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Going Beyond the Anonymous Statistics of Mass Tragedy : BOOK REVIEW: BIOGRAPHY : TO PAINT HER LIFE; Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era by Mary Lowenthal Felstiner , HarperCollins, $27.50, 304 pages

August 03, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tragedy in Rwanda, like other recent scenes of suffering in Somalia and Bosnia and Haiti, poses the danger that we will see only a vast sea of troubles and not the men, women and children who, one by one, suffer and die before our very eyes.

The same moral danger arises whenever we contemplate the Holocaust. And that's why a book like Mary Lowenthal Felstiner's "To Paint Her Life" is so surprising and ultimately so important--the author introduces us to a gifted young woman whom we come to know not merely as a victim of genocide, but as a human being and an artist of extraordinary gifts.

Charlotte Salomon, as we learn in "To Paint Her Life," was born in Berlin in 1917 and died in Auschwitz at the age of 26. Within the span of a single year during World War II--"(as) the war raged on and I sat by the sea and saw deep into the heart of humankind"--she created more than 700 paintings and hundreds of other drawings, captions, playlets and operettas that amount to an autobiography in word and image.

"In the thick of fear, she created the most penetrating visual record we have from the Nazi era about a single life," Felstiner explains of the body of work that we glimpse in the pages of her book. "She only guessed it would give vital knowledge past its time, saying to a friend when she packed it away, 'Keep this safe. It is my whole life.' "

Felstiner takes some daring risks in telling the story of Charlotte Salomon, and she indulges in narrative techniques we might expect to find in an experimental novel rather than in a work of history or biography. And, frankly, the text can be taxing at moments. But the rewards are rich enough to justify the effort--"To Paint Her Life" is something truly remarkable, a work of art in its own right and a masterpiece in the field of Holocaust studies.

For example, Felstiner refers to not one but three incarnations of Charlotte Salomon--Lotte is "the real-life one," Charlotte is "the made-up character" who appears in Lotte's paintings and playlets, and CS is Charlotte Salomon in her incarnation as the artist who stands back and paints her own life under the title "Life? or Theater?"

Felstiner explains that Charlotte Salomon grew up in a "house of suicides," and the author shows how CS struggled to make sense of half a dozen such deaths. "One two three four five six," went the rhyme that accompanied a painting of various dead relations, "does this mean we have a hex?"

But Felstiner goes on to explain exactly what it meant when a Jew committed suicide in Germany. She cites the Jewish suicide rate in Prussia 1923-27--a stunning 530 deaths per million against 280 Protestants and 135 Catholics--and ponders the fear and alienation that helps to explain it: "You Jews who take modernity's prize," writes the author, "you pay its price."

At times, "To Paint Her Life" achieves a certain songlike quality and poetic grandeur--it's a fugue of art and history, love and pain, sexuality and politics--and it reaches a shattering crescendo in the very last, speculative passage, when we follow Charlotte into the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Yet, at the same time, Felstiner is clearly a tenacious and disciplined historian who brings to her work an impressive command of source materials and, not incidentally, a focus on the experience of women in the Holocaust.

"(Charlotte's) states of mind make visible the inner stages of a huge historical process," Felstiner writes of her technique, which she calls "personified history, a way of embodying an era's irony and tragedy, its surge of suicide and genocide, within a few uncommon lives."

As a counterpoint to Charlotte, the author gives us the figure of Alois Brunner, one of Adolf Eichmann's lieutenants and the mastermind of the round-up of Jews that ensnared the doomed young artist in her refuge on the French Riviera. And Felstiner paints the heartbreaking scene of the day that Charlotte's freedom came to an end at last.

Drawing on historical records, Felstiner recalls how Brunner stood on the balcony of the Hotel Excelsior in Nice and surveyed the latest catch of Jewish refugees before dispatching them to the death camps. And then she imagines:

"Brunner's fingers were simply counting up the creatures down below. His eyes were passing over Lotte Salomon and seeing nobody at all."

Felstiner's book reminds us that we are invited to collaborate with the mass murderers whenever we fail to appreciate the fact that each victim of the Holocaust was a human being with a distinct face. Felstiner rescues Charlotte Salomon from the terrible statistical anonymity of "the Six Million" and gives her a visage that is both beautiful and haunting.

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