November 22, 2016
The first page of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir may put you off for its darkness. She confesses she has changed, that she is no longer the cheerful person she has been throughout her adult life (she is now in her late 80s). There’s no bitterness, she says, rather a recognition she knows what’s happening. “I don’t belong here anymore,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.”
The book is only 100 pages, and she’s not writing it to you, the reader. She’s writing to her father, and that keeps the emotional burden from pulling you in too close. It’s like secretly overhearing Marceline talk to him in the next room, safely hearing difficult material without demands. So I wouldn’t put the book down just yet.
Marceline is a Holocaust survivor. When she was 15 years old, she and her father were arrested by the Vichy government’s militia at their château in southern France and deported to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the book is concerned with telling a Holocaust story, it is also firmly in the realm of doing what books do so well: putting us in someone else’s life to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.
Marceline’s one-way conversation with her father, who never returned from Auschwitz, accomplishes this with meaningful clarity. She tells her father about her time in Birkenau, with particular emphasis on the small note he managed to get to her via a messenger. She remembers only the salutation and closing, not the essence of the message, and that torments her. She recalls the time they saw each other, when she marched by his camp. And she explains how she left Birkenau, spent a short time at Bergen-Belsen and then worked in a factory at Raguhn near Leipzig, Germany. When the war ended, she describes walking toward the Americans in Prague, and away from the Russians. “Where were you? All I could think about was you. But I didn’t try to find you among the others. That’s not how we’d be together.”
The effort here is not a capturing of facts, rather an intimate sharing. She knows her father will understand her life, when so many others have not understood it. That’s particularly true about coming home to a mother who wanted life to continue normally for Marceline, with a wedding and children. “If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear her questions, you would have told Mama to be quiet. You also would have told her to let me sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anymore.”
The adult years take Marceline into a career as a documentary film-maker, giving her purpose, and she finds a deep connection with her second husband, giving her the love she needs. In the last pages of the book, there is concern that “everything is getting tense again,” referring to “threats that sounded like echoes from the past” and “policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”
This is profoundly moving literature, with the last pages expressing a trust Marceline brings to her telling of the story. This trust allows her to be vulnerable — and us to be immersed in an important life story. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled. But I release what is clasped tightly in my heart.”
June 9, 2016
David Foenkinos’ astonishing new novel tells a fictionalized true story of the life and artistic work of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German girl who lived from 1917 to 1943. It’s a familiar Holocaust story told with exceptional difference — the narrative is a vertical stack of sentences that breathe intensity and authorial passion. “Her life has become my obsession,” this experienced French novelist tells us. He saw an exhibition of Life? or Theater?, Charlotte Salomon’s autobiographical artwork, and became overwhelmed with soul-reaching connection. “I am an occupied country,” he confesses.
The novel begins with Charlotte’s namesake, her mother’s sister, who exited life without warning by jumping off a bridge when she was 18 years old. Thirteen years later, Charlotte’s mother is affected by the same depressive condition and consequence. Charlotte is left to be raised by nannies and a father devoted to his medical career. He marries again to an opera star, who brings joy and the cultural life of Berlin into their home. Charlotte falls in love with Albert, her stepmother’s voice coach, and attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Except, it is the 1930’s when Hitler comes to power. Charlotte is robbed of deserved recognition at the Academy. Her father is taken away by Nazi officials and then returned, broken and unequivocally aware of the danger to his Jewish family. Charlotte is sent to live in southern France with her grandparents, despite her hysterical resistance. At the train station, her lover Albert whispers in her ear, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”
The author interjects himself into the narrative in a way that heightens our sensitivity to the story. The effect is mesmerizing, drawing us into his passionate desire to know everything about his subject. He visits Charlotte’s childhood home and grade school in Berlin, her refuge in southern France and the office of a doctor who treated her. The doctor, recognizing Charlotte’s artistic genius, tells her she must paint, despite the world’s darkness. It is the 1940s. Charlotte has endured and escaped an internment camp for Germans and suffered the loss of her grandmother, yet another suicide. She secludes herself and creates hundreds of paintings with text and music that becomes Life? or Theater? When completed, Charlotte gives it to the trusted doctor for safekeeping, declaring to him, “It is my whole life.”
Not long after, Charlotte is denounced anonymously to the Nazis. She’s sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she dies at the age of 26. Her father and stepmother survive the war, and in 1961 produce a catalog and exhibition of Life? or Theater? Briefly, Charlotte Salomon becomes famous. In 1971, her parents bequeath Life? or Theater? to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
To experience Charlotte’s artwork in Life? or Theater? is to understand the author’s passion and –after reading the novel — to feel more deeply this piercing, tender story.
The paintings are accessible on the website of the Jewish History Museum under Special Collections. The image above is captured from the museum’s online exhibit.
Charlotte by David Foenkinos is translated from the French by Sam Taylor.