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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
supposed to know about what happened in the camps. My mother-- like
so many others-- believed it was a peaceful place. Just to separate
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
"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, Bchen?"
is work, meine
grumbled, his eyes unblinking, now attracted to the plate Lieselotte
was carrying. "What is that?"
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
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.
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
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.
responded with equal enthusiasm. But I, I,
could only mumble it, feeling dizzy as I repeated the grotesque
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
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
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
"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."
marks were perfect," flaunted my sister, as if making a point to
ignore her brother. "I had the highest sehr
in my grade."
"You're in the Gymnasium
"I'm a year younger than all of them, too,"
agreed my sister. "I'm turning thirteen in... fourteen days.
Don't you remember, Vater?"
was a beat, the clinking of silverware stopping. Margaret looked
down, her face falling. Johann licked his lips. "How could I
frowned. "Will you be home?" She sounded different. Flatter,
almost, like something within her had died. Just
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.
sighed. But she kept her head down, nodding smally to herself.
you going to eat, Oskar?"
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
my nerves, sure as the devil, like they always were around my father.
was I so afraid of him?
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
"Wilhelm always feeds this one," my mother
laughed, rubbing my back. I tried not to flinch.
need to depend on others for the supervision of our children,"
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
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
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.
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
"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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
I didn't like that, but I didn't say anything. "And open your
I did as told, smiling when something was placed in
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
read underneath in big, block-like white letters.
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
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
Johann chuckled. "You like it that much?"
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?"
took a deep breath, my foot tapping rapidly against the door. It
wasn't right. "I'm going to go to bed now."
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.