The people who hid Curt Bloch, a German Jew, in the crawl space of a Dutch home gave him both food and the materials he needed to make a highly creative magazine now drawing attention.
By Nina Siegal
Nina Siegal lives in Amsterdam and has written extensively about the experience of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust.
Published Dec. 18, 2023Updated Dec. 22, 2023
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For more than two years, home for Curt Bloch was a tiny crawl space below the rafters of a modest brick home in Enschede, a Dutch city near the German border. The attic had a single small window. He shared it with two other adults.
During that time, Bloch, a German Jew, survived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands by relying on a network of people who gave him food and kept his secrets.
In that respect, he was like at least 10,000 Jews who hid in Holland and managed to live by pretending not to exist. At least 104,000 others — many of whom also sought refuge, but were found — ended up being sent to their deaths.
But Bloch’s experience was different because, in addition to sustenance and care, his helpers brought him pens, glue, newspapers and other printed materials that he used to produce a startling publication: his own weekly, satirical poetry magazine.
From August 1943 until he was liberated in April 1945, Bloch produced 95 issues of Het Onderwater Cabaret, or The Underwater Cabaret.
Each issue included original art, poetry and songs that often took aim at the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators. Bloch, writing in both German and Dutch, mocked Nazi propaganda, responded to war news and offered personal perspectives on wartime deprivations.
In one poem, he sardonically suggested how recent events had reordered what it meant to be a beast in the animal kingdom:
Hyenas and jackals
Look on with jealousy
For they now seem as choirboys
Compared to humanity.
Bloch shared his handwritten magazine with the people he lived with, the family who sheltered him and, possibly, outside helpers and other Jews in hiding. After the war, which Bloch survived, he collected his magazines and brought them home and ultimately to New York, where he emigrated. There they sat on some bookshelves, the unknown creations of a man who was trained not as a poet, or an artist, but as a lawyer.
Bloch’s daughter, Simone Bloch, now 64, remembers seeing the magazines in the family home growing up. She didn’t fully grasp their significance, or particularly care to. A rebellious teenager by her own account, Simone said she never connected particularly well with her father, who died suddenly from a liver ailment when she was 15.
“A couple of times he read from them at dinner parties,” she said in an interview, “but I didn’t understand German then.”
Many years later, though, Simone’s daughter, Lucy, took an interest in the magazines, not just as family mementos but as markers of history. She got a research grant to travel to Germany, where she was able to study more about her grandfather’s history. Simone then spent years searching for a way to expand public awareness of the magazines, one of the few previously undiscovered literary efforts that document the Holocaust in Europe.
This led to the production of a book, “The Underwater Cabaret: The Satirical Resistance of Curt Bloch,” by Gerard Groeneveld, which was published in the Netherlands earlier this year. Soon there will also be a museum exhibition, “‘My Verses Are Like Dynamite.’ Curt Bloch’s Het Onderwater Cabaret,” which is scheduled to open in February at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin.
“Any time that an almost completely unknown work of this caliber comes to the fore, it’s very significant,” said Aubrey Pomerance, a curator of the Berlin museum exhibition. “The overwhelming majority of writings that were created in hiding were destroyed. If they weren’t, they’ve come to the public attention before now. So, it’s tremendously exciting.”
Research by Pomerance and Groeneveld for the exhibition and the book has helped to illuminate many aspects of Bloch’s life, which had not previously drawn much attention. Born in Dortmund, an industrial city in western Germany, Bloch was 24 and working at his first job as a legal clerk when Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933. Antisemitic violence in Bloch’s hometown escalated even before official anti-Jewish measures were instituted.
After a colleague threatened his life that same year, Bloch fled to Amsterdam, where he took a job with a Persian rug importer and dealer. He hoped to find refuge there before escaping further west, but his plans were dashed when the Germans invaded in 1940, the borders closed, and the nightmare expanded to Jews there as well.
Bloch’s firm transferred him to The Hague, but when non-Dutch Jews were forced out of the western Dutch provinces by the occupier’s decree, he was sent to work in a subsidiary in Enschede.
There, he got a job with the local Jewish Council, an organization installed by the German overseers to implement Nazi antisemitic edicts. Jews who worked for the council were assured that they were safe from deportation.
Technically, Bloch was an adviser for “immigrant affairs,” although no opportunities for immigration existed — only transport to a concentration camp. The Enschede council understood the dangers and warned its members to go into hiding.
It was aided by an influential Dutch Reformed Church pastor, Leendert Overduin, who secretly ran a resistance organization that helped some 1,000 Jews find places to hide. Known as Group Overduin, it consisted of about 50 people, including Overduin’s two sisters. Overduin was arrested three times and was imprisoned for this work; he has been recognized since as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem.
Group Overduin found Bloch a hiding place in the home of Bertus Menneken, an undertaker, and his wife, Aleida Menneken, a housekeeper. Their two-story brick house on Plataanstraat 15 was in a middle-class district of western Enschede.
There, Bloch shared the crawl space with a 44-year-old German-Jewish refugee, Bruno Löwenberg, and Löwenberg’s 22-year-old girlfriend, Karola Wolf, whom they called Ola. During their time in hiding, Bloch fell in love with Ola and wrote many verses just for her.
“He had a lot of courage, but he also had a reckless streak,” Groeneveld said.
Each edition of Bloch’s magazine consisted of just a single copy. But it may have been read by as many as 20 to 30 people, Groeneveld estimated.
“There was huge organization behind him, which included couriers, who brought food, but who could also bring the magazine out, to share with other people in the group who could be trusted,” Groeneveld said. “The magazines are very small, you can easily put one in your pocket or hide it in a book. He got them all back. They must have also returned them in some way.”
Bloch named his magazine in response to a German-language radio program that played on Dutch airwaves during the occupation, the Sunday Afternoon Cabaret. But this, Groeneveld explained, was the Underwater Cabaret, which took its title from a unique term in Dutch for the act of going into hiding: “onderduiken.” Its literal translation is “to dive under,” but a common translation is “to slip out of public view.” A person in hiding was an “onderduiker,” who had gone “under water,” or was submerged.
Groeneveld said that Bloch’s covers, which were stylized photomontages, drew inspiration from antifascist satirical magazines of the prewar era, like the French “Marianne,” known for its anti-Nazi illustrations, and the German workers’ magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung.
“His main target was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister,” Pomerance said. “He often refers to articles that talk about a ‘final victory for the Nazis,’ and he mocks that notion, calling them murderers and liars. He was always sure that Germany would not win the war.”
In his poem, “The Way to Truth,” for example, he advised an imagined German reader how to approach Goebbels’s falsehoods:
If he writes straight, read it crooked.
If he writes crooked, read it straight.
Yes, just turn his writings around.
In all his useful words, harm is found.
Bloch’s writing wasn’t necessarily intended to live only on the page. During his time in hiding, he may have recited his poetry or performed the songs, Pomerance said.
“Quite a number of his poems were identified as being songs,” he said. “But unfortunately he didn’t provide any melodies that they should be sung to,” except for one, entitled “Resistance Song.” The cover of the final issue, dated April 1945, after his liberation, is a photomontage of two people climbing out of a hatch. The title of that issue declares they are finally “above water.”
One poem in the edition, the only one he wrote in English, reads:
At Berlin with our Russian friends,
The German Nightingale,
Herr Hitler, doesn’t sing today
He’s feeling, after some delay
A tie around his neck.
Though Bloch survived, his mother and his sisters and most of the rest of his family in Germany died in the war. After the liberation of the Netherlands, he met Ruth Kan, who had survived a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz. They married in 1946, had a son, Stephen, and moved to New York in 1948, where they later opened a business that sold European antiques and had Simone in 1959.
Beyond the new book and museum exhibition, Simone is developing a website that will feature her father’s art and poetry in three languages: German, Dutch and English.
That process has had a profound impact on her, she said.
“It provides not just insight, but access to my father in a way that I wish I’d had when I was young,” she said.
A correction was made on
Dec. 18, 2023
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the month in 1945 when the final liberation of the Netherlands took place. It was in May, not April. The article also gave an incorrect age for Bloch when Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. He was 24, not 22.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 20, 2023, Section C, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Hiding In an Attic, Taking On The Nazis. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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