October 1 2002 / Granta, 79
Early in 1943, an operative of the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, the wartime precursor of the CIA, made his way to an unkempt attic apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Creston Avenue, the Bronx. The operative, Walter C. Langer, was compiling what would become the world’s first psychological profile of Adolf Hitler, and that day he took with him Gertrude Kurth, a psychotherapist who was also acting as his translator. Together they climbed the stairs to see a seventy-one-year-old doctor who two years earlier had fled from Austria to New York: a Jew, Dr Eduard Bloch. Dr Bloch had an interesting story to tell. He had known Hitler at first hand; nearly forty years before he had been the Hitler family’s doctor. He had treated Hitler’s mother, Klara, during her final illness, as well as the young Hitler himself for various routine ailments. Obviously, in any study of Hitler’s personality the evidence of such an intimate witness to illness and trauma-his mother’s death had grieved Hitler deeply-could be important. No less interesting-though its relevance to Langer’s research might be debatable-was Dr Bloch’s account of how he had escaped the usual fate of Austrian Jews in 1940. Hitler personally, he told Langer and Kurth, had intervened to allow his departure.
In other words, he was a Jew who had been saved by Hitler-from Hitler. This became the conundrum of his life.
What Bloch told Langer in his two interviews with him-a second conversation occurred a few weeks later-can be found in the OSS’s Hitler profile, a 300-page document which was declassified only in 2001, and which, with its disquisitions on Hitler’s voice, eye-colour, childhood and uneasy sexuality, prefigured an entire industry of lurid psycho-historical speculation. Titled A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler: His Life and Legend, the document is organized into five parts: 1) Hitler-as he believes himself to be; 2) Hitler-as the German people know him; 3) Hitler-as his associates know him; 4) Hitler-as he knows himself; 5) Psychological analysis and reconstruction (with a long concluding subsection on his ‘probable behaviour in the future’). There is an extensive bibliography and a complementary sourcebook, in which Langer discusses the reliability of much of the evidence on which he has been working.
From his comments in the sourcebook, it is clear that Langer was as sceptical as he was intrigued by the doctor’s remarkable story. It wasn’t the first time Bloch had told it. Soon after he reached New York in January 1941, Bloch had given a long, detailed interview about his experiences with the Hitler family to Collier’s, the weekly magazine. The interview was published over two weeks in March that year in the form of a piece in the first person (‘as told to J. D. Ratcliff’). America was then neutral in the European war; Pearl Harbor was still nine months away. By the time Langer met Bloch, however, Hitler was no longer a merely disquieting transatlantic phenomenon. The world had come to know him, as Langer wrote in his introduction to the profile, for his ‘insatiable greed for power, his ruthlessness, cruelty and utter lack-of-feeling, his contempt for established institutions and his lack of moral restraints’.
Langer didn’t doubt that Hitler would one day be defeated, and moral order restored. But how to prevent ‘similar eruptions’ in the future? There was only one clear answer: ‘We must discover the psychological streams which nourish this destructive state of mind in order that we may divert them into channels which will permit a further evolution of our form of civilization.’
A meeting with Bloch offered Langer an opportunity to paddle in these psychological streams, to return to the primal scene of Hitler’s childhood and adolescence and to what the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper later called ‘the darkest, the most formative, and therefore in some sense, the most interesting period’ of Hitler’s life. Langer believed that Bloch was particularly well placed to provide insight into the years, sometimes since mythologized as the missing years, when, from 1908 to 1913, Hitler was a striving but unsuccessful young painter in Vienna. And what did Bloch tell him? That Hitler had been ‘a nice pleasant youth’.
‘Favours were granted me which I feel sure were accorded no other Jew in all Germany and Austria,’ he told Langer. Hitler had honoured an earlier promise of gratitude for the doctor’s care of his mother; he had helped him escape persecution in Austria and smoothed his passage to America. There is no other reported instance of Hitler intervening to save the life of, or of extending compassion to, a Jew, certainly not once he took power in Germany. In this, Bloch was uniquely chosen.
Dr Bloch was to remain forever a stranger to America. It wasn’t his natural home, nor did he wish it to be-it was where his life narrowed and reduced. To the end, he was a cosmopolitan servant of the old Habsburg empire, who is revealed in photographs to have an old world dandyish charm-a wide-brimmed hat, stiff collars, elaborate double cuffs, a cigarette in hand, a moustache that twisted at the edges like a bow tie. This is what we know about his early life. He was born in 1872 into an assimilated bourgeois Jewish family in Frauenburg, a small German-speaking village in southern Bohemia-which, he said, had been ‘under three flags’ in his lifetime: Austrian, Czechoslovakian and German. He studied medicine in Prague and then, once qualified as a general practitioner, he joined the Austrian army as a military doctor. In 1899, he was ‘ordered to Linz’, the provincial capital of Upper Austria and the home town of Adolf Hitler, where, on completing his army service, he decided to stay on; in 1903, he married a local Jewish girl, Emilie Kafka, a distant relative of Franz Kafka, and opened his own public practice.
In the course of this story I went to Linz, and there the town archivist, Dr Joseph Mayrhofer, showed me a photograph taken on a March day in 1938 when Hitler returned to his home town after an absence of thirty years. As a young man, he had dreamed of rebuilding the town on a monumental scale, so that Linz would become one day not just an architectural rival to Budapest and Vienna, but the city on the Danube, a place of colossal dimensions. In the photograph Hitler stands in his open-topped, six-wheeled Mercedes-Benz at the head of a motorcade which is moving along the main street, the Landstrasse. A crowd in the street salutes the Führer; even people in the windows above have raised their arms. A closer inspection of the picture shows that it was taken as the motorcade reached 25 Landstrasse, which means that Hitler was about to pass directly beneath the upstairs window of a fine baroque house, 12 Landstrasse, where Eduard Bloch happened to be watching. The two men had last seen each other after the funeral of Klara Hitler, at the end of 1907.
In the photograph, Hitler’s face seems to be fixed in that very direction, upwards, to his right, and ahead. Who is it he sees up there? What absorbs him? Dr Bloch thought he knew. ‘It was a moment of tense excitement,’ he told Collier’s. ‘For years Hitler had been denied the right to visit the country of his birth. Now that country belonged to him. The elation that he felt was written on his features. He smiled, waved, gave the Nazi salute to the people that crowded the street. Then, for a moment, he glanced at my window. I doubt that he saw me but he must have had a moment of reflection. Here was the home of the Edeljude who had diagnosed his mother’s fatal cancer; here was the consultation room of the man who had treated his sisters; here was the place he had gone as a boy to have his minor ailments attended to. It was a brief moment. Then the procession was gone. It moved slowly into the town square-once Franz Joseph Platz, soon to be renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. He spoke from the balcony of the town hall. Historic words: Germany and Austria were now one.’
Edeljude: a noble Jew. Bloch told Langer of how in 1937 a group of local Nazi supporters from Linz had visited Hitler at his mountain villa at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. ‘The Führer asked for news of Linz,’ Bloch said. ‘How was the town? Were people there supporting him? He asked for news of me. Was I still alive, still practising? Then he made a statement irritating to the local Nazis: “Dr Bloch,” said Hitler, “is an Edeljude-a noble Jew. If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question.”’
Dr Bloch and his wife Emilie reached New York from Lisbon on January 8, 1941, aboard a small Spanish liner, the Marqués de Comillas. Their daughter and only child, Gertrude (Trude), had reached New York with her husband eighteen months before. She earned money as a cleaner while her husband, Frank Kren, who like Bloch had practised as a doctor in Linz, studied for the qualifications that would enable him to work as a doctor in America. The Krens lived with their two young children, George and Joanne, in a five-room flat at 2755 Creston Avenue in the north Bronx, which also became home to Bloch and his wife. Bloch, unlike his son-in-law, was too old to continue as a doctor, and he spoke only rudimentary English. He spent many of his afternoons at the cinema, watching westerns. And then somehow he came to the attention, or brought himself to the attention, of Collier’s magazine. Perhaps, as an obscure old man in a strange country-in Linz, he had been a known and respected individual in the middle class community-he wanted to claim some importance, some celebrity. In the Collier’s pieces, he speaks as though he were already famous. During his passage across the Atlantic, for example, he describes an episode when his ship was stopped by ‘British control officers’ aboard a trawler. The passengers were assembled in the main lounge and their papers examined by the British officers. ‘There was a feeling of tenseness,’ Bloch said, as the officers made their way down the line. Finally they reached Bloch. ‘The officer in charge took my passport, glanced at it and looked up smiling. “You were Hitler’s physician, weren’t you?” he asked. This was correct. It would also have been correct for him to add that I am a Jew.’
This is an unlikely incident. Hitler had not seen his former doctor since Christmas 1907; even in Linz, Bloch was no more than a local hero, best known for being what the town archivist, when I met him, called a ‘poor person’s doctor’, a compassionate friend to the hard up. Beyond Linz, how many people could have heard of him? The officers aboard a British trawler heaving up and down in mid-Atlantic, three days’ sail from the coast of Portugal? Perhaps the Collier’s rewrite man is to blame-or perhaps not: Walter Langer, in the OSS sourcebook, often expresses scepticism about Bloch’s reliability as a witness. He notes at one point: ‘Dr Bloch’s impressions of the family’s life-“quiet, the only bone of contention being Adolf, who refused to become an official and wanted to become an artist; his mother backing him against his father”-seem to be based on his reading of [Konrad] Heiden’s biography  rather than on actual knowledge’. Elsewhere, as Bloch talks about Hitler’s time in Vienna, Langer notes that his memories are here ‘obviously very much mixed up with his reading’. Yet, for all his scepticism, Langer quotes extensively from Collier’s and was intrigued enough by Bloch to visit him a second time ‘to get more facts from him which seem of importance’. These included information on Hitler’s sisters, on his performance at school and on whether he had had ‘some trouble’ as a teenager, an incident that ‘was hushed up’ involving young girls or boys. Bloch had heard about the incident, confirmed that it involved girls, but suggested that it was ‘nothing too serious’. He also confirmed that Hitler had ‘no physical deformity, and definitely no tuberculosis, though tuberculosis was hereditary in the family from the father’s side’.
How reliable was Dr Bloch? Perhaps reliable in one important way: he does not seem to have been a revisionist witness, adjusting his experience of Hitler and his family to suit Hitler’s later beliefs and behaviour and his then current position as the civilized world’s greatest enemy. Largely, he spoke as he had found. He never once condemned his former patient: if anything, he exhibited an understandable touch of wonder at what the mature Hitler had achieved, the improbability of it all. Nor did he ever disparage Klara Hitler, whom he consistently portrayed as a gentle, modest woman, attentive to her children and religiously devout: ‘Outwardly, his love for his mother was his most striking feature,’ he told Collier’s. ‘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 true.’ To the OSS, he described the ‘reciprocal adoration’ of mother and son as most ‘unusual’.
After the first OSS interview, according to the psychotherapist Gertrude Kurth, Bloch followed her and Langer down five flights of stairs to stress once again, and by now in the street, what ‘a nice pleasant youth’ Hitler had been. More than fifty years later, when Kurth was interviewed by Ron Rosenbaum for his book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil, she could not forgive Bloch for the awful innocence of his remark. ‘Outside in the street,’ she said, ‘Langer and I laughed and laughed at that-bitter laughter.’
Bloch died in 1945. According to his grandson, George Kren, he was to the end of his life ignorant of the full horror of what had taken place in central and eastern Europe between 1939 and 1945. That may be true. Less easy to explain, however, is his reluctance to condemn the man who had forced his family’s displacement and that of many other thousands of Jewish families-all this he had experienced and witnessed for himself. And yet, as he told Collier’s, ‘Even today I cannot help thinking of him in terms of his grief and not in terms of what he has done to the world.’
We will come later to the details of what Hitler did for Dr Bloch. The first question is: what did Dr Bloch do for Hitler? What effect did Bloch’s treatment of Klara Hitler, as she succumbed to breast cancer, have on her son?
Klara Hitler had been a widow for four years when she visited Bloch at his surgery in January 1907. Her husband, Alois, had been twenty-three years older, her second cousin, and married twice before (both wives died). Her first three children had died in infancy. Another son, Edmund, Adolf’s younger brother, died of measles at the age of six. As a child, Adolf was weak and sickly; his mother feared that he would not live to maturity, and, after Edmund’s death, she became extraordinarily devoted to her only living son, the soft, maternal buffer into which he was propelled by the rage and aggression of his father. Perhaps Adolf was strengthened by her attachment. After all, as Freud said, ‘A man who’s been the indisputable favourite of his mother goes through life with the feeling of a conqueror’.
During his examination, Bloch found a tumour the size of a hen’s egg in Klara’s right breast. ‘I thought immediately of cancer,’ he told Collier’s. He did not, however, tell Klara of his immediate fears; instead he called her ‘children’-presumably Adolf, who had recently returned from Vienna, his sister, Paula and their elder half-sister, Angela-to his consultation room, where he ‘stated the case frankly’. Their mother, he told them, was very sick. ‘Without surgery, there was absolutely no hope of recovery. Even with surgery there was but the slightest chance that she would live. In family council they must decide what was to be done.’ Bloch described how Hitler reacted to what he heard. ‘His long, sallow face was contorted. Tears flowed from his eyes. Did his mother, he asked, have no chance? Only then did I realize the magnitude of the attachment that existed between mother and son.’
Klara Hitler’s mastectomy was performed four days later by Dr Karl Urban, the chief of the surgical staff at the Hospital of the Sisters of Mercy in Linz, who was recognized as one of the most experienced surgeons in Upper Austria. After examining Klara, he agreed that she required immediate surgery if her life was to be prolonged. (The Nazis later persecuted Urban: together with his son, a brain surgeon, he was forbidden from practising medicine.)
Bloch was present during surgery at the family’s request. Klara was discharged from hospital on February 5, 1907 and enjoyed a brief recovery; Bloch would meet her out walking by the river or see her shopping at the market. But by midsummer the cancer had metastasized; she was once more in severe pain and there was little he could do for her, beyond reducing her pain with regular morphine injections.
‘I shall never forget Klara during those days,’ Bloch told Collier’s. ‘She was forty-eight at the time; tall, slender and rather handsome, yet wasted by disease. She was soft-spoken, patient; more concerned about what would happen to her family than she was about her approaching death. She made no secret of these worries, or about the fact that most of her thoughts were for her son. “Adolf is still so young,” she said repeatedly [he was eighteen]. On the day of December 20, I made two calls. The end was approaching…so the word that Angela Hitler brought me the following morning came as no surprise. Her mother had died quietly in the night. The children had decided not to disturb me, knowing that their mother was beyond all medical aid. But, she asked, could I come now? Someone in an official position would have to sign the death certificate… Adolf, his face showing the weariness of a sleepless night, sat beside his mother. In order to preserve a last impression, he had sketched her as she lay on her deathbed… I sat with the family for a while, trying to ease their grief. I explained that in this case death had been a saviour. They understood. 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.’
The most complex explanation of the effect of Bloch on Hitler during this time comes from Professor Rudolph Binion in his book Hitler against the Germans. Binion is half psychologist and half historian-a psycho-historian-and he identifies Bloch as the latent trigger for Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bloch, after all, replaced Hitler’s dead father, Alois, in Klara’s bedroom; Bloch saw his mother naked; Bloch, in Binion’s view, increased her suffering through the excessive application of iodoform, a strong-smelling antiseptic which is toxic when absorbed into the bloodstream in high doses.
Bloch makes no mention of iodoform in his interviews. Binion discovered it in Bloch’s patient records, which he found in a National Socialist party archive-Bloch’s papers had been seized by the Gestapo before he left Linz. The records for 1907 showed Binion that Bloch had used iodoform gauze to cover the open wound left by her mastectomy. The treatment, Binion argued, was poisonous, with side effects which would have included insomnia, muscle spasticity, extreme thirst, severe migraines, fever and visual disturbance-all consistent with Klara’s symptoms as described by Bloch, by Hitler, and by Hitler’s closest friend from adolescence August Kubizek.
Ergo, according to Binion, a dedicated Freudian, Hitler nurtured an unconscious hatred of Bloch. He unconsciously blamed the suffering of his mother on the doctor’s incompetence. To Hitler, he became not just a Jewish poisoner, he was poison itself. Hitler would speak later of the need to remove the ‘Jewish poison from the breast’ of the German nation. Professor Binion is unequivocal: Hitler relocated his mother in Germany.
Throughout his life, Bloch, Freud’s fellow countryman, took a simpler view. He told Collier’s of how, a few days after Klara’s funeral, Hitler and his two sisters had visited him at home on the Landstrasse. ‘They wished to thank me for the help I had given them. There was Paula, fair and stocky; Angela, slender, pretty but rather anemic; and Adolf. The girls spoke what was in their hearts while Adolf remained silent… Adolf wore a dark suit and a loosely knotted cravat. Then, as now, a shock of hair tumbled over his forehead. His eyes were on the floor while his sisters were talking. Then came his turn. He stepped forward and took my hand. Looking into my eyes, he said: “I shall be grateful to you forever.” That was all. Then he bowed.’ Later, Bloch claimed that Hitler sent him several postcards and sketches from Vienna, including a postcard on which Hitler had painted a hooded Capuchin monk raising a glass of champagne. The picture was captioned: prosit neujahr (‘A toast to the New Year’). On the reverse, he had written: ‘The Hitler family sends you the best wishes for a Happy New Year. In everlasting thankfulness, Adolf Hitler.’ When I spoke to Bloch’s grandchildren, George and Joanne, they said that their grandfather had indeed kept these souvenirs, but that they had been taken by the Gestapo when they confiscated his medical records.
Gratitude: that was what Bloch felt certain Hitler had felt. Otherwise, why the postcards? Otherwise, why in 1940 would Bloch and his wife have been granted passports and permitted to emigrate unhindered to America?
Klara Hitler is buried in a small churchyard in the market town of Leonding, which was once a small, isolated agricultural village but today is part of the south-western suburbs of Linz, which lies surrounded by wooded hills in the Danube valley. The Hitlers themselves had once lived in Leonding, in a cottage that backed on to the cemetery. It was in Leonding that the family patriarch, Alois Hitler, a retired minor customs official in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, died suddenly from pulmonary bleeding as he sat drinking in a tavern on January 3, 1903. The Hitler family plot lies under a big tree by the graveyard wall. On the morning I went there I saw that flowers had been laid at the foot of the headstone-white lilies and red roses. There was no sign of greater pilgrimage; in the 1930s Nazi flags had been laid over the grave, and visits became popular again, I was told, just before the reunification of Germany. But neither was there any sign of desecration. On the headstone, the photographs of Klara and her husband, Alois, were undamaged. A brief inscription recorded the dates of their deaths.
I’d gone to Linz to find out more about Bloch. My hotel, on the square in the old quarter of the city, was only a short walk away from his old house at 12 Landstrasse. From the window of my room, I could see the Rathaus, the town hall, from where on March 12, 1938 Hitler had addressed an estimated 60,000 people on his homecoming to Linz. Later that night, encouraged by the mood of celebration in the town, he declared the Anschluss of Austria, which he saw as predetermined, the fulfilment of his long-standing ambition to unite the German Volk. On April 10, the Anschluss was ratified in a mass vote.
Hitler had great plans for Linz. During the war, he commissioned the architect Hermann Giesler to lead its redesign and rebuilding: new bridges, avenues and public squares, a new city hall, sports stadium, theatre and opera house, its own monument to Bismarck and, most spectacularly of all, a 160-metre high Gothic ‘Tower on the Danube’, in which the Führer’s parents were to be reburied in a vaulted crypt. There was also to be a new art gallery in which to display the great works that had been looted from public and private collections during the Nazi conquest of Europe.
During his final weeks in the Reichskanzlei, when the war was lost and the Soviets were rampaging towards Berlin, the sleepless Hitler would return repeatedly to the underground room where Giesler’s model of the new Linz was still taking shape; pictures of Hitler at this time-some, uncharacteristically, of him wearing spectacles-show the fierce concentration with which he studied Giesler’s plans and models, though he must have known long before that Linz would never be rebuilt, that his home town would remain forever provincial.
Today the Nibelungen Bridge across the Danube, linking the old main square of Linz with the northern suburb of Urfahr and completed before Germany’s reversals on the Eastern Front, remains the chief monument to Hitler’s mission to rebuild Linz. It replaced the old iron bridge across which Dr Bloch used to travel in his carriage on his daily visits to the dying Klara Hitler at the family’s three-room apartment at 9 Bluetenstrasse. Bloch later spoke of how the apartment afforded fine views of the surrounding hills; but these views have since been altered by a sprawl of office blocks, shopping malls and high-rise concrete car parks. This was the result of the Allied bombing and postwar redevelopment of Linz, a city which, until the signing of the State Treaty in 1955 gave independence to the newly neutral Austrian state, was occupied north of the river by the Soviets and by the Americans in the south.
A hundred years ago, when Bloch began to practise there, the dominant political culture of Linz was a kind of provincial patriotism: conservative, folkish, agrarian, clerical, anti-Slavic and Judaeophobic. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Dual Monarchy, but, close to the Bavarian border, it leaned away from the cosmopolitanism of Vienna and towards Germany. Many Upper Austrians felt uneasy about the absorption of their German identity in the polyglot amorphousness of Dual Monarchy; they increasingly looked west to the new unified German state for leadership and security. Newspapers such as the Linzer Fliegenden and the Linzer Post supported the pan-Germans and published caricatures of the Yiddish-speaking ‘Eastern’ Jews-the so-called kaftan Jews-who were moving west to escape Tsarist pogroms and the insularity of shtetl life. The city council was intermittently under the control of the pan-Germans, as were many of the local guilds, student groups and institutions of wider civil society. In a population of 60,000, only one per cent were Jews.
After the Anschluss, the Nazi elite was determined to modernize and industrialize Linz-the industrial base of the old Dual Monarchy had been in Czech Bohemia. In 1938, work began on a huge iron, steel and coking works-the ‘Hermann Goering Works’-which once completed became an important engine of the war effort. Within six months of the Anschluss, unemployment in Linz had been eliminated. In the years that followed, and partly by exploiting the resource of slave labour at the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp, Linz became one of the leading industrial centres of Europe. Today heavy industry is still responsible for much of its affluence-and for thickening its skies with smoke. Its economic transformation remains one of the great successes of National Socialism, as the right-wing Austrian populist Jorg Haider likes to remind his supporters, omitting to mention that a large part of this prosperity has its foundations in slave labour. The present popularity of Haider’s Freedom Party is often cited as an example of how Austria, unlike Germany, has failed to engage properly with its wartime history. Every autumn in Linz, for example, war veterans still meet to celebrate what some Austrians consider to be their national sacrifice. It was during one such meeting of veterans-this time in Klagenfurt, in the southern province of Corinthia-that Haider made a notorious speech urging his audience not to feel ashamed of themselves or of their country. They had, he said, only fulfilled their patriotic duty.
Talking to people in Linz, it seemed to me that Austria remained a humiliated and troubled state. Austrian schoolchildren have been taught to believe that their country was the first victim of Nazism. Perhaps, given Austria’s immediate postwar history, it is a necessary untruth. As one young academic told me: ‘It’s very hard for people of my generation to tell our parents that they were wrong, particularly after the way so many of them suffered in the war in the East and under the Soviet occupation. [The 45th Linz Infantry Division sustained desperate losses on the Eastern Front.] It’s hard to tell old people that their lives were a mistake.’
In this city, Bloch was nowhere. He’d slipped away when men were putting the finishing touches to the Hermann Goering Works. There was only his signature on Klara Hitler’s death certificate, and the picture in the city archive; Hitler in the Landstrasse, looking-maybe-towards the dear doctor’s house.
But Bloch had a child, Trude, and she had a husband, Frank Kren, and they had children, George and Joanne. Before I went to Linz, I had traced Bloch’s two grandchildren. George Kren was a historian, retired from Kansas State University and living in a small town outside Kansas; Joanne, now Joanne Harrison, was a retired nurse who lived in Ewing, New Jersey. George and I had talked on the phone and exchanged emails. He said he was working hard to complete what would be his final book, a Holocaust study, and that he was translating a short memoir that had been left by his grandfather. I told him how interested I would be to read that memoir. He said nothing. I sensed a reticence about his grandfather, and in retrospect more than that: what now seems to me a reluctance to corroborate Bloch’s story and even a suspicion of his motives for telling it. ‘It was not so hard to get out of Linz for Jews,’ George said once. ‘Certainly not when I left for England in 1938.’ Another time, he described his grandfather as ‘a bit of a showman. He was a real character all right.’
George and Joanne had left Austria on the Kindertransport, on one of the trains that saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children. They travelled at night through Switzerland and France and then sailed across the Channel to Harwich, where they arrived in April, 1939. They stayed at first with a family in the East End of London and then moved south to Brighton, where they were separated from each other. In 1940, they were reunited with their parents in New York, shortly before their grandparents came to stay.
‘How did you find living in England?’ I asked George.
‘I’ll tell you about it when we meet.’
Kren had returned several times as an adult to Linz. He liked the tranquillity of the place, and recommended a restaurant that I should visit-high up on the Postlingberg heights, where there is also a baroque pilgrims’ church, built in the late 1730s. You reach the summit of the Postlingberg on what is one of the world’s steepest railways, completed in 1898. The air is thin and bracing up there. As dusk settles you watch the burnished blue of the distant Alps disappearing slowly into the surrounding darkness and follow the lamp-lit river below on its journey through the Danube valley.
In Collier’s and with the OSS, Dr Bloch never talked about what Linz was like before the Anschluss-perhaps because he wasn’t asked. The impression he gave of his life there was one of happy fulfilment. All that changed when, in the spring and summer of 1938, official anti-Semitism began to affect his friends and patients. Jews were, progressively, banned from hotels, restaurants, parks and certain clubs and associations; Jewish lawyers and doctors were forbidden to practise; Jewish shops, homes and offices were marked with what Bloch called ‘the yellow-paper banners now visible throughout Germany-jude’.
On November 10, 1938-‘Kristallnacht’-a ruling was issued that those Jews who had not yet emigrated, or declared (like Bloch’s daughter and her husband) their intention to do so, were to leave Linz within sixty-two hours. But Bloch, who was reluctant to leave, discovered that an ‘exception’ was to be made in his case. The Gestapo had visited previously to ask him to remove the yellow signs from his home and office-‘the first suggestion that I was to receive special favours’. Then his landlord ‘went to Gestapo headquarters to ask if I were to be allowed to remain in my apartment. “We wouldn’t dare touch that matter,” he was told. “It will be handled by Berlin.”’ Bloch told Collier’s that he took that as a sign that Hitler had remembered. He had remembered his promise of gratitude to the Noble Jew.
During one of my phone conversations with George, I mentioned this episode. His tone hardened. ‘My grandfather documented all that fairly accurately,’ he said, briefly.
‘Can you recall yourself what it was like to live in Linz as a child?’
‘When you think of Linz at that time,’ he said, ‘you must remember that not just Hitler, but also Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangel came from the town. That might give you some idea of its atmosphere.’
I was never to meet George Kren. Shortly before I was due to set off from England for Kansas to see him, I’d emailed him. The message bounced back. Perhaps he’d changed his address? I called Kansas University where I knew he still kept an office. A secretary said that ‘Professor Kren had sadly passed away’. It turned out that he had been suffering from emphysema, something which he had never mentioned to me. He died without completing his final book, which I was told his wife was preparing for publication together with a collection of his academic essays. There was no mention of Bloch’s memoir. When I called his wife at home in Kansas, she didn’t want to talk about Bloch at all. ‘That was all before my time,’ she said. ‘There’s not a lot I can say about that anyway. You should speak to his sister.’
I called Joanne. ‘My brother really hated our grandfather,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why. To me, Dr Bloch was the nearest thing I ever met to a saint. But my brother, well, sometimes I wonder if in some strange way he blamed our grandfather for the Holocaust. He was obsessed with the Holocaust, he couldn’t let it go.’
‘Why was he obsessed?’
‘He was a very bitter man. Life soured him. He hated his experiences in England-but I had a good time-and blamed that, I think, for his later unhappiness in America. He always felt out of place in the States, especially during his school years. He was very restless, very angry. He looked at the dark side of life all the time. He kept on looking into the darkness until he could no longer look away.’
‘What about his Jewishness-wasn’t that a source of consolation?’
‘No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘He was nothing. He believed in nothing. His funeral was held in a nondescript room with a few friends. He wasn’t a believer.’
‘What about you?’ I said. ‘Are you a believer?’
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I believe.’
Joanne said we could meet if I came to America, and the day after I got to New York I called her at her home in Ewing. She had disappointing news. ‘I’m afraid I’m gonna have to cancel out on that,’ she said. I explained that I had come all the way from London to meet her. ‘No, I don’t want to speak about any of that.’
I couldn’t understand. Before on the phone she had been animated and candid about her memories of her grandfather and brother. The next day, I tried again; her refusal was adamant again. I decided to hire a car and drive out to Ewing the next day and do the simple, reportorial thing: knock on her door. Her husband opened it and invited me inside. Then Joanne came in from the kitchen, a small, slim woman with wavy grey hair and the unmistakable eyes of her grandfather. We had tea. It was a long time before I left.
Joanne Harrison was proud of her grandfather: she had never doubted the truth of his story. She was familiar with Binion’s thesis about Hitler’s unconscious hatred of Dr Bloch; her mother, she said, had considered legal action against ‘that man’ (Binion) until she realized that you could not libel the dead. (I later discovered that Trude Kren had written a letter to Der Spiegel in July 1978 which praised Bloch’s compassion and loyalty to the Hitler family and mentioned Adolf’s postcards from Vienna.) But something else also became clear: Joanne was no longer a Jew. There was a small ornamental cross on her mantelpiece. Her piety (‘Oh yes, I believe’) was Christian. She and her husband were evangelicals. How had this happened? Because, she said, she had never felt Jewish: ‘Even at home in Linz, we used to celebrate Christmas. My mother was a disciple of Rudolf Steiner. She discovered his teachings when she was sixteen.’ Then, during her brief stay as a child refugee in England, she had been told that she must attend church every Sunday, with the words ‘because this is what we do in this country. You’re not in Austria now.’ Her mother, too, had converted. After her husband, the doctor Frank Kren, died, she had gone to live in an evangelical Christian community in upstate New York. Joanne remembered a conversation between her mother and her grandmother, Emilie Bloch, just before Emile died. ‘She turned to my mother and said now we shall see who’s right: you or me. By which I think she meant that she would at last be able to discover whether Christ was the Messiah, as my mother believed, or not.’
Joanne hinted that her own absolute faith was the source of much of the conflict between her and her brother, who, as she repeatedly stressed, ‘believed in nothing’. She hadn’t attended his funeral. ‘His high intelligence isolated him from other people,’ Joanne said. ‘He was very hostile to our parents, hostile to Dr Bloch. I think he thought Bloch was too close to our mother, or something like that. Maybe he thought there was something sexual between them. Who knows what it was…’
She started again. ‘It was the Holocaust, I think. He couldn’t put it away. Deep down, I know he was really a good person-’
Joanne knew nothing of a memoir or a diary kept by Dr Bloch. Nor could she understand why, if her brother owned such a document, he would have waited for more than forty-five years before beginning to translate it. ‘He never mentioned a memoir to me,’ she said. ‘And I wasn’t aware that my grandfather was ever working on anything like that, not when we all lived together in the Bronx.’ Might it be that there was something in the memoir-more generosity towards young Hitler, perhaps-that George Kren didn’t want to confront? The thought hadn’t occurred to her.
Joanne’s husband, John Harrison, brought out the intricate family tree which he’d been working on for many years. The one important date missing from his research was that of Dr Bloch’s death; all they knew was that he had died from cancer in 1945 and was buried ‘somewhere on Long Island’.
So much about Eduard Bloch-as with his most famous patient-resists explanation. We can now know so very little of him; in the memory of his granddaughter, work was what had mattered most-‘He loved being a doctor, loved his work’-and that had vanished once he left Linz, was vanishing even when he still lived there. After the Anschluss, once the persecution of the Jews began, Bloch was permitted to treat only Jewish patients; as their numbers reduced, so his routine of more than thirty-seven years was destroyed. He was being prevented from doing what he knew best-from working. He seems to have found little or no consolation in religious belief. His fear grew. Joanne recalled how one day late in 1938 her father, Frank Kren, was arrested and imprisoned. He was, she said, guilty of no crime other than his Jewishness. In desperation, Bloch told his daughter, Trude, to show the local Gestapo the postcards that Hitler had sent from Vienna thirty or so years before. The move worked. ‘My father was soon released,’ she told me. ‘After that, we had no more trouble.’
In the Collier’s interview, Bloch described how a Gestapo agent later visited his wife at home, when he was out, and confiscated the postcards, his ‘souvenirs of the Führer’. The next day, Bloch went to the Gesellenhausstrasse hotel, a Gestapo base, and requested their return. An officer asked him whether he were under suspicion for any anti-Nazi activities. ‘I replied that I was not; that I was a professional man with no political connections. As an afterthought he asked if I was a non-Aryan. I answered without compromise: “I am 100 per cent Jew.” The change that came over him was instantaneous. The cards, he said, would be retained for safekeeping.’ Bloch never saw them again.
Still, he did escape. This is his story, as he told it and as his granddaughter believes it. At some point after the Anschluss, Bloch attempted to find out if, unlike other Jews in the town, he and his family would be able to take their savings with them if they got out. ‘Getting any local ruling on such a matter was out of the question. I knew that I couldn’t see Adolf Hitler. Yet I felt that if I could get a message to him he would perhaps give us some help.’ So Bloch sent his daughter to find Hitler’s now widowed half-sister Angela, who was living in Vienna. Because Angela was out, Trude left her father’s written request for help with one of her neighbours; later that evening, the neighbour contacted Trude to say that Angela had received her message, that she ‘sent her greetings and would see what she could do’.
By good fortune, Bloch told Collier’s, ‘Hitler was in Vienna that night for one of his frequent but unheralded trips to the opera.’ He was ‘sure’ that Angela had met up with her half-brother and passed him the message. Bloch, it seems, never doubted Hitler’s good intentions towards him. Soon after, he sold his property, and eventually left for America with ‘sixteen marks’ and a letter of recommendation from what he called the ‘Nazi organization of physicians’. The letter said that because of his ‘character, medical knowledge and readiness to help the sick’ he had won ‘the appreciation of his fellow men’. His final act in Lisbon, just before he left Europe forever, was to post a letter to the Führer which he had written in Linz. Collier’s published it a few months later-perhaps Bloch retained a copy, or could reproduce it from memory; it seems an elaborate thing to have invented.
Before passing the border I want to express my thanks for the protection which I have received. In material poverty I am now leaving the town where I have lived for forty-one years; but I leave conscious of having lived in the most exact fulfilment of my duty. At sixty-nine I will start my life anew in a strange country where my daughter is working hard to support her family.
Yours faithfully, Eduard Bloch
Before I drove back to New York, Joanne Harrison showed me some photographs of Dr Bloch-of him on his wedding day in 1903, white gloves, white tie, dark morning suit; of him alone in his surgery on the Landstrasse, hunched in white-coated abstraction. She also showed me a facsimile copy of his application for American citizenship. His eyes, according to the form, were blue, his ‘race’ was ‘German’, his complexion was light, he weighed 165 pounds and he was five feet six inches tall. As ever, in the accompanying passport-sized photograph, he was wearing a stiff collar and thickly knotted tie, his wavy grey hair brushed back from the accordion creases of his forehead. But this time his expression was more melancholy-a certain downturn of the mouth and a sad shine in his eyes. The best was behind him then.
I asked Joan a last question, as difficult to ask as, I thought, to answer. How did it feel to have a Jewish grandfather who owed his life to the friendship, or gratitude, or mercy, of Adolf Hitler? In a voice just above a whisper, she said: ‘Hitler kept his promise to us, didn’t he?’
She paused, perhaps aware that she was echoing the words of Dr Bloch himself. ‘Which means…’
‘Which means, what?’ I said.
‘That there must be some good in everybody, in Hitler, in those people who flew the planes into the World Trade towers. You have to believe in the possibility of goodness, don’t you? Who knows what Hitler went through as a child to make him the person he became.’
Ron Rosenbaum, while researching his book Explaining Hitler, met and interviewed the world’s leading authorities on Nazism, only to conclude after more than 400 pages that in fact there was nothing to conclude: Hitler remained resolutely inexplicable, unknowable, what Joachim Fest had previously called an ‘unperson’. The mystery of Adolf Hitler, then, is that there is no real mystery: he was no more than the sum of his atrocious actions. He was what he said and did what he thought. To search for what is hidden in his life-his sexuality, his secret hurts and slights-is to ignore what was manifest about him. The error of the pioneering OSS profile, of Ron Rosenbaum’s book and so many others like it, is to assume, as Joanne Harrison did, that the ‘real’ truth about Hitler must lie buried somewhere, probably deep in childhood trauma. If it is, we shall never know.
On my final day in New York, I took the subway up through Harlem and deep into the Bronx, where I found the apartment building on Creston Avenue where Walter Langer had visited Bloch: red brick, dishevelled, Z-shaped fire escape, air-conditioning units scarring the outside of the building. Recent arrivals from Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean had made this once-Jewish neighbourhood their own.
How did Bloch feel as he reflected on his life and tried to find meaning there? What did he know of the fate of the Jews left behind in Europe, including members of the extended Kren family who, his granddaughter thought, had gone to the camps some time in the 1940s? Today Bloch lives on in the margins and footnotes of the Hitler industry-a victim of the cruelty of posterity, and the last of his own particular line of Jews.