Charlotte Salomon was born in 1917 in Berlin to a cultured, prosperous and assimilated Jewish family. Her father was a respected professor and surgeon. Her mother was a nurse. When Charlotte (called Lotte by her family) was eight years old, her mother died. At the time she was told the cause was influenza--the truth was kept a carefully guarded secret.
In 1930 Salomon's father married opera singer Paula Lindberg, whom the quiet and withdrawn young Charlotte came to idolize and love. Charlotte also formed a key relationship with her stepmother's voice coach, Alfred Wolfsohn, a dynamic man almost twice her age. As conditions in Berlin became more threatening for Jews after Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Salomons decided to send Charlotte to the south of France to join her maternal grandparents, who had been living in Villefranche-sur-Mer for several years. They were there thanks to the generosity of a wealthy American acquaintance, Ottilie Moore, whose villa sheltered a number of refugees from the Nazis. The plan was for Charlotte to eventually meet up with her parents and journey to America.
After war broke out in the fall of 1939, Charlotte's grandmother attempted suicide. It was then that the family's history of depression and suicide was revealed to Charlotte by her grandfather. Her maternal great-grand-mother, her aunt Charlotte, after whom she was named, and, in fact, her mother had all taken their own lives, as had several other family members. Despite Charlotte's intervention, her grandmother died in a subsequent suicide attempt. "Dear God, just let me not go mad," Salomon wrote.
To stave off the depression and despair wrought by the haunting legacy of this family history and the burgeoning Nazi threat, Salomon, who had studied art at the prestigious State academy of arts in Berlin, undertook, in her words, a "totally wild project." In a letter to her father and stepmother she declared, "I will create a story so as not to lose my mind." From 1941 to 1943 she obsessively threw herself into producing a series of more than 1,300 gouaches (opaque watercolors), some 769 of which she numbered and collated into a unique opus--a work of art that merged images, text and musical cues into a remarkable dramatization of her life story. Sometimes forgoing food and sleep, she often sang or hummed as she worked. "She had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths," she...