Since my childhood, Mama has emphasized the wonder of our roots. Germany has a rich history of culture, steeped in literature, philosophy, and classical music. Our words forged the honor of the first Bildungsroman, and our philosophy insisted that one must have chaos within to birth a dancing star. Our music was created by the genius compositions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Wagner’s soaring operas. In all its grandeur, my mother says, our culture has influenced the entire world.
Papa’s perspective isn’t quite so romantic. For him, our people’s unity and the pride defined by our supremacy as a whole is the driving force behind every salute. While Mama’s love for the fatherland is intimate, nurtured by her personal values and passion for humanity in general, my father champions our nation and condones the destruction of others. With strength as unwavering as steel, he stresses, we must bear undying devotion to the flag.
I’ve been torn between my parents’ distinct attitudes since I was exposed to them. Mama’s entered my life when I first became aware of my surroundings, when language was just budding in my two-year-old mind. Back then, she prioritized an involvement in my intellectual development – reciting verses from her favorite literature anthologies was common before bedtime. Her fascination with fictional tales and the patterns in which they were told determined my own progression into the depths of other realities. Soon enough, I too was waking up with a book still in my hands.
On my tenth birthday, Papa’s mindset broke into my fortressed compound. If Mama’s eased into it, my father’s tore it apart. He spoke to me in stringent platitudes – work to push the nation forward, march alongside your comrades but always strive to exceed their level, and most importantly, bear unapologetic loyalty to the Fuehrer. Upon joining the Jungvolk, I already knew my place in the world and had my life figured out. Or at least, I thought I did. Seven years later, on a Sunday evening oh-so-close to summer, I realize I’m just beginning to peel away the layers of who I am.
I’m in the forest near the National Political Education Academy I attend in Berlin, my hands wrapped around a Sauer pistol, vibrating with the urge to shoot. Behind me is my friend, Mathias Koenig, an eighteen-year-old with hair so black, it appears blue in the glare of sunlight. “Just like a wolf, Heinrich,” he whispers.
This is a line he commonly uses when working one-on-one with me. As a true soldier of the Reich, he advocates for a sense of confidence in each member of our class and guides us toward growing into our potential and reaching the standard set by our superiors. He told me once that the Fuehrer’s given name means ‘noble wolf’ in Latin, which he feels is fitting and what we as boys must model after.
My breath hitches as his words send a shiver across my skin. I inhale deeply, keeping my gaze steady on the target. In a way, I feel that arranging the grains of sand on a shore would be easier than describing moments like this. An allusion to something physical might do. But then it’d be tangible; this abstract sensation would be prone to corruption.
A shaky breath escapes my mouth as I shift my feet on the moss-covered ground. I imagine I must look striking – two eyes of blue flashing in the shadows, muscles twitching with anticipation; with such small movements, I blend into the leaves, synchronized with the forest. Like a wolf observing his prey from behind the brush in a wilderness, I keep myself in perfect composure despite the excitement welling up in my chest. I practice pulling the trigger in my head seconds before my friend signals for me to fire.
I don’t hesitate. My finger activates the pistol as soon as Mathias’ words are processed through my mind. When the cracking sound is but an echo, I focus my eyes on the target ahead. I notice it now bears a bullet hole near the center. Mathias squints to catch a glimpse of the mark, his mouth curling into a toothy grin. “Bullseye,” he says with amusement in his voice. “You have quite an aim, Heinrich.”
Shrugging, I tell him, “I’ve had practice.”
“Luckily. It’d be a little frightening if your skills were entirely innate.” He inserts the pistol into his holster and rummages through his book bag. “I thought this might be a good time to show you something.”
Pulling out a wooden box, he smiles devilishly and rattles it as if to suggest what’s inside. With a few swift motions, he has another firearm in his hands, one I examine momentarily before recognizing what it is. “You’re not joking, are you?” I croak, gulping back the urge to squeal with delight.
“Does it look like I am?” he says through a chuckle. As he strokes the pistol, a glint of triumph illuminates his eyes, which suddenly look a lighter shade of brown. “My uncle sent it to me yesterday. It’s the Pistole 08 he used during the Great War.”
Utterly speechless, I press a hand to my temple as I try to regain my balance. A sense of shock hinders my mind and numbs my ability to form a coherent sentence. I strain for a response that will do my reaction justice, but everything I think to say feels flimsy, even after rolling the words on my tongue to ensure they’re enough. At last, I release a long noisy breath and whisper, “An authentic Lueger pistol…”
I’ve been dedicated to getting a first-hand glimpse of this weapon since I joined the Hitler Youth. Back then, it was the most talked-about in my troop. Nobody was experienced in handling the prized gem, which made it all the more coveted. I gushed about my desire to Mathias, who claimed to have fired one before. While I didn’t doubt him, I never imagined he’d have one at his disposal.
“That’s right,” Mathias purrs, turning the firearm over in his hand. “It has a 100-millimeter barrel and it’s chambered in 9 by 9-millimeter Parabellum. It was one of the first semi-automatic pistols. Neat, right?”
“Is it ever,” I say under my breath.
He cranes his neck in the direction of the clearing, where the other boys in our troop are participating in their assigned speed exercises. “Would you like to fire it?” he asks. Realizing the gravity of his offer, I feel a rush of adrenaline piercing through my body like an arrow. I’ve operated a number of different models since becoming proficient in sharpshooting, and naturally, I’m familiar with the mechanics of those I’ve yet to handle. Still, I can’t quite shake the fear that I might damage this treasure; the mere thought causes a stream of nausea to crawl up my throat. Mathias seems to notice my uneasy expression before I can hide it and adds, “It’s a joy to shoot.”
Without waiting for a response, Mathias motions for me to follow him down a narrow trail. “Are you sure?” I ask. “I heard it can malfunction.”
“That’s only if cartridges are loaded to a lower pressure than needed,” he explains. “But don’t worry. I’ll guide you.”
As we reach a small glade, he positions himself behind me and points at a tree about thirty meters away. “That will be your target.” Handing me the pistol, he reaches into his shirt pocket and retrieves several bullets. “Alright, press the button on the side to eject the magazine.”
By now, he’s so close that his breaths warm my neck every time he speaks. A surge of tingles disperses through me, a sensation so spontaneous and out of place that my cheeks flush crimson. I fleetingly wonder if my leader has caught on to anything unusual, but that’s all I puzzle over - no way can I suspect anything more. “Now insert the ammo one at a time until the magazine is full,” he instructs.
His words make me flinch as I snap out of my thoughts. With trembling hands, I do as I’m told, my movements quite choppy and awkward. Once he ensures I’ve done a thorough job, he asks me to re-insert the magazine and adds, “Disengage the safety bolt by pushing the lever at top rear and pull back the slide on top of the barrel to load the cartridge into the firing chamber.” Hesitating, I oblige. “There you go.”
Out of nowhere, Mathias places his arms around me and helps me achieve a firm grip on the handgun. All the while, I feel my entire body turn rigid, my breath lodging in my throat as his muscular torso presses against me. “Aim at the tree and shoot when you’re ready.”
I wet my lips repeatedly and squeeze my eyebrows together as I rehearse the action in my head. Uncertain why I feel so on-edge, I lock my gaze on the tree and try to focus. Finally, without thinking, I pull the trigger. The gunshot reverberates in my head, an explosive sound I struggle to overcome. Mathias peers at the tree, blinking as if to confirm what he sees is true. “That’s impressive,” he says, roughly patting my shoulder. “How often do you practice, anyway?”
“Every day,” I reply. “I go shooting before class each morning.”
“Well, it sure is paying off. You seem to be improving quite consistently.” He gingerly places the pistol in the wooden box and suggests we make our way back to the dormitories.
This is my final day of sixth form, and as we fall into step out of the woods, the moment feels surreal, like I dissolved at the beginning of my first term and was somehow transported into this one. Yet as my mind ticks back to specific moments that spanned my stay at the prestigious political academy, it isn’t obscured by the haze of time. These instances jut out with clarity and serve as my testimony to the one place that molded me.
I’m shaken out of my thoughts when my other friend, Daniel, races up behind us. “Heil Hitler!” he calls out. After Mathias and I return the salute, he says, “I should’ve known you’d be out here, giving the forest a hard time.”
“What else is new?” I say, sneaking Mathias a knowing glance.
“Oh, right,” Daniel drawls, pretending to slap his forehead. “Even on the last day, you’re hard at work. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, but still…”
“And you? How’s your last day been?”
“Far from exciting,” he says with a scoff. “I’m hoping for an unexpected turn of events.”
“Not looking forward to going home or what?” I ask him as we reach the main building.
“It’s not looking so appealing, to be honest. You know how much my father objected to my enrollment. Old man wanted me in the factory.”
I wonder about this for a moment. Daniel and I have been friends since Gymnasium. At a time when we were thrust into a setting so daunting and unfamiliar, we banded together as outcasts. He was a kid with a humble upbringing, attending the reputable school on scholarship. I was raised in a vieux riche household, which distinguished me from my peers, who were largely from well-to-do families but not quite upper class.
When we were seduced by the outpouring of NPEA propaganda that promised us a stable future, Daniel and I decided to apply for a position. We tested at Berlin-Spandau, where I was recruited for sharpshooting and my friend for his speed. My father, who was a follower of the Party since the 20’s, readily approved of my attendance, but Daniel’s wasn’t quite as lenient. He valued a modest lifestyle and refused to conform to the blind idolization of the Fuehrer. In the end, Daniel forged his signature and abandoned working-class life as a kid with only meager jobs ahead of him. He spent the previous summers at my place, where he was welcomed by my father, but doesn’t know what to do now.
“You should consider going home,” Mathias cuts in, slinging his book bag over his shoulder. “I’m sure your father would like to see you, don’t you think?”
Shooting me a wry expression, Daniel says, “As if. And even if he did, it’d be to whoop my ass.”
“Well, it’s worth a shot. Besides, it’s been years – he probably doesn’t hold it against you anymore.”
“Clearly, you don’t know him. That bastard holds grudges like nobody’s business, let me tell you.”
“But aren’t you a little old for his punishment?” Mathias adds. “Someone of eighteen is usually beyond their parents’ control, right?”
“You obviously wouldn’t know,” Daniel grumbles.
His remark makes me cringe, and with one glance at Mathias, I notice he’s reacting similarly. As the moment stretches on, I wonder about the error of Daniel’s insensitive comment. Mathias tends to be quite aloof and timid, never one to recount details of his past - only divulges snippets intended to invoke casual conversation. From what I’ve gathered, he’s lived with extended family since early adolescence because of his parents’ deaths. Besides that, his personal background is hazy, and although his anecdotes always spark my curiosity, I try to respect his boundaries and refrain from prodding. As we enter the building, I don’t dare utter a word. The uneasiness of Mathias’ silence chokes back any potential response lodged in my throat.
On our way to the dormitory wing, we’re summoned by our class commander, Zugfuehrer Rosen. We bring ourselves to attention and salute him. “I’ve been looking for you three,” he mentions. “The director would like to have a word before you leave. Any preference on time?”
My friends and I pass each other perplexed glances while our commander’s eyes dart from me to Daniel and then to Mathias. “Now would be good,” I answer, even though I’m unaware of my friends’ schedules.
“Excellent,” Zugfuehrer Rosen says. “Follow me, please.”
Leading us down the main corridor, he pauses before the director’s office and ushers us inside. Daniel nudges me with his elbow and flashes me a mischievous grin. Meanwhile, Zugfuehrer Rosen exchanges a few inaudible words with the director, who examines us sternly and says, “Have a seat. We have much to get through today.”
A feeling of anticipation surges through me, crawling over my skin and lighting every last nerve on fire. After the three of us settle in, the director shuffles a heap of paperwork and sets it aside saying, “I certainly hope you’ve had a productive term. Your commander has reported good things about all three of you.” He places his hands firmly on the desk and clears his throat before adding, “I’d like to hear from you now: what has been the most defining moment of your stay here at the NPEA?”
Daniel rises from his seat, lets out a long breath, and says, “Well, first I want to thank you for allowing us the opportunity to attend this elite institution, Herr Bergmann. If I had to choose from all the incredible moments here, I’d say the most important was deciding that I will attend Bad Toelz this fall.”
The director nods slowly, as if contemplating my friend’s response. He pushes his bifocals further up his nose and asks me, “Rosen tells me you, too, plan on attending the SS academy. What led you to decide on that, Mr. Hauser?”
I instinctively glance at Mathias, who diverts his gaze, and reply, “I’ve been interested in the SS since I joined the Hitler Youth, sir. With the training I received here, I feel prepared to take the next step, and Bad Toelz is the ideal place to do so.”
“Stellar,” the director says. Turning to Mathias, he cracks a triumphant grin and tells him, “What about you, Mr. Koenig? You’ve been my top academic pupil since you first enrolled. What are your plans for the future?”
Mathias studies a portrait of the Fuehrer above the director’s head, his eyes cold and glassy. “I plan to attend university and become a physician.”
For a second, I expect him to elaborate. I almost sense an explanation on his tongue, something that’ll support the information he’s just revealed or describe the passion behind such a bold ambition. Being such a refined cadet, he wields the capacity to establish himself in the presence of such a noted official. As I watch his fingers interlock repeatedly on his lap, I get the impression he’s stifling an addition to his statement. With one look at the director’s lowered brow, I realize he’s waiting for Mathias to further his response, as well. But in the end, he remains silent.
“That’s quite an aspiration. I’m certain you’ll achieve whatever you set your mind to, Mr. Koenig.” He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and blows his nose before saying, “You may be wondering what the purpose of this meeting is. As such, I will give you a chance to guess. Do any of you have an idea what your commander brought you here for?”
I share a puzzled look with my friends but realize the director likely has good news for us. Daniel flashes his signature toothy grin and says, “I assume you’d like to congratulate us on our graduation. If that’s the case, I thank you for your gesture. I’m sure Heinrich and Mathias feel the same.”
Arching an eyebrow, the director stares at him for an intense moment. “As a matter of fact, I would like to take a moment to appreciate your hard work. But I’m not the only one who believes your performance here merits more recognition.” Pulling out an envelope from a drawer, he proceeds in tapping it against the desk and asking me, “Your father was recently promoted to the rank of Sturmbannfuehrer, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I respond, my eyes shifting from Mathias back to the director.
“That is indeed a great feat. Upon discussing his work in Poland, he and I both agreed that you deserve an opportunity to enhance your skills and work for the Reich at the same time. How do you feel about that?”
My heart pirouettes against my ribcage as I process the director’s words. “What kind of work would I be involved in?” I ask. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
“Not at all. You see, your father believes your skillset, especially in sharpshooting, would benefit the Reich on a level that we, at the NPEA, cannot supply. Which is why he’d like for you to join him in Poland, where additional training will take place before your departure to Bad Toelz. Does that sound like something you could handle?”
Instantly, I think back to my father’s job. Before the economic collapse of ‘29, he worked as an attorney for a prestigious firm. This profession was strenuous, with a rigorous pace and cases that forced my father to spend nights at the office. To lighten the mood, Papa regularly divulged details of his clients’ feuds. It was innocent fun, told with the sole intention of entertaining me, and the jokes never left our home.
But when the workload was no longer worth the measly salary, my father decided to move on to something different. Having been a member of the Party since its early years and bearing a history of combat in the Great War, he was readily accepted into the SS. The downside of his shift in career was the secrecy. No longer did he mention what his job entailed, and whenever I prodded him about it, he’d dismiss the topic saying such technicalities were not for a boy my age to be pondering.
So naturally, I’m suspicious of the sudden twist. Swallowing hard, I lock my eyes on the director and stammer, “Uh, of course. But why the interest in having someone so young tag along?”
This causes the director to break into laughter. “Mr. Hauser, you’re nearly a grown man,” he exclaims. “I expect you’ll do perfectly well in such a demanding situation. However, it’s solely up to you. The key to success and the will to pursue your goals lie in the palm of your hand.”
A giddy feeling of pride warms my insides. I realize he’s right – advancing my career is a choice I must make and cultivate within myself. This – my father’s offer to provide an advantage before I leave for Bad Toelz – will undoubtedly launch my chance at a successful future.
“You’re right, sir,” I ultimately say, straightening my back to show willingness. “Joining my father in Poland sounds like a good idea.”
Raising his chin in triumph, the director says, “You’ve made a fine choice, Mr. Hauser. I’m sure you’d be happy to hear that your friends will be joining you.”
He glances at Daniel and Mathias, whose reactions are utter opposites. While Daniel looks to be clearly brimming with ecstasy as he bites his lip and frantically taps his foot, the strain in Mathias’ neck shows he’s not quite as thrilled. I can tell the news are a surprise to them, as well.
“Sir, I don’t believe my service would better the SS,” Mathias blurts out. “If anything, it will only serve to impose.”
Holding his hand up, the director interrupts him saying, “No need to fret, Mr. Koenig. Your degree of intellect will be of great value to the organization.”
“But perhaps this arrangement is better suited for Heinrich and Daniel.”
“Nonsense. The SS was established to secure the welfare of our nation, which isn’t limited solely to militaristic matters. I’m beyond certain you will find success alongside your peers. Now, do I have everyone’s permission to sign the necessary paperwork?”
Swelling with excitement, Daniel rises once more and chirps, “You have my full consent, sir.”
Mathias lets his hands wilt in his lap. Defeated, he mumbles, “Same for me.”
Although he doesn’t meet my gaze, I can tell from his tightened jaw that he’s not as enthusiastic as he’d probably like to lead on. I wonder for a moment about his display of indifference and tell myself he’s simply flustered by the surprise. Yet as we’re dismissed from the director’s office, I can’t shake the nagging sense that this reaches beyond my comprehension.
“Can you believe it?” Daniel bleats as we trail toward the dormitories. “Here I was, hoping for a twist of fate, and what do you know? Man, this just blows my mind.”
“You’ll have to face your father at some point, you know,” I point out.
Turning to me with a smirk contorting his face, Daniel says, “Nothing you say will rain on my parade, Heinrich. Not today.”
“Let’s hope your excitement lasts another year. After that, you are cordially banned from my place.”
“Whatever you say,” he mutters, shrugging his shoulders. “Although I’m almost certain your father will challenge that. He enjoys my company a little too much.”
“Yeah, right. A year from now he won’t even want me around.”
He punches my arm and says, “Well, I’ll have my life figured out by then, anyway.”
“Of course,” I drawl. “Because just one year at Bad Toelz will bring you the stars and the moon, right?”
“Close enough. I mean, it’ll at least pave the way for a good salary.”
“And eliminate the chance of an encounter with your father?”
“Precisely,” he states. “Now if you’ll excuse me – I must pay a visit to the washroom.”
With that, Daniel rushes down the corridor and disappears into the gymnasium locker room. Meanwhile, Mathias and I continue toward the dormitories to pick up our suitcases. “You sure didn’t look happy to hear the director’s proposal,” I tell him, smiling to indicate I’m not being snarky.
“I wasn’t expecting it, is all,” Mathias replies with the same hollow tone he used earlier.
“But you do want to join me and Daniel, right?”
As we enter the room, I notice I forgot to pack my sports shoes. I dash toward their spot beside one of the beds, accidentally pushing them under the nearby armoire. “My place isn’t in the SS,” he says with a sigh. “I’m not fit for such a challenging job.”
“Come on, Mathias. You just graduated from a Napola. That’s enough preparation to work in the SS.”
Dropping to my knees, I reach under the armoire and retrieve my shoes. “You’re right, Heinrich. It is. But that’s not the path I want to take.”
“There are a lot of doctors in the SS, though,” I note as I hoist myself from the floor. “Maybe you can take on both careers.”
Hesitating for a second, he takes several steps toward me and smooths my ruffled hair. “You’re quite optimistic, Heinrich,” he coos. I draw back a little at his tender hand, a coiling sensation tightening my core.
I don’t miss the way his hand lingers in my hair, gingerly combing through it. My eyelids flutter at the softness of his touch, and I don’t dare speak, fearful that my voice will disturb the wonder of such an invigorating moment. Finally, he pulls away. We stand in place, my hands fidgeting for contact yet grasping at nothing instead. Mathias levels his eyes with mine, his gaze unyielding to the fire he’s just sparked in my bones. Right then, I feel as if he could be at the ends of the earth and I’d still be drawn toward him.
“You’re still going to join me and Daniel, right?” I croak.
“Let me guess,” he begins, grabbing his suitcase from the floor, “it wouldn’t be the same without me?”
Shaking my head, I say, “And, it’ll help your career.”
He lifts my chin with his finger and waits for me to meet his eyes before saying, “You’re quite adamant about me going with you, huh?”
“And with Daniel,” I quickly add, my cheeks flushing crimson.
“Right. And with Daniel.” Inhaling deeply, he turns and walks toward the doorway. “I guess I’ll see you in Poland, then.”
For a moment, I remain planted to the floor, his words resounding in my head long after he’s gone. I ponder them, wondering why I’m so eager for his company and if it somehow signifies a different longing altogether. But I don’t allow myself to wander into the depths of my mind.
Before long, Daniel’s whistling emanates from the corridor. “Someone’s outta here,” Daniel jokes as he watches Mathias leave. Running a hand through his mane of black locks, he adds, “Are you ready or what?”
With a few swift motions, I stuff the shoes into my suitcase and say, “I’m coming, good grief.”
“No need to rush now,” my friend chants, plopping down on the bed.
I look at him condescendingly and point at the rumpled sheets before bubbling, “Who’s a bad boy?”
Daniel shoots up and scratches the back of his neck in shame. “I’m a bad boy,” he murmurs, dipping his chin to his chest.
“Alright now, fix it,” I tell him, muffling a laugh.
“Would you tell that to a dog?”
“No,” I deadpan. “Good thing you’re not a dog, though.”
He pretends to growl at me, which sends us both into a laughing fit. Upon recovering, he smooths out the sheets and says, “Perhaps we should get going now.”
“I agree.” After grabbing our belongings, we close the door behind us and fall into step toward the main entrance. Just as we’re crossing the foyer, Zugfuehrer Rosen emerges from the commons and stops us.
“Hauser, Schmidt,” he calls out. Daniel and I stand at attention as he walks toward us. Looking at me, my leader adds, “I’d like a word with your father before you leave, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, sir.”
He leads me and Daniel out onto the front lawn, where Papa is chatting with my mother beside his vehicle. “Herr Sturmbannfuehrer. It’s good to see you.”
The two men shake hands. “Likewise,” my father replies. “How have you been?”
“In good condition,” Zugfuehrer Rosen says with a chuckle. Patting my shoulder, he adds, “Heinrich’s performance this term has been superb. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
“That’s always good to hear,” Papa says with his chin held high.
“And your youngest son? Thomas, is it? Will he be testing come autumn?”
My father blows out a loud breath. “We’re in the process of figuring it out. But I’ll be sure to let you know when we reach a decision.”
Zugfuehrer Rosen nods. “Excellent. Have a wonderful summer, Herr Sturmbannfuehrer. And Heinrich, I’ll be present when you’re promoted to your father’s rank.”
“Yes, definitely,” I respond with a beam as he pats my shoulder. “Thank you for having me.”
As we approach my mother, I notice her blue eyes look lighter from the proud gleam that illuminates them. She steps forward and pulls me into a tight embrace, filling my senses with the floral perfume she wears every day. When we separate, she asks through sniffles, “Were you well-fed? Did you have enough blankets at night? Did you make new friends this year?”
I let out an amused chuckle and reply, “Yes, Mama. To all your questions, the answer is yes.”
She places a hand to her chest and sighs in relief. Before I know it, she has me in her arms again, her heart hammering against mine and sobs rocking her plump frame. Papa pulls her back and says, “We should get going. Thomas must be waiting for us.”
As we’re making our way out of the academy property, the day has begun to wane. The sun is nestled behind the horizon, its glow crowning the mountaintops, and the only sound is that of crickets in the undergrowth. I take a peek back at the structure as we drive further away from it. With its tall framework and intricate carvings, it bears a sort of grandeur that rivals that of a mythical castle. Within these walls and through the corridors, I unearthed my role in the Reich. This is where I realized that my longing to unite with the greatest people on Earth is the driving force of my entire existence. This is where I discovered that sacrificing myself for the Fuehrer is not just a desire, but a calling. As we drive even further from the building, I lean my head against the seat and close my eyes. Nothing will prevent me from fulfilling my duty.