Hitler's Doctor is Living in the Bronx: How 1940 Came to Be

07/21/2008 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ten years ago, while reading Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler, I came across a fact that was, to me, a revelation: Hitler's doctor, it seemed -- a man named Eduard Bloch -- was Jewish, and had lived in the Bronx all through World War II. So grateful was Hitler to his childhood physician that in 1940 he intervened to provide Dr. Bloch and his family with visas that enabled them to escape Austria and the Holocaust.

Rosenbaum devoted only a half dozen pages to Bloch, but what I read took up residence in a small room of my mind, and I tried to find out more. Other than some basic facts of Bloch's life, however, these derived largely from articles Dr. Bloch wrote for Scribner's ("My Patient, Hitler"), and from U. S. intelligence agency (O.S.S.) interviews, the man himself remained a mystery. And so I began conceiving a story in which I conjured up what such a man -- one who'd not only known Hitler intimately, but had been the unique beneficiary of his generosity -- might have been like.

At the same time, I'd been doing research for a novel about a woman, Elisabeth Rofman, who was a medical illustrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and whose fictional incarnation was inspired by the obstetrician who had delivered my youngest child -- a woman who had started out as a medical illustrator. "But while I sketched," she'd once told me, "I kept watching all these doctors perform operations, and thinking: This isn't so hard. I can probably do what they're doing." And so, in mid-life -- during World War II -- she'd entered medical school and had become a doctor.

Then, one day, while an artist was showing me how, by dipping dry sable brushes into carbon dust, medical illustrators achieved their effects, I suddenly realized that Elisabeth and Dr. Bloch were part of the same story -- that they were going to meet, and that they might even, against all predictability, fall in love. And so my novel began: while visiting her father in the Bronx, Elisabeth calls on Dr. Bloch, bringing regards to this newly arrived exile from a nephew, who (due to Hitler's largesse to the Bloch family) is practicing medicine in Washington, D. C.. And thus did 1940 begin to breathe, and come to life . . . .

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