A few historians and psychoanalysts have suggested that that Hitler's physician was himself responsible in part for Adolf's violent obsession with Jews.
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By Jay Neugeboren
Minneapolis; Two Dollar Radio. $15. 276 pp.

Mary Shelley describes how Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his infamous monster. But what about real-life monsters? What accounts for the malignity of Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin? Young Adolf Hitler was, according to his childhood physician, "quiet, well-mannered and neatly dressed."["My Patient, Hitler," Collier's, March 15, 1941] If we knew what caused him to metamorphose into a genocidal maniac, might we prevent future Holocausts?

A few historians and psychoanalysts have suggested that that physician was himself responsible in part for Hitler's violent obsession with Jews. A dedicated and compassionate professional, Dr. Eduard Bloch made house calls, and one of the houses he called upon in Linz, Austria during the first decade of the 20th century belonged to the Hitlers. Bloch treated the adolescent Adolf for minor ailments, and he tended to his mother, Klara, during the weeks and hours leading up to her agonizing death from breast cancer.

Bloch was a Jew, and some have speculated that, though Adolf Hitler expressed gratitude for his services to the family (at reduced fees, because of their straightened circumstances), he "unconsciously made this doctor into the incestuous poisoning murderer of his mother" [1940, p. 196]. Hitler saw Dr. Bloch, attending Klara in her bedroom, as a surrogate for his dead father, Alois Hitler. According to this dubious theory of Oedipal projection, Hitler extrapolated from Bloch to blame all Jews for the loss of his beloved mother.

In 1940, the first new novel by Jay Neugeboren since his 1985 book Before My Life Began, Bloch, relocated to the Bronx, speaks for himself. Neugeboren's story unfolds during three weeks in December 1940, when 68-year-old Bloch, who that year actually emigrated to the United States, becomes involved with the fictional Elisabeth Rofman, a 44-year-old medical illustrator. Rofman's 17-year-old son, Daniel, has been diagnosed and institutionalized with schizophrenia, though his symptoms -- including irrational outbursts and aversion to being touched -- suggest autism. Bloch assists Rofman in trying to prevent her ex-husband, Dr. Alex Landau, from having Daniel castrated.

1940 alternates between objective narration and excerpts from Bloch's diary. He writes in the hope that: "I, an ageing Austro-Jewish doctor living in a small one-bedroom apartment in New York City's Bronx region, might, due to the vagaries of my life as a physician, be not only close to the center of a supreme world-historical moment, but that I might be able to have some influence upon that moment." [pp. 213-14] One year before American entry into World War II, while Europe's Jews are already being slaughtered, Bloch is anxious to exonerate himself and avert further atrocity.

The real-life Bloch provided information on Hitler to the Office of Strategic Services, and he published an article, "My Patient, Hitler," in Collier's magazine in 1941. Neugeboren draws on these sources, as well as his own powerful imagination. He provides convincing details about New York City subways, human anatomy, and antebellum Austria. But he departs from the historical record in making Bloch, whose wife in fact outlived him, a widower and available for romantic attachment to Rofman. He also has Bloch report that the teenaged Hitler was already a determined vegetarian, whereas most biographers contend that he gave up meat only in 1931, after the suicide of his niece, Geli Raubel. Hitler's diet is sometimes used to try to discredit the ethical claims of vegetarianism, despite the Führer's sporadic indulgence in sausage and squab.

During the past two decades, Neugeboren has published moving nonfiction about his own quintuple-bypass surgery (Open Heart, 2003), his brother's lifelong struggles for mental equilibrium (Imagining Robert, 1997), and the general plight of the mentally ill (Transforming Madness, 1999). 1940 extends these interests in its depiction of Daniel's disorder and the ways in which figures in authority presume to make him conform to their norms. Bloch notes a parallel to Maria Anna, Hitler's institutionalized half-sister, as well as the eugenics used to rationalize the elimination of Europe's Jews.

Declared an "Edeljude" -- noble Jew -- by Hitler in recognition of the doctor's work in Linz, Bloch received preferential treatment by resentful Nazi officials. In the stiff, pedantic prose of an Austrian forced to justify his existence in English, Neugeboren's troubled Bloch writes to justify being allowed to emigrate while his fellow Jews were rounded up and murdered. He insists that he never acted dishonorably. And he is adamant in rejecting personal responsibility for Hitler's war against the Jews.

"The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything," wrote Milan Kundera, amid the repression of Communist Czechoslovakia [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, p. 100] "The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything." The wisdom of Neugeboren's novel comes from its recognition that final solutions evade without answering questions. Bloch rejects facile attempts to explain Hitler and subdue Daniel. The advice he quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke, "to have patience with everything unresolved and to try to love the questions themselves,"[p. 180] is as valuable in 2008 as it is in 1940.

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