The making of Life? or Theater?

This text was written, in Dutch, for the magazine of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the first integral edition of the great creation of Charlotte Salomon (1917-43), Life? or Theater? The original work is in care of the museum, and since its publication in book form has constantly been on demand for exhibitions all over the world. The English translation below was generated with astonishing accuracy by Google Translate and edited by me. See also

The realization of the integral edition of Life? or Theater? in February 1981 was the result of an extremely delicate chain of coincidences, a lot of luck and an enormous amount of work. From 1970 to 1990 I was a publisher of art books. To supplement the meager income from this, I took on work as a translator and editor. In 1978 I was commissioned by Judith Belinfante, director of the Jewish Historical Museum, to translate the text of a concise book about museum treasures from Dutch into English. When I came across the pages about Charlotte Salomon, with a few pictures, I was stunned. In all states of emotion and excitement, I asked Judith if I could go through the entire original.

I spent almost a week in the museum, taking notes on all the gouaches and transparencies, to see if it formed a whole that was suitable for publication as a book. When that turned out to be the case for the numbered sheets, I set to work with the enthusiastic cooperation of the museum to produce a publication. My colleague Andreas Landshoff, a very experienced publisher, had already made such a proposal, but as a down-to-earth entrepreneur he found the publication of the complete work in full-page color images that I had in mind too daring. Should I fall back on a compromise, such as four images on a page, he wanted to participate in the release. If I managed to achieve my ambitious goal, I had his blessing.

Recognizing the risk, I promised my wife Loekie to limit the effort to three book fairs during 1979: Jerusalem in April, the American Book Association (ABA) in June, and Frankfurt in October. Thanks to a wonderful coincidence, we managed to get the necessary participation in Jerusalem even before the opening of the book fair. This is how it happened. The first publisher I tried to sell an English-language co-edition to was Peter Mayer, a friend of mine, director of Penguin. It turned out that he knew Charlotte’s work from an earlier exhibition, to which he was brought – dragged – by Judith Herzberg. Mayer did not come to the Jerusalem Book Fair himself, but ordered the publisher of Viking, who had just been taken over by Penguin, to talk to me. Judith was also in town, where she has a home, and within an hour, after breakfast, we got Irv Goodman so excited that he placed an order for an unprecedented 25,000 copies at a price that made it possible for me also to release smaller language editions that otherwise could never have been realized. Now an 800-page edition was available, with 769 full-page color images of the work of an artist few people had heard of.

The story of the extraordinarily demanding transcription, editing, translation, photography, lithography, design and production that followed, and the sale of a German edition, which was essential to me, and which could be sold thanks to an introduction by Andreas Landshoff, are worth an exciting book. Moreover, everything had to be ready for release on February 26, 1981, when a Charlotte exhibition opened in the museum and the film Charlotte by Frans Weisz and Judith Herzberg premiered. Because I had the book printed in Japan, at the leading Dai Nippon concern, time was extra tight. But simultaneity with exhibition and film was required for the Dutch edition to be successful, and that’s how it turned out. The Dutch edition, at my publishing house and at book club ECI, was sold out within a few weeks despite the high price of f110.

The editions and reprints of nearly 50,000 copies in total gave Charlotte Salomon’s reputation a global reach that has greatly benefited the Jewish Historical Museum over the decades. To my regret, this historic publishing achievement was taken for granted by some later directors of the museum. They made my work available without permission for later issues, which benefited from the preparatory work behind the first issue, even without mention in the colophon. Take, for example, the 1981 translation by Judith Herzberg, which was reprinted in 2015 with the cooperation of the JHM without acknowledgment.

The reception of the publication has been a never-ending succession of emotional charges, to this day. I got to know people from the world of Charlotte herself – especially the owner of the hotel in the south of France where Charlotte created much of her masterpiece – and her guru Alfred Wolfsohn, Amadeus Daberlohn in the book. What happened on February 26, 1981 changed my life as well as that of Judith Belinfante, Judith Herzberg, Frans Weisz and many others.

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1 thought on “The making of Life? or Theater?”

  1. Hi Gary, it is a complicated publishing history about your book on Charlotte Salomon. What I gather, you hold the German edition high with all the complicated work from your part, translation, publishing…etc. and with the introduction by Andreas Landshoff. Is this book still available anywhere? I would be very much interested! How about the film? I may have missed what you said. Thanks for your kind reply in advance, Eva Allen.

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