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Covers for the first and final issues of “Het Onderwater Cabaret”. The art and poetry magazine was created by Curt Bloch, who was living in an attic in Enschede, the Netherlands. All 95 issues will be exhibited at Berlin’s Jewish Museum starting next month.
Photo credit: Jewish Museum Berlin, Curt Bloch collection, loaned by the Charities Aid Foundation America

All 95 collage covers of Het Onderwater Cabaret, a pocket-sized satirical poetry magazine dating from 1943 to 1945, will be on view for the first time at Berlin’s Jewish Museum in the exhibit “Curt Bloch: My Verses Are Like Dynamite,” from February through May.

The history of the modern collage, a French word meaning “glued or put together,” begins in early 20th century Paris, when Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso together and separately extended the reach of Cubism, the art form they had invented. By design or by accident, the two-dimensional elements they selected and mounted, either on paper or cardboard, ranged from newspaper fragments and photos to trompe l’oeil patterned wallpaper and cloth. With its process at the forefront of artmaking, collage offered a new perspective on the world.

As the Dada and Surrealist Movements took hold in the cities of Weimar-era Germany after World War I, masters including Max Ernst, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters made collages that prophetically exposed and condemned the stupidity, cruelty and violence of reactionary politicians and military leaders. Magazine ads, illustrations from anthropology texts, propaganda materials and erotic photos are weaponized; components of funny and terrifying portraits of war mongers, chauvinists and enemies of freedom and civil liberty, revealed as deformed freaks of nature. Censored and imprisoned, artists became casualties in the Nazi war against avant-garde visual and performing arts. This was embodied not only by these still-shocking works, but by the experimental plays and jazzy music of Bertolt Brecht, Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, along with groundbreaking movies made by Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst.

Cover from a 1944 issue of “Het Onderwater Cabaret,” that mocks Hitler.
Photo credit: Jewish Museum Berlin, Curt Bloch collection, loaned by the Charities Aid Foundation America

The world of the cabaret and the collage had long disappeared when Curt Bloch, a German law clerk in hiding in the small Dutch town of Enschede, created a journal which singlehandedly revived Weimar culture. From his attic confines, Bloch, who had no access to conventional art supplies, relied on glue, newspapers and old magazines to assemble collage elements for Het Onderwater Cabaret (in English: The Underwater Cabaret; underwater, referring to those living in secret), which were clandestinely circulated to other Jews being hidden by a network of Enschede families.

For many readers, the word “cabaret” must have triggered nostalgic memories of a different time, when they would have considered their present “underwater” situation unimaginable.

Like Bloch, the magazines survived the war, and were stored in his American home. They were discovered by his granddaughter, who sponsored a publication tracing their history and the sources for his writing and art.

Although they will all be digitized, what is currently available online reveals Bloch’s final magazine cover, showing the deep-sea divers emerging from the hatch of the claustrophobic submarine to freedom. Others star Hitler, whose caricature including a cane with sharpened tip is conflated with Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character or whose clown act angers a theater audience in a burlesque house. Another features a full-frontal portrait of a rampaging King Kong, sporting a Nazi soldier’s cap and armband.

Jewish Museum Curator Aubrey Pomerance translates one of Bloch’s poems:

Perhaps at some point in the future,
the poems in your tongue I composed,
will be brought to your notice,
and if so, to delight will I then be disposed.

In another, Bloch writes:

Hyenas and jackals
Look on with jealousy
For they now seem as choirboys
Compared with humanity.

Cheryl Kempler headshotCheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.