Can Adolf Hitler Really Have Existed? Jay Neugeboren's Revelatory Novel on Dr. Eduard Bloch
Triebwasser, Joseph, Midstream
1940, a novel by Jay Neugeboren, Two Dollar Radio Publisher, 2008, 284pp., paperback, $15.00.
Even in a century that visited on the world Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot, Hitler--that nobody from nowhere with no ideas other than an insane belief in his own limitless worth and an unquenchable will to avenge, millions of times over, some crime that had never been committed--seems uniquely implausible, unthinkable, impossible. He may be the human being about whom we can read the most and know the least.
One man, Eduard Bloch (1872-1945) may have known Hitler as no one else on Earth ever did. This was, literally, Bloch's salvation; some would say, his curse; and it is the springboard for 1940, the wonderfully layered and thoughtful new novel by the acclaimed author Jay Neugeboren.
A physician stationed in Linz during his service in the Austrian army, Bloch remained there after his return to civilian life; married Emilie Katka, a distant relative of Franz and, like her new husband, an assimilated Jew; and set up a medical practice. Bloch was, by all reports, an accomplished physician and a man of tremendous innate goodness. According to a future mayor of Linz, Bloch was held "in high regard, particularly among the lower and indigent social classes. It was generally known that even at may time at night he was willing to call on patients." (1) August Kubizek later wrote that Bloch was "very popular ... known in the town as 'the poor people's doctor,' an excellent physician, and a man of great kindness who sacrificed for his patients." (2)
Bloch nevertheless would be forgotten today if not for one family, living near Linz, for whom he became the family physician. He first treated Alois Hitler in 1903 and, after Alois died shortly thereafter, Alois's widow, Klara, and her son Adolf, then aged 15. In 1907, Klara came to Bloch complaining of pain in her breast. The biopsy showed cancer, and a prominent local surgeon, Karl Urban, performed a mastectomy at the Hospital of the Sisters of Mercy in Linz. At Klara's request, Bloch was present, though it appears he did not perform the surgery, as some sources claim. Klara did well for a few months, during which Adolf went to Vienna and applied, unsuccessfully, for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts. Soon it became clear that Klara's cancer had metastasized, and Adolf lived with her during the months remaining to her. Bloch later remembered, "She bore her burden well; unflinching and uncomplaining. But it seemed to torture her son. An anguished grimace would come over him when he saw pain contract her face. There was little that could be done. An injection of morphine from time to time would give temporary relief; but nothing lasting. Yet Adolf seemed enormously grateful even for these short periods of release." (3) During these last months, Bloch apparently applied iodoform gauzes to the mastectomy scars, either as a post-operative dressing (4) or an early attempt at chemotherapy. (5) After the end finally came, on December 21, Bloch recalled years later, the 18-year-old Adolf was overcome. "In the practice of my profession it is natural that I should have witnessed many scenes such as this one, yet none of them left me with quite the same impression. In all my career I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler." (6)
In general, Bloch later said, Hitler's relationship with his mother was extremely close. "Outwardly, his love for his mother was his most striking feature. While he was not a 'mother's boy' in the usual sense, I have never witnessed a closer attachment. Some insist that this love verged on the pathological. As a former intimate of the family, I do not believe this is tree." (7) Bloch famously painted what historians have called "a remarkably positive picture of young Hitler" (8) as "a nice, pleasant youth" (9): "What kind of boy was Adolf Hitler? Many biographers have put him down as harsh-voiced, defiant, untidy; as a young ruffian who personified all that is unattractive. …