I have assumed that the conversation at a recent informal dinner party at Joel and Arlene Levine's home would revolve around the subject of his project, the sending of a pilotless, rocket-powered, controlled airplane to Mars.
Levine, a senior research scientist at NASA for 41 years, who currently serves as research professor in the Department of Applied Science at the College of William and Mary, has been deeply involved in obtaining measurements of the atmosphere, surface and interior of the Red Planet.
Instead of discussing his project, he placed a copy of my book, "Reports from a Distant Place," on the dinner table. The book, a compilation of a series of my Gazette columns that, according to a review by Tamara Dietrich, "is about those death-defying years when Shatz, as a young man, relaying on his wits and instincts escaped from a slave-labor camp, joined the underground, dodged the dreaded Arrow Cross fascist gangs, conspired against the Nazis right under their noses, and evaded tight spots by what could only be described as chutzpah."
David Bloch and Lily Cheng
The discussion of the subject of the Holocaust at the Levine's dinner table affected deeply one of the guests, Dr. James Ullman, a well-known anesthesiologist. It has triggered in him memories of growing up in a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where his mother rented rooms for additional income.
Dr. Ullman recalled that among the renters was a deaf, German-born man and his beautiful Chinese wife, who was a deaf mute. They lived in the house for years, but James, as a young boy, had only a vague idea of who he was or what he did for living. Only years later did he learn about the life and accomplishments of the man who was always addressed respectfully by all the Ullman family as "Mr. Bloch."
"He was an amazing person," Dr. Ullman recalled, "and his story could be made into a movie."
In a biographical sketch, David Ludwig Bloch is described as born in 1910 in Floss, Bavaria, who was deaf at birth and orphaned by age one. He started studying porcelain painting at age 15 and in 1934 enrolled at the state school for applied painting in Munich. He was already known for his artistic talent and got a job as a decorator at a large department store. Soon, however, as a Jew, he was expelled from the art school and fired from his job.
In 1938, during the ill-famed Kristalnacht, the Nazi-engineered pogrom, Bloch was arrested and imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp. For some unexplained reason, after a month of confinement, he was released. He then found work with a master painter in Munich. But by 1940, it was plain to see that the fate of German Jews is hanging by a thread. There was, however, still an opportunity for those who were willing to sign over all their possessions to the German state, to leave the country legally. The "final solution," the annihilation of all Jews under Nazi rule, wasn't conceived yet.
The problem the German Jews faced was to obtain entry visas into another country. Few managed to do so. The state of Israel, as a safe haven for persecuted Jews, didn't exist yet. Thus, Shanghai, an "Open City," was one of the few places in the world where one didn't need a visa to enter. It had become the destination for almost 20,000 Jewish refugees. One of them was David Bloch.
The Jews in Shanghai, under Japanese occupation, were herded into a 0.75-square-mile ghetto. But Japan refused Nazi demands to annihilate them. Thus, Bloch survived and working as an artist created an outstanding collection of woodcuts. These works depicted life in China during World War II.
In 1949, Bloch and his Chinese wife moved to the United States and lived for years at Jim Ullman's mother's boarding house, where one of their two sons, was born.
"None of us knew how distinguished an artist Mr. Bloch was," Ullman said. "His paintings and woodcuts depicting the horrors of the Holocaust and his personal experiences in Dachau, are now displayed in museums worldwide, including in Munich. His porcelain artistry was used on the chinaware at the White House, under the Johnson administration."
As an after thought, Ullman said, "Mr. Bloch is one of the most amazing success stories I have ever personally known."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.