by Tammye Huf
A spider crawled up my sleeve, but I didn’t move. Instead, I stood to attention as the officer fixed the pin to my jacket. Pride bubbled up in my chest and threatened to leak out of my face, but I’d learned self-discipline, so I pushed my smile down into my chest, where it glowed red. My mother and sister watched from below the platform in the second row after the party leaders, and I imagined their pleased faces and straight backs. My father over in Poland and my uncle in France would find out soon, when the letters reached them, and they would boast about me. Me. I could feel the corners of my mouth threatening to pull up. I breathed out slowly and smoothed my face, conquering my emotions.
As the pin sat gleaming on my chest, the officer talked about how important the Hitler Youth were, and what an excellent role model I would be for everyone in the program, and how impressive it was that I’d been made area leader at seventeen. I stood ramrod still for the whole thing, my eyes never leaving the flag. Then we raised our right arms and lifted our voices for Fatherland and Führer.
My first big task was to reappropriate the Jewish properties. The Liebermans and the Rosens had moved out at the beginning of the year, in the middle of the night, like thieves. Everyone was glad they’d gone, except Old Man Dickopf. He wouldn’t shut up about how Lieberman’s father saved his life in the Great War, and how they were as German as anybody else. I told him that Dieter Großlöch’s dog saved his life, but it’s still just a dog. I told him what our teacher said about them not being the same as us, and how the teacher had called Josef Rosen up to the front of the class to show us all the differences. You couldn’t tell unless you really looked, but when he showed us like that, it was obvious. Old Man Dickopf said I was as blind as “that Hitler” that I worship. He actually said, “that Hitler.” After that I decided he didn’t need me to help him understand, he needed someone to teach him some respect.
We decided to turn one house into our Hitler Youth headquarters. The village hall had been good enough before, but as the war got bigger and bigger, and the officers counted on us more, we needed a place of our own where we didn’t have to clear out for the next group coming in.
The other house we dedicated to the war effort. We would use it to store donated supplies and to house soldiers passing through. I put the League of German Girls in charge of keeping it up to scruff.
The last property to deal with was the Jewish cemetery on the hill. A few of the boys thought we could just build a house on top of it, but who would want to live on top of dead Jews? In the end we decided to pen it off and let Jürgen Schneider use it for his sheep. Some people thought that was wrong, but most agreed that the Schneiders deserved a break. Their son, Andreas, had been in our year, he’d even been our friend, but then he got kicked in the head by a horse. At first they thought he wasn’t going to live, but he did. Except he wasn’t normal after that. He talked gibberish most of the time now and acted strangely, but at least he could walk and talk. He couldn’t join the Hitler Youth, of course, and with his mother gone, his father couldn’t join the army, so nobody in that family could contribute to the Reich. That’s why people thought they shouldn’t get the land, except it’s different with Andreas. Before it all happened, he was one of us.
* * *
In the fall after I became the area Hitler Youth leader, my sister Klara started a new school in Boppart. She rented a room with a local family, and I barely saw her anymore. Whenever I could get away, I rode up to see her on my moped.
On my fourth visit I met her friend Ursula. She was beautiful and full of life, and I left three hours later than I had meant to on that first day. Then I started visiting my sister more frequently. Then I started visiting Ursula.
I thought about her at school, at home, at the Hitler Youth headquarters, everywhere. I’d be writing my report and stop halfway through, wondering what she was doing, what she was wearing. My mother laughed at me. She said I was acting like a schoolgirl. Maybe I was.
When Jürgen Schneider came to see me, I’d just had a letter from her, which is why I wasn’t really listening when he said it the first time.
“A search party,” he repeated. “To find my son.”
“You know he likes to wander off,” I said. “He’ll probably be back in a few hours.”
Herr Schneider shook his head. “He stayed out all night. Andreas would never do that. Something’s happened.”
I folded up the letter. Andreas panicked in the night if he wasn’t at home by dark, which meant he was lost or trapped or hurt, and definitely frightened.
“Yes,” I said. “A search party. I’ll get everyone together.”
We spent the afternoon combing our village, the next village over, and the land between. We found nothing and had to call it off once the sun set. Old Man Dickopf turned up and made everything worse, telling people Andreas had been turned in and taken away. Herr Schneider shouted at him to shut up. I’d never seen him so furious.
I sidled up to Herr Schneider and spoke softly, like I was taming a horse. “Don’t listen to him. He’s always stirring up trouble.”
“Why wouldn’t they take him?” Old Man Dickopf spat. “Is he a credit to his race? Will he help usher in the glorious new Reich? He was an undesirable and now he’s gone.”
Herr Schneider hit Old Man Dickopf in the mouth, which knocked him clean over.
“Don’t listen,” I said. “They would have brought him back. Or told you if they’d taken him to a hospital.”
“You’ve heard the rumours,” the man said from the ground. “Do you believe them now?”
“You mean the enemy propaganda?” I spat. “The lies they feed us so that we’ll be at each other’s throats, just like this? No. I don’t believe them. I never will. Heil Hitler, and long live the Party.”
I turned him in that night. When they took him I stood right in front where he could see me, so he would know.
* * *
In the spring Ursula told me her mother wanted to meet me. They lived in Hadamar in a large old four-story on a tree-lined road. I left early, leaving extra time for anything that could go wrong, but I got there over an hour too soon. I walked around her neighbourhood, taking off my jacket and feeling the heat of the sun massage my back. She had said there was a nice walk we could take, which was probably the path I found running along the canal. The cool sound of running water rose up to meet the eager heat of the sun with me in between, not knowing which I liked better at that moment.
Eventually I circled back. When I turned onto her street, the air grew heavy. It tasted spoiled. Through the canopy of leaves, a few pale flakes dropped to the street, and as I drew closer to her house, the flakes fell like snow flurries, but without a winter crispness in the air, and the flakes not quite white. I thought they might be coming from the trees, but the street was lined with ordinary oaks.
Ursula opened the door as soon as I walked onto her first step. A smile split her face, and she was just beaming at me, looking like an angel. I wanted to kiss her so badly at that moment, I didn’t dare move.
“You look beautiful,” I said.
She blushed and skipped down to me at the bottom step to take my hand. That’s when she saw the flakes and gasped.
“Oh, no. I didn’t know they were doing it today. I’m so sorry. We never know when it will happen.” She tugged me hurriedly toward the door.
“Doing what? What is all this?”
I looked at her, expecting her to explain, but she hustled me inside and closed the door.
“Mother made cheesecake,” she said. “We can eat before we take our walk. It should be over in an hour or so.”
Her mother appeared at the door, shorter than Ursula but much more imposing. “It’s very nice to meet you, Franz, but I just need Ursula for a minute. We have to take the wash in quickly before everything is ruined by the ashes.”
“But where do they come from?”
Her mother glanced at Ursula and then back at me. “The psychiatric hospital is just up the road. Come, Ursula.”
They hurried out back with me standing there wondering what that had to do with anything. Then a wave of understanding crashed over me. The nausea was instant, and I flung myself into their bathroom and over their toilet. I heaved out my breakfast and my lunch, and then I retched out the nothing that was left in me. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and pulled myself up. I looked in the mirror and saw that I had gray streaks across my mouth. I heaved a big empty nothing into the sink.
Frantically I scrubbed at the ashes on my face and hands. They were gone with only a little water, but I scoured with soap, washing three times, splashing water on the walls and floor. I rinsed my mouth out, trying to clear it of the rancid taste of sick. When I stepped back into the hall, I was trembling, deep in my core, off kilter, like the feeling I used to get from caffeine before I got used to it. To my right I could hear Ursula and her mother in the kitchen, and straight ahead was the front door, and behind the door, the ashes. I took a step toward the door.
“Franz?” Ursula called from the kitchen.
The shaking was bad, so I put my hands in my pockets and sucked in deep breaths.
She came into the hall and took my arm. “Are you ready for a coffee? You’ll love my mother’s cake. It was my grandmother’s recipe.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that I couldn’t stay, but a noose tightened around my throat, and I stood gaping at her, bug-eyed and fish-mouthed. She led me to the dining room, where her mother served cake and poured coffee. My mouth still tasted of vomit, and when the cake touched my tongue I almost gagged, but I had learned self-discipline, so I pushed it down and chewed and swallowed.