ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

A doctor's tale

April 30, 2008

Any attempt to incorporate Adolf Hitler into a work of fiction is inherently perilous. The historical, political and moral stakes simply are too high to admit even the small authorial misstep.

In "1940" -- his first novel in 20 years -- Jay Neugeboren traverses the Hitlerian tightrope with all the skill and formal daring that have made him one of our most honored writers of literary fiction and masterful nonfiction. This new book is, at once, a beautifully realized work of imagined history, a rich and varied character study and a subtly layered novel of ideas, all wrapped in a propulsively readable story.

Neugeboren builds his narrative around an actual historical figure from the periphery of Hitler's life -- Eduard Bloch, the Jewish doctor who was the Hitler family physician when the future dictator was growing up in the Austrian city of Linz. Bloch not only treated the young Adolf for a variety of boyhood ailments but also cared for his beloved mother, Klara, when she fell ill with breast cancer. Her last days were intensely painful, but Bloch apparently treated her with great care, providing daily pain medication and accepting little or no payment from the Hitler family, which had fallen on hard times.

After Klara's death, Adolf expressed his eternal gratitude to Bloch, first in person, then in hand-drawn cards sent from Vienna, where he failed as an art student. After the Anschluss, when Hitler made a triumphant return to Linz, he reportedly inquired about Bloch's welfare and declared him, "an Edeljude-- a noble Jew. If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question." When the rest of the city's Jewish population was driven from their homes, Bloch remained under Gestapo protection, and though he no longer was allowed to treat gentile patients, he received the same food and clothing ration cards as other Germans.

Ultimately, his departure to the U.S. was personally approved by Hitler, and Bloch -- unlike other Jewish refugees -- was allowed to sell his house for a large sum and to take the money with him into ex- ile.

He was 68 when he settled in the Bronx in 1940, and he lived there until his death five years later. In 1941 and 1943, Bloch was interviewed by the Office of Strategic Services for material incorporated into a psychological profile of Hitler. The doctor also wrote a controversially "positive" memoir of the young Hitler for Collier's Weekly, one in which he described him as quiet and well-mannered -- if a little melancholy -- and extraordinarily devoted to his mother.

Fact-based fiction

In "1940," Bloch speaks in the first-person through journal entries, many of those dealing with Hitler borrowed verbatim by Neugeboren from the OSS interviews. The story's other protagonist is Elisabeth Rofman, a skilled medical illustrator at Johns Hopkins whose father lives near Bloch in the Bronx and whose story is told in the third person. When Elisabeth returns home to visit her father and cook him a Shabbos dinner, he is missing. Bloch is soon involved in the hunt for the missing man, as is Rofman's ex-husband, a wealthy and unctuously observant physician, whose ostentatious religiosity contrasts with Bloch's assimilated German Judaism and Elisabeth's skeptical irreverence.

Boiling up between Rofman and her ex-husband is the novel's other major subplot -- what to do about their troubled son Daniel, who is confined to a Maryland "home" (read: mental hospital). The young man has begun to manifest what his doctors call inappropriate sexual aggressiveness. As a consequence, they wish to castrate him, and his father already has consented. Elisabeth refuses to give permission, and when Daniel escapes from the hospital, helps him find refuge with Bloch.

Skilled physician that the refugee is, he finds the young man troubled and eccentric, but hardly the schizophrenic his American doctors have diagnosed. Their desire to castrate him over an ambiguous sexual incident is a sobering reminder that eugenically motivated surgeries were as popular in the United States in that era as they were in Nazi Germany. The Germans simply were better at mobilizing state power to work their evil. In any event, the threat hanging over Daniel prods Bloch into sobering reflections on the ethics of medical collaboration with the state.

Neugeboren is marvelous at capturing the interplay between Rofman and her ex-husband, as well as between Bloch and Daniel. So too he gently evokes the affection that grows between Elisabeth and the much older refugee doctor. There's also a marvelous evocation of that rich melancholy that settled over the lives of the Central European, particularly German, Jewish exiles who fled Europe for the United States at the onset of World War II. Several times Neugeboren has Elisabeth, who speaks German, express her sympathy to Bloch over the loss of his beloved language in daily life. For his part, he remains stunned that his people -- so steeped in German culture -- have been rejected by that country's government.

Jews and Germans

Bloch, who was related to Franz Kafka, writes that Kafka "made the finer point: that the more Jews entered fully into German society -- the more we resembled them -- the more did they resent us. In specific, what Kafka, who, had he lived, would be more than a decade younger than I, wrote of our commonalities was this -- that we were, each of our peoples, ambitious, able, diligent, and thoroughly hated by others -- in his words: pariahs to the world.

"Kafka wrote this many years before Hitler came to power, when, as Kafka noted, other nations feared, admired, envied and ridiculed Germans much as they feared, admired, envied and ridiculed Jews, while it was only we Jews who actually seemed to love the Germans."

Both peoples, Bloch muses, "share a marked and common respect for the printed word -- we are The People of the Book, they The People of Poetry and Thought."

At one point, Bloch even wonders if it might be worth writing Hitler to remind him of their former connection -- it might prompt him to recall how vital the Jewish contribution to German culture had been and could be. History, however, intervenes to shatter that illusion.

Neugeboren's Bloch also reacts forcefully against a notion that some psychoanalysts (and historians under their influence) have advanced -- namely, that the origins of Hitler's murderous anti-Semitism lay in his resentment against the Jewish doctor who had failed to save the mother he loved above all other men and women. It's a reductionist notion that simply ignores history's evidence. If Hitler's hatred of Jews originated in that bit of personal history, how does one explain the equally murderous bigotry of, say, Goebbels or Himmler?

Part of the power of this intelligently and finely wrought novel is that such thoughts and questions arise unforced from the story, as though from life itself.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

1940 A NovelJay NeugeborenTwo Dollar Radio: 274 pp., $15 paper

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