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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Three "Degenerate" Artists Murdered by the Nazis

This essay looks at the lives of three very different artists, a bit of the art they created, and how they ended up murdered by the Nazis. Each of these artists experienced the Nazi terror in different ways. Charlotte Salomon fled Berlin for the relative safety of southern France but could not escape the ghosts of her family's past. Franz Karl Bühler spent most of his life in mental institutions, slowly going mad. Even as the rest of his faculties deserted him, he kept one remarkable gift: he could paint. Finally, Felix Nussbaum documented for posterity his nightmarish experiences as a Jew in hiding in Nazi-occupied Belgium. All three used art to express themselves in ways that demonstrate the profound creative power of the human spirit. Even though the minds and bodies of these artists - and countless others - were snuffed out by Nazi thugs, their art lives on. This gives them an immortality through their art that their long-dead persecutors can never touch.


Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) - Gassed at Auschwitz

Charlotte Salomon already had two strikes against her as an artist. She was a woman at a time when women were second-class citizens and a Jew in a world that was devolving into an orgy of antisemitic persecution and mass murder. But a third, more immediate factor drove her creative energy near the end of her short life. This was the specter of depression and suicide that had claimed so many victims in her family.

Charlotte Salomon was born in 1917, the only child of Albert and Franziska Salomon. She was named after her aunt Charlotte who had committed suicide in 1913 after leaving the house one night and walking 21 miles before drowning herself in a lake outside Berlin. Albert worked hard after the war ended to become a professor at the Berlin University Medical School. Unfortunately, he focused on his career so much that Franziska was left alone to drown in her depression. This finally became too much for her to bear. In 1926, when Salomon was nine, her mother jumped out of a window and killed herself. To shield her from the awful truth, the little girl grew up believing that her mom had died of the flu.

Salomon showed enough promise as an artist to be accepted at the prestigious United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts in 1936. This was quite an accomplishment since enrollment for Jews was limited to 1.5% of the student body, and then only if the father had served in the First World War. She studied there for two years before leaving in 1938 because the increasingly overt and government-sponsored antisemitism had made it too dangerous to continue. She was right to leave. After Hitler took power in 1933, life slowly became unbearable for Jews living in Germany. But that was the point. Her father lost his job at the University for no other reason than that he was a Jew. In 1938 after Kristallnacht, Albert was arrested and tortured at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin. After his release, he sent Charlotte to Villefranche in the south of France to live with her maternal grandparents. He then moved to the Netherlands with his second wife to escape.

This got Salomon away from the Nazis, at least for the moment. But family tragedy followed. When she arrived at the French Riviera in January 1939, she found her grandmother deeply depressed. This looked ominously similar to what her own mother had suffered years earlier. Salomon tried to help, but it was all in vain. In September of that year, her grandmother tried to hang herself.

Salomon's grandfather, Ludwig Grünwald, then revealed a terrible family secret: eight members of the family, two male and six female had committed suicide over three generations. Even worse was the revelation that her mother's apparent death from influenza had been a lie told to protect her. Franziska Salomon had killed herself as well. Naturally, Salomon feared that she might suffer the same fate, a fear that was not unfounded. Her grandmother, already the mother of two suicides, tried again to end her life the following year. This time she succeeded. Eerily similar to her daughter's (Salomon's mother) suicide, she jumped out of a window.

Salomon was now it; she was the last female left in her family, the heir apparent to an awful legacy of depression and suicide. The news was devastating and presented Salomon with a stark choice. Was she destined to become yet another female suicide in the family, or would she decide her own fate? She chose the latter, embracing the therapy of art over the nihilism of suicide. Here was the origin of her future masterpiece, "Life? or Theatre?"

“I will create a story so as not to lose my mind.” - Charlotte Salomon

But this was still only the kernel of an idea. Before Salomon could begin this project in earnest, the outside world again intervened. Like the dark and foreboding storm clouds of a fast-approaching storm, the Nazis were closing in on Salomon. Hitler's invasion of France in May 1940 brought them even closer. Most of France fell, and only a nominally independent rump state existed in southern France, the so-called Vichy Regime under Marshall Petain.

As France collapsed under the German onslaught, the French authorities rounded up German citizens like Salomon and her grandfather. There found themselves confined in a dreary concentration camp at Gurs in the Pyrenées. Soon after France's defeat in June 1940, Charlotte and her grandfather were released and returned to live outside of Nice in the unoccupied Vichy French zone. Shortly after her return, Salomon began working on her great art project, "Life & Theatre.

Produced between 1940 and 1942 in an amazing eighteen-month burst of creative energy, "Life? or Theatre?" is hard to describe without experiencing directly. It's been called the first Graphic Novel, which is a good enough description. It was meant to be a kind of therapeutic artistic synthesis, where other arts that Salomon adored, visual, musical, literary, and theatrical, were combined to tell a story, though the characters' names are changed,

"Life? or Theatre?" is an autobiography told over a series of 769 paintings, many accompanied by narration, witty commentary, pithy humor, poetry, and short dialogues often laden with pathos and irony. Taken as a whole, "Life? or Theatre?" is quite a remarkable story of a young girl told in a very unique way. We follow the hero, Lotte, as she navigates her way through the trials and tribulations of love and life, but a life that can't seem to escape from family tragedy and the relentless Nazi regime that eventually killed her.

It's here in "Life? or Theatre?" that we get hints that something had gone horribly amiss in her relationship with her grandfather. In one of the later scenes from "Life? or Theatre?" we get the following exchange between the two:

CHARLOTTE. 'I'd rather have ten more nights like this [on a crowded refugee train] than a single one alone with him [her grandfather].'

GRANDFATHER ‘I don’t understand you. What’s wrong with sharing a bed with me—when there’s nothing else available? I’m in favor of what’s natural.’

And then later:

CHARLOTTE: ‘You know, Grandpa, I have a feeling the whole world has to be put together again.’

GRANDFATHER: ‘Oh, go ahead and kill yourself and put an end to all this babble!’”

Charlotte had come to loathe her grandfather. She found him cold, unfeeling, pretentious, and arrogant. There are hints that he may have also been a predatory sexual abuser, though this claim is controversial and not conclusively backed by the evidence available. Afraid that she would have a nervous breakdown and share the fate of her dead female relatives, Salomon sought counsel from Dr. Moridis. He advised her to get away and paint. She did this by escaping her grandfather and secluding herself in a hotel room for several months in 1942. There she worked feverishly painting large sections of what became "Life? or Theatre?"

Unfortunately, Salomon couldn't seem to get away from her grandfather. Her French visa and thus her legal status in Vichy France were dependent on being his caretaker. To maintain this illusion - after all, there was nowhere else for a German Jew to go at this point - she moved back into his Nice apartment.

We get an idea of how much she hated her grandfather and living with him when, a few months later, in February 1943, she murdered him by poisoning his omelet. Yes, no kidding. This stunning twist in Salomon's story was not revealed until decades later, in 2012, when a letter she wrote surfaced in which she confessed to the crime.

In a ghoulishly morbid twist, she describes how she painted an ink portrait of her grandfather as the old man lay dying at the breakfast table. “I knew where the poison was,” she wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Was Salomon an angel of retribution delivering justice to a serial sexual predator who had already ruined the lives of several women in his life? Or was he the victim of a granddaughter who hated him and found the prospect of caring for a cantankerous old man too much to bear? We may never know for sure.

A few months later, Salomon married Alexander Nagler, a Jewish refugee from Austria. Their time together as husband and wife was to be very short. The Nazi noose was tightening. After the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, Hitler and Mussolini divided up the corpse of Vichy France between them. Salomon was lucky: she ended up in the Italian occupation zone.

While Vichy France and Fascist Italy were hardly friends of the Jews, they had offered at least some protection from deportation to the Nazi death camps. That sanctuary ended in September 1943 when Italy surrendered, and the Nazis took over the Italian zone around Nice and Toulon. Mass murder maestro Adolf Eichmann sent in one of his most ruthless Jew hunters, SS Captain Alois Brunner, to round up and deport the remaining Jews living in southern France. He devoted himself to the task with typical Nazi SS gusto.

Salomon must have sensed what was coming. She gave Dr. Moridis several packages wrapped in brown paper bags; among them were over 1700 paintings, many of them part of "Life? or Theatre?." Also handed over was the letter with her murder confession. She implored the doctor to "Keep these safe," because "They are my whole life." He did, and after the war, transferred them to Salomon's old friend, American millionaire Ottilie Moore. Moore then returned them to Salomon's father in 1947. Remarkably, after several narrow escapes, he had survived the war by hiding out in the Netherlands.

Salomon was not so lucky. She and Alexander were dragged out of their home on 23 September 1943 and sent to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris. They were then transported to Auschwitz, where Salomon was gassed on the day of her arrival. Alexander died of exhaustion a few months later.

Charlotte Salomon was 26 years old and four months pregnant.

Today Salomon's art is on permanent display at the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. The complete "Life? or Theatre?" can be found here on the Museum's website. I recommend you take a few minutes to explore this wonderful work of art. I don't believe it's an exaggeration to say that art saved Salomon's life, that it gave her the creative outlet to work through her own despair and anxiety in ways that kept her from the same tragic fate as her aunt, mother, and grandmother. Art saved her from herself, if not the Nazis.


The Angel of Suffocation by Franz Karl Bühler - 1909

Franz Karl Bühler (1864-1940) - Euthanized at Grafeneck

Born and raised in Offenberg, Germany, Franz Karl Bühler was the son of a blacksmith and became an apprentice locksmith under his father. He later became a professor of locksmithing at the Strasbourg Craft School for three years (1894-1897) and even traveled to Chicago for a craft show and competition where he won a gold medal for his ironwork. He was considered one of the best locksmiths in the business.

Unfortunately, Buhler's life rapidly disintegrated in the 1890s because of paranoid schizophrenia. His "highly eccentric" behavior got him fired from his teaching job at Strasbourg. His paranoia made his life unbearable. He feared people were out to get him, that they were spying on him through his keyhole, and that he was being pursued. One night in the dead of winter (1898), after swimming across an icy canal to escape these shadowy pursuers, he was admitted to the Emmendingen Medical and Care Institution (Prinzhorn 423).

That was the end of Buhler's ability to function in society. He would spend the rest of his life in mental institutions. As his illness slowly ate away his sanity, Buhler's speech became almost incomprehensible. His writing devolved into gibberish, as seen in the following sample sentence written by Buhler in 1919: "The best further letting off looking fore ak childish mass peace weighty free after whining away head decapitated, raising offered to the 9th stomach turn noises bidden" (Prinzhorn 425).

The Madonna with the Crows by Franz Karl Bühler

Yet out of all this misery, as Buhler descended into the black fog of incoherent madness, something curious remained. He could still draw and paint, and quite well, it turned out.

Buhler would likely have lived out the rest of his troubled life and died in anonymity but for the interest of German psychiatrist Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who was studying the art created by schizophrenics. Buhler's case fascinated him enough to include a chapter about him in his 1921 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill.

Dr. Prinzhorn wondered how Buhler's art continued to show remarkable technical and imaginative detail even as he became otherwise unable to communicate coherently. Some creative fire still burned in that troubled mind. He may not have been able to speak or write by 1904, but he continued to express himself through his drawing and painting. The Angel of Suffocation (see above) is by any standard a mesmerizing piece of art; it depicts the existential panic we've all felt in nightmares, the powerlessness, the choking, the dread, the feeling of impending doom, and that we're at the mercy of forces beyond our control. One can sense all of that in this painting. It's as unsettling as anything done on similar themes by recognized masters like Edvard Munch.

The Madonna with the Crows depicts a woman and child huddled in an austere landscape with nothing but a bunch of crows and a barren, lifeless tree. The only bright colors that stand out are the orange halos around the mother and her child. Everything else is a shadowland, dark and moody, a world of eternal Halloween. This is good art too. Remember, this was from a man locked into his own mind and unable to communicate with the outside world. His art was a window into Buhler's troubling and surreal inner world.

Unfortunately, as Buhler dreamed away the decades in mental institutions, the world around him descended into a nightmare. The Nazis took power in 1933 and imposed their murderous ideology on society. That ideology saw the world in the starkest terms; that is, as a world of neverending racial struggle, where only the strong and pure deserved to live and the weak deserved to go up in the chimney smoke of crematoriums. Moreover, it was the responsibility of the strong to cull the weak to ensure the future purity of the gene pool. Of course, an old man who had been wasting away in mental institutions for the better part of four decades did not fit into this vision. His art was not admired by the Nazis but seen as another example of "degenerate art" fit only for madmen and admired only by decadents. Buhler's mental illness and the art produced by it only confirmed this Nazi worldview.

Buhler became an early victim in the Nazi's infamous T4 Aktion, a program that involuntarily euthanized those deemed racially impure, either because of hereditary defects like mental illness or physical defects that Nazi ideologues believed tainted the health of the German gene pool. These undesirables were also seen as an unnecessary burden on society. Long-term patients like Buhler proved the case. Here was a man who had spent decades in institutions at the state's expense. Better for everyone, including the patient, if people like Buhler were euthanized. His mental anguish would be mercifully terminated, and the state would no longer have to pay for his institutionalization. National Socialist ideologues saw this as a win-win outcome and the best way to build a better world.

And this is what happened. Buhler was taken to Grafenbeck in February 1940 and gassed, one of the earliest victims of Nazi mass murder. Six other "Prinzhorn Artists" were also murdered at Grafenbeck that year. In 1940 alone, almost 10,000 victims were gassed at Grafenbeck. Here the seeds of the Holocaust were planted.


Death Triumphant (The Dance of the Skeletons): the last painting by Felix Nussbaum before his arrest in April 1944

Felix Nussbaum (1904 - 1944) - Gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau

“If I disappear do not let my paintings die.” - Felix Nussbaum

Felix Nussbaum was born in Osnabruck, Germany, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father was an art lover and encouraged his son to paint. When he was 21, Nussbaum studied art at Berlin's Lewin-Funcke School. In 1932, when he was 28, he won a scholarship to study art at Rome's Villa Massimo. This was a year before the Nazis took power and ended the cultural efflorescence of the Weimar Period. He had to leave in 1933 when the Nazis took control. Jews with their "degenerate" artistic tastes didn't deserve art scholarships under the new racist regime.

Nussbaum never returned to his homeland, choosing instead to lead an itinerant existence for the next five years, living first on the Italian Riviera, then Paris, and Ostend, Belgium before finally settling in Brussels in 1937 along with his future wife, Felka Platek. Here he flourished in peace for a few brief years as an artist, even holding a solo exhibition in 1939.

Self-portrait in a camp - Felix Nussbaum, 1940

Unfortunately, wherever Nussbaum went, the Nazis and Europe's rabid antisemitism were never far enough away. In May 1940, Nussbaum was arrested after the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium. He was deported to an internment camp near Saint-Cyprien in southern France, where he was kept along with 7,500 other Jews. He spent nine miserable months there before escaping and returning to Brussels, where he hid out in a friend's apartment for the next four years.

His self-portrait depicting his time at Saint-Cyprien shows a man still alert and angry, with his jaw set, and gazing defiantly at the viewer. This is a man not yet beaten. In the background, we see a hellscape that would make Hieronymous Bosch proud. A woman shits in a can; a naked man slouches wearily; blackish-grey clouds darken the sky as barbed wire looms ominously in the background. These tell us all we need to know: this was a place of degradation and human suffering. But not for Nussbaum, not yet.

After he escaped and made his way home to Brussels, Nussbaum continued painting. The paintings from these fugitive years are haunting, exuding an ever-increasing air of gloom and despair. Everything's gray, cloudy, and dark. It's hard to imagine otherwise. His life as a fugitive Jew in Nazi-occupied Brussels had become a kind of a Dantean inferno of suffering, though the persecutors were not devils and demons but Nussbaum's fellow man.

Nussbaum's paintings from these fugitive years show the human cost. His 1943 self-portrait sets the same somber and gloomy tone as the one before. However, the angry and defiant camp inmate is long gone. This version of Nussbaum is now a frightened Jew, hunted, haunted, nervous, and wary. The psychological toll of living in hiding for years on end, along with the constant fear of being caught, could only have chipped away at Nussbaum's well-being. How could it not? This was a man living in a state of constant terror. He was right to be afraid.

Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card - Felix Nussbaum, 1943

Nussbaum and his wife Felka almost made it. Time was running out on the Nazis. In June 1944, the Allied landings in Normandy marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's empire. By September, the Allies had liberated Belgium. By then, however, the Nussbaum couple was long gone.

In the late spring of 1944, a nosy neighbor ratted the couple out to the Gestapo, another reminder that antisemitism went far beyond a few Nazi zealots in Germany. It was everywhere, from Hitler all the way down to the average person, even outside of Germany. Regular folks were quite willing to report Jews in hiding (like Ann Frank), and the Gestapo was equally keen to arrest and deport them. That's what happened here: the Gestapo arrested Nussbaum and his wife. They were deported together to the transit camp at Mechelen before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August. There they were gassed. Tragically, Nussbaum's mother, father, brother, and sister-in-law were all also murdered in the Holocaust.

But his art did not disappear. Nor was it forgotten. The Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabruck, Germany, still exhibits his works for the public to admire. The psychological suffering and anxiety he revealed in his wartime paintings, not to mention how his story ended, are constant visual reminders for posterity of what people are capable of doing to each other.


Final Thoughts

It was a short cognitive leap from exterminating mentally ill "subhumans" like Buhler to doing the same to regular people deemed racial enemies according to hateful ideologies. Genocide and mass murder are perhaps more hard-wired into our nature than we might want to believe. Casual cruelty is too. People say that love always conquers hate and that love is the most potent force in the world. No, it isn't, not necessarily. That's a lie we've been conditioned to believe in our happy ending, be-positive-at-all-costs, culture.

Sometimes the heroes fail. Sometimes they don't even show up. And when they do, sometimes they're the ones getting put into ovens at the end of the day. It's hard to read about the Holocaust and not come away with profound doubts about human nature. However, those doubts are essential. They guard us against complacency and credulity. They are a weapon against the siren song of radicals who argue that some unsavory evil today will buy goodness and purity tomorrow. That's always a lie. The three artists profiled here prove that beauty and meaning can exist even in the darkest of places. They created something to remember them by, and by extension to remember the suffering they endured. So even if they were turned into ash by a murderous regime run amok, their art survived to tell their stories, to help us remember, to inspire us with what the human spirit can accomplish, and to stoke those flames of doubt about the basic goodness of human nature.


Supplementary Material


Works Cited

Prinzhorn, H.. Artistry of the Mentally Ill (p. 425). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Kindle Edition.


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