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by grey n
Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Young Adult · #2154699
The opening of a novel detailing homosexuality in the Holocaust.

TWENTY-THREE. A weight owned by my father and left for me to carry, like a scar I could never look away from. The faceless, nameless people behind that quantity were something more than foreboding, like when my father next stared blankly at his beer and quietly said "another Jew," I should die.
Of course, I knew I was to be grateful. Twenty-three wasn't only a purge of the toxins in German society, twenty-three was what brought my father a paycheck. Twenty-three was my daily bread, the clothing that was becoming an increasingly rare commodity, a safe place to live.

I didn't believe in collateral beauty, unlike my family. My father and mother thought it was lovely, finding the good in even the worst evils. But to me, that collateral beauty, that twenty-three, was pure evil. They were wrong, believing in collateral beauty, very wrong. I didn't believe in the idea of good and evil together, because if something is designed to make someone sad, how can there also be anything happy? I preferred to look at the far more simplistic good and evil. It was cleaner that way. An action, a person, a thing, was either beautiful or horrendous. There wasn't any in-between. There couldn't be.
Take, for example, Hitler's creation of his own idealistic world through his systematic Final Solution. We were killing Jews, gypsies, homosexuals--anyone deemed less than worthy. Killing is something we were taught as children to never do, because it was a sin against the God we were also taught to believe in. Therefore, it was evil. But even though my father saw that point, he believed the propaganda that was plastered on every wall: the murders and massacres were like a hot bath after a long day. Death was removing any inferior blood from Germany. I think I was afraid of knowing if I agreed with my father or not, so I stuck with what I knew: killing was evil, no matter what. It was
cleaner that way.
But I couldn't say that, because I'd be killed. So instead, I had learned to keep my mouth shut. The killing epidemic holding my country was like an Armageddon;
look, and watch all you know and love burn. Some, like my father, opted to see the beauty in the fire, the tendrils of destruction targeting its victims, a triumphant red, white, and black symbolizing its attractive and engulfing superiority. Others, like me, saw not the symbol of power but rather the herald of death, the flames maiming and destroying instead of creating, paralyzing my body with fear.
Years and years of this had left it only natural to flinch when I saw my father's automobile chugging to a stop at our house. I didn't like our differences. It reminded me of why we were even in another war in the first place; Jews had made us lose the Great War, and apparently, Germany was evil for getting rid of the race because of that. I didn't think that was right, but my father did. I was afraid he'd kill me, though, if he learned that, and I kept my mouth shut. So I let the breath be knocked out of my body, replaced by a normal rush of anxiety, as the door opened, my signal to come down from my solitude and peace.
My father was not a large man--he was often referred to as a
Zwerg, a dwarf, due to his lack of muscle. Johann Be was short and slender, but where Johann Be failed as a brute, he compensated with personality. Johann was nothing short of an unforgettable man, and he made sure everyone knew it. His voice was booming, his looks angular and jarring. He possessed a presence which was notorious amongst those who knew him for triggering a feeling of nervousness and discomfort, even with his wife, to whom he had been devotedly married for thirty years and bore four children with. And that was with people he was friendly with--I shuddered at the thought of what happened at Flossenbg, the Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp, in which my father was employed.
I wasn't supposed to know about what happened in the camps. My mother-- like so many others-- believed it was a peaceful place. Just to separate
our society from theirs, nothing more. But I would see my father when he came home those twenty-three times, and he was a wreck. He'd be shaking and paranoid, but his eyes would be unfixed and vacant and dull, like he'd seen a ghost. So I knew. And what I knew terrified me.
"Vati!" Ingrid--age five, a third of me, she was my youngest sibling--squealed as my father stepped into the house for the first time in months, running up to hug his legs tightly, her eyes closed from a large, toothy smile. Johann's presence was becoming a rarer and rarer commodity; what was at first months and months of free time had become pared down to my father coming home only on the weeks of the Christian holidays and his birthday. I didn't like that he came at all, but everyone else did, so I had to learn to deal with it. Thankfully for me, though, whenever he was asked if he would spend more time at home, Johann would shake his head fiercely, claiming that work, not family, but work, was his passion.
Johann untied the knot on his ebony trench coat and hung it on the coat rack, the swastika facing the door.
Watch where ye step, it seemed to say. I shivered at the premonition. He scooped Ingrid up into his sinewy arms, a matching smile etching itself onto his face as I and my other siblings greeted him.
"Did you get the bad guys today?" Ingrid asked, giggling as Johann pinched her cheeks. "Did you save Germany?"
Johann laughed, sitting at the kitchen table, not waiting for us to follow suit. I wanted to slit my throat. "Not today."
I gagged as Ingrid and Johann continued to talk, their innocence sickening me. Johann understood nothing. His war was not to fight for Germany, but to fight for Hitler, and those were two very separate wars indeed. His war was the murders of twenty-three men, women, and children in a camp designed to kill people, not to fight the British and beat them in their own game. But, of course, why should he open his eyes to see as such? It was his
duty. My father was a coward and nothing short of one. I didn't how to feel about the concentration camps, but I knew what my father was doing was wrong. And to explain his duties to explain as such to Ingrid, a child, was cruelty, no matter how much the truth was diluted. Ingrid was still sheltered from what all of what my other siblings had come to learn- the world was a cruel, relentless place, and Ingrid deserved solace from such for as long as possible. She was only five years old, and she already knew far too much. She'd run around the house, making a gun out of her fingers, and pretend to be shooting down a British bomber. Her first complete phrase was "Heil Hitler." How my father had loved that day, his own birthday, and how he had asked her to say it again, and again, and again, all the while teaching her the proper salute.
"Did you kill anyone, Daddy?"
Johann's fist tightened around his flask. He always kept one by his side; he claimed it made him feel. I jumped. "Not this time, little one."
Ingrid looked almost disappointed. I wanted to throw up.
I knew, though, that my father was telling the truth when he said he hadn't killed anyone, whatever little comfort that brought. When he did, he came home with a distant, vacant stare in his eyes and a pale, drawn face. He'd have his hands balled into fists. I'd tell myself that that was him grappling with his conscience. It made me feel better.
I breathed a small sigh of relief as he took a drink. His eyes still had their sparkle, and were focused on Ingrid instead of the swastika at the door he'd stare at when he came home with blood on his hands. Twenty-four was still safe.
My mother emerged from the kitchen, perfectly on cue as the conversation came to a lull, a thin smile on her face and brightening her tired eyes. She was everything my father was not--honest, moral, hardworking. But I still couldn't respect her.
"Hello, Johann," she greeted. I noticed that her voice was flat, which was odd--it only got that way when she was upset. "How was work,
"Work is work, meine Maus," Johann grumbled, his eyes unblinking, now attracted to the plate Lieselotte was carrying. "What is that?"
"Schnitzel," my mother beamed, setting the food down in front of us and wiping her hands off on her apron. "Pork. I made your favorite, Johann. I'm sure work has been hard on you."
My father smiled back up at her, a tight-lipped smile that I was sure was a veneer of some evil wile--no Nazis had their sanity with them, not anymore. "It looks wonderful, Lieselotte," he responded, staring at the tray of food ravenously.
Johann reached forward, filling his plate, all the while yelling at my mother to go back into the kitchen for his stein of beer. She scurried into the kitchen, subservient as ever.

My mother was so different around my father. While he was away, she seemed happier and optimistic. She was strong enough to carry the burden of a family largely on her own, and she knew it. But as soon as my father returned, her eyes lost her shine, and her voice lost its melody. It was like something within her died when her husband was around.
He waited for her to return, stein in hand, before speaking again. "Heil Hitler," he smiled, snatching and lifting up the stein to the family as Lieselotte sat down.
My family responded with equal enthusiasm. But I,
I, could only mumble it, feeling dizzy as I repeated the grotesque greeting.
The greeting had become innate in German citizens; as Hitler began to have the tide of the war turned against him--it was the December of 1944, and what had become the Second World War was at its peak--he tightened his control on those living under his regime. Germany fell into peril, and the salute had become something done tens of times each day. At every meal, at every shop, at every gathering, Hitler's spirit was there. The salute was
patriotic now, and if you didn't salute, you were a communist. A threat to the country. Someone even worse than a Jew. But it had stopped feeling like an acknowledgement of power and morphed into feeling like a desperate alliance as Hitler's time in office--and Germany's time as a world power--began to feel numbered.
I was terrified. I was terrified of Germany losing, with England placing us under their control. But I was more afraid of Germany winning, I think. Hitler was a cruel man, always making us salute, making us hate other Germans because of their noses or their god or whatever. I hated what he had done to my father, done to my Jewish schoolteacher, done to my country.
That was my problem. I was always afraid. I wasn't saving a damsel in distress, or killing a hundred men. I was a boy, with no reason to be scared other than the fact that I just was, even when I didn't need to be. I'd focus on numbers instead to avoid my nervousness. Maths would never fail to break something down for me, get things down to their roots so I could deal with it. But for whatever reason, that made me a victim of Hitler's wrath--the emotions. Those I didn't understand, not near as well. I didn't understand the Reich I lived in, and no maths could solve that equation, even if I wanted them to.
"Margaret," my father said through bites of meat and drinks of beer, his eyes glinting, "your mother tells me you've made perfect marks this semester?"
"You should've been here to see," muttered Otto grouchily, giving his sister a look so sour it could spoil milk. "She didn't stop talking about it."

"My marks were perfect," flaunted my sister, as if making a point to ignore her brother. "I had the highest sehr gut in my grade."
"You're in the
Gymnasium now, yes?"
"I'm a year younger than all of them, too," agreed my sister. "I'm turning thirteen in... fourteen days. Don't you remember,

There was a beat, the clinking of silverware stopping. Margaret looked down, her face falling. Johann licked his lips. "How could I forget?"

Margaret frowned. "Will you be home?" She sounded different. Flatter, almost, like something within her had died. Just like Mother.
Johann sighed. "I'll have to see if another guard will cover my shift," he promised, though I knew it was empty. We all did. Johann wouldn't leave the concentration camp unless he felt it demanded--it had become his home in ways his family in Berlin could never.
Margaret sighed. But she kept her head down, nodding smally to herself.
"Are you going to eat, Oskar?"
Act normal. I looked down at my plate, the food contorting and stretching in front of my eyes. Even though everything on my plate was an even number--two pieces of meat four inches wide and six inches long, ten florets of broccoli, and four utensils--my stomach twisted, my heart pounded, I felt dizzy. There were my nerves, sure as the devil, like they always were around my father.
Why was I so afraid of him?
"No thank you," I mumbled in response, unwilling to meet my father's gaze. My eyes would be my betrayal; my mother always told me that my meltdowns gave me doe eyes, and those weren't my normal eyes. "I'm not hungry."
"Wilhelm always feeds this one," my mother laughed, rubbing my back. I tried not to flinch.
"We don't need to depend on others for the supervision of our children," Johann sighed.
My mother immediately sobered at the edge in Johann's voice, and the blood drained from her face. "We... we wouldn't ask him to,
mein Bchen. He loves to feed our children when I send them to the shop, especially because he doesn't have children of his own anymore. We're his family, mein Bchen, and you know how he is about that."
Johann took a long drink of his beer, staring at my mother with his beady eyes. It felt like bugs were crawling on my skin as he stared at my mother. I shuddered.
His gaze traveled from us to look at his next victim, the newspaper, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Johann cursed in German moments later, throwing it down in anger as soon as he read the headline. Beside me, my mother jumped. "Wrong," he muttered. "Wrong, wrong, wrong! All of it is
wrong. Germany will not lose the war. We cannot!"
I knew what that meant. "May I be excused?"
"Go quietly," my mother whispered as my father began to complain about the men behind the news articles, angry at their reviews of the war, his fist banging against the table.
I ran as fast as I could to my room, shutting the door silently behind me. My room was, like most of Germany, a grim grey, muted by drab browns. My walls were an aged, stained white. My carpet was the color of a roach's underbelly. My bedsheets were taupe; my desk, solid mahogany. There were ten old posters on my walls from sports teams and campaigns I liked, or whatever design made me smile when I saw it, but even those had faded to match the dismal room. But the posters were still a source of comfort to me. The picture of Uncle Sam was my favorite. I always smiled looking at him, the jubilant man with the bloody red cheeks.
I always hated it when my father was home. And when he was home, I was keenly aware of it. Even alone in my room, I was terrified that he'd unravel the secrets I was shrouded in. I wanted so badly to be isolated from him, to be normal like most other German families, with a happy mother and a father who wasn't a killer. Johann felt the need to spoil me before all the other children, which only made me more afraid. The only thought that'd run through my head when he was around was
what if I'm next? Each present he gave me only made me feel worse. My father completely resolved himself to materialism to win my favor. He had even told his boss to let me evade the Hitlerjugend. But that wasn't out of his love, that I was sure. Those mementos were peace offerings. But what about when I didn't want one? What about when he found my therapist? Would he kill me, too?
I was afraid of my father, and I hated him for that.
I looked around my room, my eyes landing on a copy of
Neuadel aus Blut und Boden, one of Hitler's many manifestoes. Over the years of his rule, the book had seemed to find its way into every table in a house, even the ones who didn't support the monarch. I thought it was because of fear. I sure was terrified, and I believed that, deep down, we were all afraid. Jews were afraid of being caught and killed, Nazis were afraid of being executed, and everyone else was afraid of suffering the fate of either of the other two groups of people. Hitler had made ourselves our own worst enemy. His rule, based on hate, bred hate within us, and it fractured a decaying society. Families split, friendships ended, trust broke. Everyone not a Nazi was a walking target, and every Nazi was an arrow. We had to make sure they didn't fire--and they needed to make sure they wouldn't shoot themselves in the foot. To pretend everything was normal we would whisper our love with fear on our faces, saying it so often it was as though we had to convince ourselves that that feeling really was there.
But with Hitler, there was no normal.
There was a knock on my door. I wiped my eyes--there were two tear tracks on my face, which was odd because I didn't remember crying--before opening the door.
It was Johann. I felt the normal jolt of fear, nerves flooding into my stomach as I opened the door eider, backing up to my bed. The flush was gone from his cheeks, and he had his left arm hidden behind his back. He smiled at me. "I got you something on my way back from work."
I paused, breathing through my nose. I took four breaths before I responded, smiling and sitting down on my bed, blocking my Uncle Sam poster. "Really? What?"
"Close your eyes." He pinched my cheek.
Only once. I didn't like that, but I didn't say anything. "And open your hands."
I did as told, smiling when something was placed in them.
I complied. It was a poster. Hitler's face was at the top, staring out away from the poster. Beneath him was a sea of red, blending in with the black outlines of soldiers and tanks. FOR GERMANY, it read underneath in big, block-like white letters.
I can't take this. Taking the poster was wrong, it was an uneven number, and it was something I didn't believe in, and it was from my father. All wrong. I smiled weakly. "Thank you."
Johann smiled, reaching out to ruffle my hair. That was two loving acts. A nice, round, even number. I felt myself breathing a little easier. "We stopped in Potsdam on the way back. And I saw that poster and thought it'd be perfect for you, Oskar. I know how you like the way it looks, having all of them up on your wall."
I stopped as a cold feeling formed inside. That was an eleventh poster. I needed another one. "Do you have another?"
Johann chuckled. "You like it that much?"
"Ja." I shrugged, feeling like I was watching from a birds-eye view. "Something like that," I added quietly. My eyes darted around the room to avoid his gaze and I felt them go wide, like the eyes my mother warned me against having.
"Well, I'll go out and get you another tomorrow. How does that sound?"
"Thank you,
Vater." I took a deep breath, my foot tapping rapidly against the door. It wasn't right. "I'm going to go to bed now."
Johann nodded, smiling as he stood up. "Good night, kid." He shut the door behind him, and I waved.
I threw the poster into the closet as soon as the door clicked closed.

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