My father, Curt David Bloch, was a smartass. But that wasn’t the reason he lost his first job when he was 25 years old. He was fired in 1933 when, overnight, it became illegal for a German States’ Attorney to be a Jew. Unless a non-Aryan had himself fought in the Great War, or his father had been killed fighting on the front for the Fatherland, he’d be out of a job. The new statute – the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service – required that Jewish civil servants submit a letter declaring either their resignation or the explanation why they’d earned an exemption. My father submitted the required statement as an act of noncompliant compliance, in deliberate violation of the accepted norms of respectful German bureaucratic correspondence:
I declare that I did not fight at the front, since when the war broke out I was only 5 1/2 years old.
My father was a frontline soldier, but was not killed in the World War.
I have no cause to seek release from my judicial duties.
Dr. Curt Bloch, Court Clerk
Nazis are not known for their easygoing tolerance of casual disrespect, so it was no surprise when the Gestapo came knocking. Curt had planned for this and escaped up the stairs of his family’s row house and out the top floor maid’s room window with some cash he’d left under a mattress there. He climbed out the window across the rooftops, and down the back stairs of a neighbor’s house. From there did he get on his bicycle and ride west, or take a train? Somehow he evaded the Gestapo’s search and made it over the Dutch border, out of Germany.
In 1920s Berlin my father had been an honours Law student, the first in his family to attend university. He and his peers planned to guide Weimar toward a socialist state, which would provide opportunity and class mobility through education and social welfare. And they’d do it cleverly, with humor that ranged from witty to raunchy. But the brutal excess of the Russian Revolution made anyone who quoted Marx and espoused economic reform an easy target for fascists. To them, people who thought like my father and his subversive friends were dangerous, perverted, Jew-pig revolutionaries. In Germany in the 1930s there were many ways to get yourself killed, and falling into any of these categories was high on that list.
Having settled across the border in Holland, Curt pushed a broom in a warehouse and befriended the working men around him. He rented a room with the family of a foreman, Geerligs, who appreciated his irreverent humor and treated him like a son. When he later moved out on his own and began a life as a rug and art dealer he remained friends with the family.
The Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, but it was not until the summer of 1943 that they began to round up Jews in Holland, sending them east to concentration camps. It was then that Geerligs’ son found my father a place to hide, and when that became too dangerous at least one other before he finally found a stable resting place in the tiny crawl space above the attic of a gravedigger and his wife, whose names were Butts and Leider. He lived there for almost two years, sometimes confined with another desperate Jew. Three were the most that could fit. He spent the days lying in this cramped space, shaped like a prism, scribbling the Underwater Cabaret, a satirical weekly commentary on current events. In the evening, when the curtains were drawn, Curt and whoever else was in the house sat in the living room discussing the events of the day as they were transmitted through the underground or reading aloud from Curt’s volume of satirical verse with its Dadaesque collage cover. The Underwater Cabaret was then clandestinely circulated to other resistance houses in the area, where it was enjoyed by members of the Dutch Underground and their hidden Onderduikers – literally “under divers” – and returned to its creator, who then sent the next issue into circulation. He maintained this production schedule until the day in April 1945 when he was again free to walk the streets, liberated by the Allies.
Later Curt had the more than 80 issues of Underwater Cabaret bound into four thick volumes, which sat on the bookshelf in our dining room in Queens, fragile and incomprehensible to me.
Now, more than 40 years since my father’s death, as I approach the age at which he died, I am collaborating with my daughter on a graphic memoir incorporating his work into a multigenerational narrative of death, survival, and family. Our own Underwater Cabaret addresses the losses my family endured, honoring both those who survived and those who didn’t. We hope to give my father’s work some of the recognition I wish he could have enjoyed in life; the satisfaction of staving off oblivion with humour.