Life & Culture

My father risked his life making fun of Hitler

The defiance of a Jewish artist and poet in hiding in wartime Holland is explored in a deeply moving new exhibition in the German capital


It’s not often that you discover an astonishing talent, but thanks to his daughter, Simone, and the two curators of a new exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, it is now possible to see the work of Curt Bloch, a German Jewish artist and poet who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands where he produced a series of extraordinary magazines that represented his resistance to the Nazis. It is one of the most moving exhibitions I have ever seen.

Bloch was born in 1908 in the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Dortmund, where his father Siegfried ran a delicatessen that also sold kosher foods. He studied law in Berlin – the first in his family to go to university – but his legal career came to an end at the age of 25 when Hitler passed legislation that saw Jews dismissed from the civil service and denied admission to the bar. He escaped to Amsterdam, one of more than 20,000 German Jews who left Germany for the Netherlands. The country became a centre for exile newspapers and publishing houses such as Querido Verlag and Allert de Lange which between 1933 and 1940, published famous German-speaking writers including Joseph Roth, Max Brod, Heinrich Mann and Arnold Zweig.

But Bloch was not safe for long. The Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 and began persecuting Jews there. Together with his mother and a sister he moved to Enschede on the German border. He managed to find refuge above the attic in a small suburban house where he would spend the next 27 months in hiding. Out of approximately 1300 Jews in Enschede, 500 were saved compared to less than 20 per cent in the rest of the Netherlands.

It was here that Bloch began to write and design the extraordinary satirical magazine he called The Underwater Cabaret, in reference to “divers”, the Dutch word for people in hiding, and which catalogues the misery of  living under German occupation and in hiding.

 Between August 1943 and April 1945, he produced 95 issues of the volume that he wrote in fountain pen, illustrated with collages from newspaper cuttings, including photographs of leading Nazis, and stitched together by hand.  He doesn’t refer directly to John Heartfield, who pioneered photomontage as a political weapon against the Nazis, but you sense his influence. As one of the curators says: “The unique work is a powerful testimony of creative resistance to war, disinformation and persecution.” It hardly needs stating that producing the material was extremely dangerous: anyone caught making fun of the Third Reich faced death.

The first issue was 18 pages long and included three poems in Dutch. Friends in the Dutch resistance distributed copies of each edition to other “divers.”

In total Bloch wrote almost 500 poems in Dutch and German, His mother Paula and little sister Hélène had followed him to the Netherlands, and had also gone into hiding. In May 1943 they were transported to Sobibor, where they were murdered. He devoted several poems to Hélène. In the most moving of these, A Greeting, beautifully performed by a Dutch actor in a video shown at the exhibition, he writes:

‘Wherever you are lingering,

I’d like to greet you, sister dear,

And share in all your suffering,

Just be there sitting at your side.’

Later in the same poem he writes,

‘And when the war is gone at last

I will go in search of you.

Within my mind I grasp your hands

And bid you quietly farewell.’

Bloch’s other sister, Erna, born in 1912, had also escaped to the Netherlands in 1939. In December 1941 she and her husband Max Levy were deported to Riga, in the east. Erna died in the concentration camp at Stutthof near Danzig in late 1944. Curt Bloch was the only member of his family to survive.

In December 1944, he left Enschede and was taken in by another couple in Borne. The final edition of The Underwater Cabaret was dated April 3 1945. By that day, Enshede had been liberated and he was able to leave his hiding place above the attic. The cover of the final issue shows a man emerging into the world.

Bloch returned to Amsterdam early in 1946 where he met and married Ruth Kan, an Auschwitz survivor. She too was the only one of her family to survive. They had a son, Stephen, in May 1947, who later committed suicide.  The following year they emigrated to New York where they had Simone, in 1959. Bloch spent the rest of his life in New York and died in 1975.

He had The Underwater Cabaret bound in four thick, compact volumes, but he never tried to publish the volume. In the words of his poem, On The Piano of my Fantasy (also available on video at the exhibition):

‘I suppose a happy life

Will never be for me.’

His psychotherapist daughter Simone, now 64, grew up in a New York house filled with her antique dealer parents’ mysterious materials, including the  booklets. With their ubiquitous images of Hitler and other Nazis she found them offputting. “They weren’t something I would ever want to pick up, she says.

In fact, in the exhibition she writes: “I only became curious about my father’s story when he was suddenly gone.” You could say her curiousity burned. After her father’s death, she went on to learn German and, together with her two daughters, became a naturalised German citizen in 1990.

But during his life, the father-daugther relationship was difficult. “Around the house we disagreed about almost everything and winning an argument was as close as we came to playing a sport. Now almost fifty years have passed since he died and over time I’ve come to think of him as a generous and funny character who would be astonished at how completely we – he and I – have overcome our differences. I imagine he’d be impressed and overjoyed that I’ve dedicated myself to bringing his talent and remarkable body of work to light.”

How damaged was her father by his wartime experiences?

“Both my parents were the only surviving members of their families, but they didn’t harp on about this, it was the just the explanation for why we had no family,” she says. “I didn’t see my parents as damaged just different.”

And how damaged was she by what had happened to them? “My parents’ story is what formed me, but I don’t consider that damage. As a psychotherapist and daughter of a now 98-year-old survivor, I try to untangle and understand. I think of my parents’ creativity and humour as a gift that I am, in this exhibition, finally getting to share with an appreciative world. I feel very lucky.”

Until the book The Underwater Cabaret: Curt Bloch’s Satirical Resistance, by Gerard Groeneveld, was published in the Netherlands at the end of 2023, the artist and poet was almost entirely unknown. This extraordinary exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, superbly curated by Aubrey Pomerance and Ulrike Kuschel, puts this wrong right.

The final words should go to Simone who quotes Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

“Give or take a bunch of decades, this is the story of Curt Bloch and me,” she says.“He would be so delighted to know how wise I believe he has become.”

My Verses are like Dynamite: Curt Bloch’s Het Onderwater-Cabaret is at the Jewish Museum, Berlin until May 26

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive