For the most part the boy’s recreations were limited to those things which were free: walks in the mountains, a swim in the Danube, a free band concert. He read extensively and was particularly fascinated by stories about American Indians. He devoured the books of James Fenimore Cooper, and the German writer Karl May—who never visited America and never saw an Indian.
—Doctor Eduard Bloch
“My Patient Hitler”
Collier’s, March 15, 1941
Elisabeth felt pleasantly lightheaded, and was enjoying, especially, the acute physical awareness she had of her tongue: the feathery ways it touched her teeth when she spoke—the soothing ways it pressed against the soft upper palate behind her teeth.
The tongue, she reminded herself, consisted of symmetrical halves separated by a fibrous septum, each half composed of muscular fibers arranged in non-symmetrical patterns, the fibers containing masses of interposed fat that were fed by a large number of vessels and nerves. The tongue also contained mucous and serous glands, and the mucous glands, she remembered, were uniquely similar to the labial glands. Could this, she mused, be yet another proof of what doctors often referred to as “the wisdom of the body”?
She was seated across from Doctor Bloch near a window in Manfred’s Tavern. The tavern was full—waiters in tuxedos and serving girls in brightly colored peasant dresses moved about busily—and Elisabeth looked away from the room and through the window where, across Long Island Sound, faint pinpoints of light flickered on City Island.
Manfred’s Tavern was situated along a coast road in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, and City Island, a fishing village with a large Italian population, was closest to land. She knew that Bellevue Hospital, acting as a depot for several city hospitals, shipped some two hundred corpses a week, along with wooden boxes filled with amputated arms and legs, to Hart’s Island, which lay a few miles north of City Island. There, the plain pine coffins were laid three deep in the ground. Nearer to shore, a half-mile east of City Island, was Rat Island, which had become a resort for vacationers.
How misnamed these places were, she thought: City Island was not physically part of the city; Rat Island was too rocky to house rats; and Hart Island, where the dead had no one to mourn for them, was a place without heart. Still, it felt wonderful to be here with Doctor Bloch, and to feel hopeful. Professor Max Brödel, the man for whom Elisabeth worked as a medical illustrator at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine—Brödel was a German émigré who had introduced the discipline of medical illustration into the United States—had suggested that Bloch, recently arrived from Austria, might be of assistance to Elisabeth in securing a visa for Elisabeth’s father. Her father, a widower, lived by himself in Vienna, where, as for all Jews there, life was becoming more difficult each day.
Bloch had been Adolf Hitler’s doctor when Hitler was a boy, had attended to Hitler’s family during the boy’s growing up, and to Hitler’s mother during her illness and death from breast cancer. According to Brödel—the professor was friends with Bloch’s nephew John, a physician who worked in Washington, D.C.—Bloch had been able to get out of Austria due to an unprecedented act: the intervention of Hitler himself, the only Jew for whom the German dictator had thus far performed such a service.
“I can only repeat what I have previously told you,” Bloch was saying, “which is that I did nothing to solicit the privilege that has made possible the personal liberty I enjoy on these shores, along with—equally important—the good fortune that has enabled me to meet you, though I sense that when I make such a remark, you are determined not to acknowledge its sentiment.”
“Au contraire, my dear doctor,” Elisabeth said, and she leaned forward, beckoning with her index finger for him to come closer. When he did, she kissed him, letting her mouth linger on his, letting her tongue touch his teeth through the narrow opening between his lips. He tasted of wine, potatoes, tobacco.
“Tell me, Doctor Bloch,” she said. “Wouldn’t you like to take me away from all this?”
“I thought so. But where might we go, do you think—Vienna? Paris? Rome?”
“I hardly think we can visit such places at this time.”
“Warsaw then? Prague? Amsterdam? Berlin?”
“Baltimore seems more inviting, and more possible.”
Elisabeth sighed. “Well, wherever we went, we would hope to have my father join us. That’s understood, of course.”
She saw herself walking arm in arm with Bloch in Baltimore, along Broadway, from the hospital to her apartment, then inviting him in, serving him wine, taking him into her bedroom. His touch, she imagined, would be gentle, and it occurred to her, and in a way that was not unpleasant, that the hands that might soon be caressing her were the same hands that had once touched Adolf Hitler’s private parts.