about her par­ents, includ­ing the cel­lar where her father hid Charlotte’s paint­ings, and the fam­i­ly home where Kika still lives. Her father’s office remains as it was when Char­lotte vis­it­ed. I could not have asked for a more enthu­si­as­tic cham­pi­on for giv­ing voice to Charlotte’s sto­ry and aid­ing me in my research.

This was equal­ly true for Ottilie Gob­el Moore’s grand-niece, film­mak­er and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Dana Plays, who works pas­sion­ate­ly and tire­less­ly to tell the sto­ries of Ottilie Moore, Ottilie’s father Adolf Gob­el, and Char­lotte Salomon through art films that are sen­si­tive to these indi­vid­u­als’ lives and cre­ativ­i­ty. Dana knew how Ottilie’s per­son­al sta­tionery was designed and had beau­ti­ful, detailed inte­ri­or pho­tographs of Ottilie’s French vil­la with Charlotte’s paint­ings hang­ing on the din­ing room walls and even knew the cor­rect names of the out­build­ings on Ottilie’s property.

Dana also sent a pho­to of the villa’s liv­ing room with its spec­tac­u­lar grand piano. We know Char­lotte was very musi­cal. In her paint­ed mem­oir Life? or The­ater?, she even includ­ed a musi­cal sound­track. She heard music in her head when she paint­ed, and she want­ed the read­er to have a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence. She used paint­ed cap­i­tal let­ters to add song titles or lyrics to her paint­ings. Per­haps twen­ty-two-year-old Char­lotte played some of these tunes on Ottilie’s piano.

Both women, Kika in France and Dana in Flori­da, were gra­cious, gen­er­ous, and care deeply about help­ing to ampli­fy Char­lotte Salomon’s sto­ry. With col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts like these that inform books like It’s My Whole Life, I know that Charlotte’s sto­ry and art will live on for gen­er­a­tions to come. 

Char­lotte prac­tices for her art school entrance exam, gouache on paper, c. 1940 – 1942.

Col­lec­tion Jew­ish Muse­um, Ams­ter­dam © Char­lotte Salomon Foundation

A grad­u­ate of The Mid­dle­bury Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Mon­terey and of the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, Susan Wider has writ­ten for Ori­onTHE Mag­a­zineThe Fourth Riv­er, and Wild Hope mag­a­zine, among oth­ers. Before becom­ing a full-time writer, she held senior man­age­ment posi­tions at the Geor­gia O’Keeffe Muse­um, The San­ta Fe Insti­tute, and the Lovelace Res­pi­ra­to­ry Research Insti­tute. Ear­li­er in her career she taught Amer­i­can Eng­lish for the French Cham­ber of Com­merce in Nor­mandy, France and worked as a vio­lin­ist in sev­er­al pro­fes­sion­al cham­ber and sym­pho­ny orches­tras. It’s My Whole Life is her first book. She lives out­side San­ta Fe, New Mexico.