LIGHT IN THE SHADOWS -
David L. Bloch
While I was in China, I met a Chinese girl,
a beautiful girl who has given me much comfort.
She's like right out of the book,
a wife like you'd never believe.
David Bloch insisted on picking us up at the New York School for the Deaf at White Plains and driving us to his home in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York City. The floors on the lower part of the house were being refinished and we made our way through the hall and up the stairs to his studio and a small kitchen where his wife, Lilly, and a friendly English sheepdog welcomed us. Lilly, a delicate Chinese porcelain beauty, was ill but determined to make us feel at home.
Outwardly, David Bloch is completely different with a stocky body and a thick head of white hair on which he pushes his glasses while he talks. He radiates energy and enthusiasm; he can't stand to be quiet except when he is concentrating on his art. It is very hard to believe he is 77 years old. Inwardly, David and Lilly are very much the same.
Bloch is an artist working in many mediums. The two-room studio is crammed to the ceiling with pictures, sculptures, vases and books. Half the books are in German and half are in English and Chinese. There are two large drawing tables. Among the pictures on the wall are a fascinating scene of Coney Island into which is incorporated dozens of mini-scenes depicting action at this famous amusement park and the beginning of an even larger picture on the same scene. It takes fifteen minutes or more to find all the mini-tableaus. It will take another year to finish.
I was born in Floss, a small town in Bavaria, Germany, near Czechoslovakia. I lost my hearing when I was about a year old but I never knew exactly when or why because my mother died when I was only 40 days old and my father died a year later. But I was lucky because my grandmother took care of me. Really, my entire family was so good to me; I couldn't find one bad word to say about my family.
When I was five years old I went to a deaf school in Munich and stayed there for eight years. That was in 1915-1923. I learned how to speak, lipread, read and write. I was in school during the time of the First World War. I had to sleep at the school during the war; it was an awful time. We were always hungry. The school was more like a jail because we couldn't go out. You had to stay there all the time except on Sundays. That was the only day you could go out. Nonetheless, I learned how to do what was right instead of what was bad.
After the war ended, my teacher advised me to go to a town named Jena, which is near Thuringa in the northern part, well, really in the middle of Germany.
I went there for two years and learned so much and was able to gain a different perspective on life. I learned about history, geography, art, life--so many things. I had a wonderful teacher named Karl Brauckmann and as long as I live, I'll never forget him.
I stayed there two years. When I was 15 years old, I found out that I had to stop my studies and learn how to get work. I was an apprentice in a place that manufactured china ware. It lasted two years. They manufactured china for everyday use.
My uncle recommended that I should go to a trade school for ceramic industries in Selb, Bavaria. I went to that school for three years. It was a great school and I learned a lot. I learned how to draw and paint, how to recognize the light in the shadws in the drawings. All my life I'll never forget the good instruction I received there. I'm so grateful for what I learned at that school. I was there for three years then I found a job at a good factory in the town of Weiden. I worked as a designer.
I'd like to show you some of the work that I did as a student. When you first start out, you need to learn how to master the details. When you first learn how to draw, you must first learn how to see. The teacher would caution us not to draw just anything but to try to represent exactly what we were seeing. We started out learning how to draw letters. In school we had to learn calligraphy, how to draw the letters in the exact length and shape. Just like soldiers in the army must march according to the formation, the letters in the line have to be exactly spaced, too. We also had to learn different styles of lettering, such as Old English. But first we had to learn block printing. What I have here is Old English. We began our training with pencil and would have to draw the shape of what we were looking at. I have a picture to demonstrate this. (Pulls a drawing from a large portfolio.) The school required that we begin our training with pencil. They kept drilling that into our heads all the time. For three years, that's all we were ever told, that we had to start our training with pencil.
Yes, with the pencil you can see the light in the shadws, the curvature of the shapes. Here are some of the subjects that I drew. You may think it looks nice and simple, but it took me three years to do it. I had to do it in different stages. I would study the object and look at it in different angles, look at in the light and in the dark to get the full understanding.
I'd like to show you something that I designed when I worked as a porcelain decorator's apprentice. We were working with china and the teacher told us to design a tea pot. The instructor cautioned us not to imitate somebody else's work but to come up with our own design. The teacher said don't abstract. He said people may like one style at one time, but styles change. What's popular now may be old fashioned later on. I designed this demi cup (holding up a picture of an exquisitely proportioned and decorated cup). You see, the design's still good.
In time my drawing improved and I became more free with the styles. One of my art teachers asked me if I had this one printed. I said, "No. I did it by hand." He couldn't believe it. It was so professional, almost like printing. Anyway, I worked for awhile as a designer and I worked on a variety of styles. I worked there until Hitler came to power and then I lost my chance to work.
I was lucky enough to be accepted at another art school in Munich. I didn't learn too much about design at that school and I had problems with my eyes but, in another way, I was fortunate to learn things like composition, anatomy and more about calligraphy.
During that time, I had a lot of problems with money; I was always very poor. I had to eat at the soup house. I had no money to speak of for a long time but I still found a way to keep up with one of my pleasures, skiing. I would go to the mountains and ski all by myself. I was born a loner. This happened between 1933 and 1936.
In 1936 I started working again as a window decorator and, at the same time, I was also drawing advertisements for different stores. I did that for two years until Hitler forced all the Jews to close down their businesses. Nonetheless, I was still able to work under the table. I would still do art work for advertisers. I did that from 1936 to 1938 while I was continuing my studies at the academy in Munich.
But in 1938, everything started to go wrong. I have some art work from that time that I can show you. There were riots, looting, people being stoned. I had to stay hidden during that trouble. My landlady told me I should stay in the house because of all the trouble outside. That same night the police came to my house to pick me up and I was taken to the police station. They gathered up the Jews and we were taken to the police station. The sergeant at the station said he didn't know what we were doing there but they had been told to take us in. A little later, the SS Gestapos showed up but they weren't in uniform; they were in plain clothes.
We were loaded up into a vehicle and carried off to a place called the collection site, where they had gathered all the Jews. I could sense that something was very wrong. Then I heard a loud bang and I told myself, "Don't turn your head around, just stand still." We had to stand there hour after hour. Then we were loaded up again into another vehicle and I heard another loud bang but I didn't move an inch; I just kept looking straight ahead. As we were riding along, I could tell by the way we were going that we were headed toward a camp called Dachau. I didn't say a word because the soldiers were all around. We weren't allowed to speak, smile or anything. The situation was so tense. Finally, we arrived. Oh, I have something to show you (pulling out a large pen and ink drawing of the Dachau concentration camp, a forbidding group of block houses behind high barbed wire electric fences with spotlights and guards). This is a picture of the place we arrived at. It's called the "Tor" house. I don't know where they got the name. There was only one gate to the entire concentration camp. We were completely closed in and you couldn't escape because they had armed guards all the way around the camp plus barbed wire.
I couldn't believe how many people were there. It was about one o'clock in the morning; I wasn't sure of the exact time because it was too dark to see. I just kept my eyes straight ahead because if you turned around, you got knocked on the head by one of the guards. We were ordered to go into the barracks and go into the first floor. We were confined to one room. We had nothing to eat or drink and weren't allowed to talk; we had to just lie there on the floor. Then about five in the morning, they got us all up. All we had were the clothes we were wearing. Then we were lined up into formation and had to march on and on and on. We weren't allowed to rest. Regardless of the weather, we would be marching all day in the compound. It was terrible. The first night they fed us salt fish. Not a single prisoner touched that fish. After that, we got used to it. Every day we would be marching.
A month later we were asked a question, which was lucky for me. "Who has plans to go to America?" I raised my hand and said, "I do." I was lucky because those who had signed up to go to America would be freed.
One night while I was sleeping, I had this dream. Someone told me that I would be freed. The following morning I woke up as usual, got dressed and went out to line up in formation to get ready to march. Someone came up to me and said, "You there with the name Bloch, you are free." "Me?" I couldn't believe it! My dream came true. It took all day for them to set me free. They gave me some clothes and some money and I had to sign all those papers. Then I had to walk all the way to the train station. They didn't have a bus like they have here. It was very far but I finally made it to Munich then my first thought was to get a cup of coffee.
After I made it home, I still had a very difficult time. I wasn't allowed to work. I had to avoid the police. It so happened that I met a man who gave me a job painting rooms and I worked there three or four months. One morning, I noticed a man walking up and right away I suspected he was part of the Gestapo. He came up and asked for the man I worked for and told him to step outside. They left quickly. Right away his wife came down and asked, "Where is my husband?" I told her I just saw him leave with the police. She immediately started praying. Two months later he was dead. I went to the funeral to honor him but you couldn't see inside the coffin. His wife told me he had written a letter to someone about leaving Germany. I remember how his preacher had encouraged him to make plans to go to South America but he kept putting it off until he got caught and lost his life.
A couple of months later, while I was sleeping, there was a knock on my door. It was someone to tell me that I had a cablegram. It said your tickets have arrived and your plans are ready for Shanghai, China. What a relief! I went to the Jewish organization to get advice and help and I had to fill out all those forms and make arrangements for a passport.
After months of being in the concentration camp, then living in constant fear of being picked up again, all my plans fell into place: I wasn't hassled at all. Really, I think now that I was lucky to be deaf and dumb and poor. If [I] had been wealthy, I wouldn't have gotten out of there. But since I was a nobody, they wanted to get rid of me. All this time World War II was going on. I was lucky to get out when I did. Except for the time in Dachau, it wasn't too bad for me. I didn't get a prison number marked on my arm or anything.
I didn't go straight to America; I went to Shanghai, China, and lived there for nine years. I worked as a freelance artist.
While I was in China, I met a deaf Chinese girl, a beautiful girl who has given me much comfort. She's like right out of the book, a wife like you'd never believe.
We have similar backgrounds. When I was going through all my difficulties in Germany, she was going through the same thing in China. She had a rough time during World War II when the Japanese attacked China. She had problems with money and other things. The soldiers manhandled the girls; it was awful. She attended a Catholic school, a French mission for the deaf, but they didn't teach much at the school. It happens that I also attended a Catholic school but mine was better than hers.
We went together for five years until we finally found a room so we could get married. It was because of all the fighting that went on during the war. Finally, the war was over. (Lilly, Bloch's wife, walked into the studio. She had been fixing dinner. David pulled her to his side.) This is Lilly. We've been married now for 40 years. I'm so thankful for her. (To Lilly). Tell them how old you are. Oh, that's right (laughs), that's not important. But I'm 77 years old myself. Tell them what the school was like.
Lilly: The school was lousy.
David: When Lilly was young, she was so beautiful. She still is but now she has been ill and has lost weight. She came from a farm family. All they taught her was how to sew. The school took advantage of the students; all they did was sew. You see pictures of beautiful Chinese clothing. She used to sew things like that.
Lilly: All we did every day was just go to church and then we would eat and do the same things over and over again. We would sew clothes. That's all we would do all day.
David: She lost her hearing when she was five years old and after that her family just didn't care about her education. I felt so sorry for her, then I found I loved her. I'm so happy I was able to get her away from that kind of life.
Lilly: I thank you. (They touch heads.) I have to go back to the kitchen.
David: When the war was over, we got married. The consultate had to arrange for the passports so we could go to the United States. The consultate said there were no Chinese visas but that it wouldn't matter; she could come in October. So I came to America alone and it took me three months to find a good job. Lilly joined me three months later.
I worked at the same company, "Commercial Decals" in Mt. Vernon for 27 years. I worked with art lithography for ceramics and glasses, etc. I have many things that I would like to show you. Here is a plate I worked for the White House. I've done so much art over the years, but I'd like to show you a little bit of what I have done. My works have been on exhibit all over the place. (We spent half an hour looking at oil paintings, water colors, woodcuts and decorated porcelain china. The small woodcuts of Chinese scenes were remarkable: you could almost hear the shouting and babble in the street scenes.)
Now I will show you a set of woodcuts I made to show the Holocaust. This picture begins with World War II and you can follow what happened in the concentration camps by looking at the pictures from left to right. (The pictures were overpowering in their strong color and stark black and white depiction of concentration camp scenes: Thousands of prisoners lined up in rigid formation for body count; other thousands marching eight abreast in the snow; a skeletal figure playing the violin as corpses were pulled from the gas chambers while prisoners lined up to form a swastika; a hand, made up of thousands of small hands grasping for the light; four skeletons in prison garb under the words Nie Wieder, "Never Again." The pictures leave you feeling uneasy.)
As I told you, I'm 77 years old but, nonetheless, I'm still busy and have many interests. I like collecting antiques, I read, I enjoy going to the museums, I like to go places. I'm never bored in New York. I could spend all my time in New York and be happy.
Last year I was commissioned to do a large picture for a very new German trade school in Winnenden near Stuttgart. They liked my work and they wanted to do my biography. They wanted to know about deaf people, how to teach them and how to work with them. It's not so easy to be deaf but the situation now is much better than it was in my time. Many deaf people today have good jobs. There is a big difference between the past and today for the deaf. Along the road my schoolmates worked as shoemakers, carpenters, painting rooms, things like that; there weren't many choices for jobs. But nowadays the situation is wonderful. Deaf people can buy cars and houses. The deaf in Europe could never have bought a house. As for myself, I couldn't even afford a bicycle. I was so poor and always hungry. Now I am having a wonderful time and I thank God that I am here in U.S.A.
(Lilly came in again to drag us from the exhibit to an authentic Chinese dinner which she had worked all afternoon to prepare. It was delicious. Finally, David relaxed. Lilly ate tiny portions of the food while she talked of her childhood in China and her impressions of America and David added some experiences and asked questions about the book project. It was a Sunday afternoon to remember).
Department of Research and Teacher Education
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
52 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, NY 14623-5604
Dr. Susan Foster
Copyright 1999 Rochester Institute of Technology