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“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,”

in Collier’s, March 15, 1941

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”

RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet


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o: Would he be pleased to see her? Elisabeth was bringing good news – when you visit again, bring only good news, her father had said to her when they had parted the last time, at Pennsylvania Station – and the good news was that Professor Max Brödel of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine had offered her a full-time position as a medical illustrator, an appointment that would become official on the first day of the New Year. Professor Brödel was a German émigré who had introduced the discipline of medical illustration into the United States, and Elisabeth had completed her studies with him the previous spring, after which she had worked with him, part-time, through the summer, fall, and early winter. She had also worked with Doctor Helen Taussig, who was studying abnormalities in children’s cardio-vascular systems, especially in so-called “blue babies” – children who suffered from congenital malformations of the heart – and it was her work with Doctor Taussig and these children that she loved most, and that she was eager to tell her father about. She walked under the elevated subway tracks, along Westchester Avenue. It had been more than four months since she had been in the Bronx, and she hoped that on this visit she would be able to persuade her father to return with her to Baltimore. She had lived in Baltimore for more than five years 11


JAY NEUGEBOREN

– since the time, in April 1934, when she had placed her son, Daniel, in a private institution on Chesapeake Bay – yet in all this time her father had never visited her. Nor had he seen his grandson in more than two years. She drew her coat close against a non-existent wind while in her mind she conjured up a child’s heart like one she had begun drawing for Doctor Taussig the week before. She rotated the heart slowly in order to consider it in all its dimensions, then sliced it in half so that when she drew it from two discrete perspectives, Doctor Taussig and her medical students would be able to see what was happening simultaneously on both the interior and the exterior of the heart. A film of snow lay on the streets, from early morning flurries, but the air was warm, almost balmy, and this probably meant that heavier snows were on the way. She stopped and looked back towards the elevated subway station from which she had come. Buildings that were parallel to the tracks blocked the railroad trestles from view now, and when she looked up the hill she had just descended, a train, entering the station, seemed suspended in the sky above the rooftops, as if unmoored. In Mister Klein’s butcher shop, she bought three lamb chops, and in the fruit and vegetable store, string beans, mushrooms, garlic, and parsley. In the grocery store, she bought candles and wine, and in the bakery, a braided challah. None of the shopkeepers indicated, by gesture or word, that they recognized her. At the rise of the hill where Waters Place met Iverson Street, she bought tulips from Francine, a girl who lived in a first floor apartment in her father’s building. Francine was eleven or twelve years old, a half dozen or so years younger than Daniel, and Elisabeth asked her about her family, but Francine, wrapping the flowers in brown paper, did not reply. Elisabeth took the flowers, picked up her suitcase, and walked on towards her father’s building. To the north and east, dairy farms and single family dwellings stretched out on low12


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lying, snow-covered land. The peacefulness of the landscape comforted her, and she found herself imagining the look on her father’s face when he would open his door. So, you’re here again, are you? he would say – his usual greeting – before smiling and embracing her. On the third-floor landing she knocked on her father’s door, but there was no response and she heard no sound. She was puzzled. Her father had never given her a key to the apartment, and it was not like him to be away when she arrived. She let her hand rest on the doorknob, felt the door move, pushed it open, entered the kitchen. The room contained only an ice box, a stove, a sink, a table, and two wooden chairs. The linoleum, a checkerboard of beige and gray squares, had been freshly waxed and polished. She set down the groceries and her suitcase, then walked through a slender passageway that led to the bedroom. In the bedroom, the two beds were neatly made, identical creamcolored chenille spreads covering them, and across the iron rail at the foot of the bed that was hers, as in a hotel, a fresh green towel and a white wash cloth. She took off her hat and coat, laid them on her father’s bed, returned to the kitchen, and opened the ice box, where she found bottles of milk and orange juice, a jar of raspberry jam, butter, and eggs. On the counter next to the stove was an unopened box of Schrafft chocolates. The bathroom had been cleaned – immaculately so – and there was a new white curtain hanging from silver hoops above the tub. She fingered the curtain, which felt very much to her touch like the fabric used in surgery to drape patients. In the bedroom, she pulled down the two window shades, took off her shoes, and, giving in to her exhaustion – she had risen at fourthirty in the morning in order to put in a half-day of work at the hospital – she lay down. 13


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* * * hen she awoke, she imagined that her father’s hand was on her shoulder, waking her so she could get ready to go with him to work. When she and her father lived together in Brooklyn – her mother had died of tuberculosis three months before Elisabeth’s fifth birthday – her father had worked as a sandhog, and sometimes as an electrician, in the building of the city’s new subway system. In those years she had often gone with him, crossing Brooklyn Bridge in a cable car and spending whole days in places he found for her – alcoves, storage areas, and caves that had been cut into the dirt and rock of the island. Most days she would amuse herself by drawing pictures or playing with her dolls. She would build and furnish houses for the dolls out of scraps of wood, metal, and fabric, and would surround the houses with forests, lakes, gardens, swamps, and bridges she made from sticks, stones, grass, dirt, and flowers. She had loved to draw machines and engines, especially the large hydraulic presses that drilled through stone, and she had also loved to draw mules, horses, and carts, along with the various shovels, picks, axes, and mauls she often saw leaning against walls and looking as if, like the men who used them, they too were resting from their labors. The men her father worked with had marveled at her ability to draw their likenesses, and once she had finished a drawing of one of them, she would present it to the man, who would usually give her a penny or two in return. She reached to the bedside table, turned on the lamp, and looked at her watch. It was nearly midnight, which meant that she had slept for more than five hours. She thought of telephoning Alex, her ex-husband – he was the one person in New York her father might notify if something was wrong – but there was no telephone in her father’s apartment. Her father did not believe in telephones in the same way he did not believe in airplanes or radios, X-rays or moving pictures that were accompanied by

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sound. He did not trust what he could not understand. Nor did he, to her knowledge, have any friends other than the women with whom he occasionally spent nights. From the cabinet above the kitchen sink she took down a pair of silver candlesticks and a silver goblet, objects her father had managed to bring with him from Poland when he came to the United States at the age of sixteen. Despite the hour, she lit two candles, covered her eyes with both hands, recited the prayer for welcoming the Sabbath, then poured wine into the goblet, recited another prayer, and drank the wine. She placed the challah on a plate, covered it with a napkin, made a pass above it in the air with a bread knife, recited a third prayer, tore off a piece of the bread and ate it. Then she sat at the kitchen table and poured herself more wine. Sometimes, on Friday nights, she and her father would finish an entire bottle together. Feeling a slight draft, she turned and saw that the front door had come open. She closed it, then put the candlesticks in the sink so there would be no risk of fire during what remained of the night. She returned to the bedroom, bringing the goblet of wine with her, undressed, and put on her nightgown. If her father were not with a woman, it occurred to her, it was possible he was working the night shift at the nearby railroad yard, where, though retired, he sometimes filled in for sick or disabled workers, helping to repair the electrical systems of trains. But if he was at the railroad yard, why hadn’t he left her a note telling her so? If he didn’t return by morning, she decided, rather than wait around worrying about him, she would perform the favor one of Professor Brödel’s friends, Doctor John Kafka, had asked of her, and pay a visit to John’s uncle, Doctor Eduard Bloch, who was living nearby, a block or two from the Botanical Gardens, on East Tremont Avenue. Doctor Bloch, a recent émigré from Austria, had been Adolf Hitler’s doctor when Hitler was a boy, had attended to Hitler’s family during the boy’s growing up, and 15


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to Hitler’s mother during her illness and death from breast cancer. According to the nephew, Doctor 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 ever performed such a service. She finished her glass of wine, turned out the light, and told herself that her father had not left a message because he was probably preparing a surprise for her, and that if he wasn’t there when she awoke, he would surely be there when she returned from visiting Doctor Bloch. So, she imagined him asking. Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you all morning.

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Set on the eve of America's entry into World War Two, award-winning novelist Jay Neugeboren's new novel is built around a fascinating histor...

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