When Adolf Hitler went to Rome on a state visit in 1938, trip organizers realized at the last minute that their German translation of text explaining historic sites was lacking. They turned to a young scholar, Herbert Bloch, who was working on a government excavation project. Dr. Bloch stayed up two nights rewriting it, even though, as a Jew by birth, he was an unlikely candidate for helping out the dictator who had caused him to flee his native Germany and seek refuge in Italy, his colleagues said.
It was a quandary, he would later tell fellow scholars: `` `Shall I refuse to do this and poke Hitler in the eye or shall I do it and help the people who have helped me?' And he preferred to help the people who had helped him," said Christopher Jones, a former student, now a professor of classics and history at Harvard.
Hitler enjoyed the exhibit -- and the explanatory text -- so much, he came back for a second, unscheduled visit. Dr. Bloch went on to become a leading authority on ancient and medieval architecture, teaching at Harvard for four decades.
Dr. Bloch died from cancer Sept. 6 at the Chilton House in Cambridge. He was 95.
Less than a year after helping the Italians with that translation, he was forced to flee Italy, as he had Germany, when anti-Semitism mounted. His brother Egon, who had remained in Germany, later died in Auschwitz.
When he arrived in America in 1939, Dr. Bloch already had an impressive academic background. He had studied ancient history, classical philology, and archeology at the University of Berlin from 1930 to 1933. He earned his doctoral degree in Roman history from the University of Rome two years later.
He was fluent in Greek, Latin, Italian, and of course his native German. So he was a valued member of the group of researchers excavating Ostia -- a seaport thought to have been founded by the fourth king of Rome -- as part of Benito Mussolini's interest in reviving the Roman empire.
Dr. Bloch stepped up his research of Roman historiography and archeology as a professor at Harvard, where he quickly rose in the ranks. He became a full professor in 1953, and two decades later, held the Pope Professorship of the Latin Language and Literature. All the while, he was busy studying brick-stamps, the markings that help historians and archeologists trace the origins of a structure's building blocks.
His work to uncover the history of Monte Cassino, a historic monastery on a 1,600-foot hill overlooking Cassino in central Italy, filled three volumes, ``Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages," which was published in 1986. He toured out-of-the-way places all over Italy researching and taking photographs for the books.
``It's a staggering work," said Jan Ziolkowski , chair of the Classics Department at Harvard. The books were massive, he said. ``I'm talking about not just a regular book size -- pages that are almost the size of the old Life magazines."
While studying Monte Cassino, Dr. Bloch came across a puzzling series of documents, and after a bit of detective work was able to prove that the abbey's librarian had forged ancient documents to exaggerate the historical significance of the abbey. Dr. Bloch ascertained that some of the facts described in the documents were wrong. He documented his findings in ``The Atina Dossier of Peter the Deacon of Monte Cassino," published in 1998 -- when he was well into his 80s.
``He was able to put two and two together where other people may have missed it," said his daughter Mary Alice, of Bedford.
He used his extensive knowledge of the classics in his family life as well. On a trip to the White Mountains, he was hiking with his twin daughters, who were 8 or 9 at the time, when they all got lost.
``He sat us down, and we spent the whole night on a thin fallen log, him between us," said Mary Alice . ``He told us the whole story of the Odyssey beginning to end."
``He could be enthusiastic about any number of subjects and really talk for hours," said his daughter Anne , of Arlington.
His wife, Clarissa (Holland), died in 1958. His second wife, Ellen (Cohen), died in May 1987.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 21 in The First Church in Belmont.
... sent in by J O'M (thanks!)