This is part 3 in a short story series I’m doing for my Sophia’s War novel series. This one contains medium spoilers for books 1-6 🙂 Hope you enjoy!
April and May, 1933
She smelled like strawberries.
He couldn’t take a breath without breathing in the intoxicating scent of her. Katherina’s arms were around him, the two of them out of sight under the stairwell. He tore his lips away from hers. “I really have to go.”
But her fingers were running through his hair, her lips on his neck, on his jaw. She pulled him close, pressing her body to his, her back against the wall.
“He’s going to yell at me,” Adrian breathed between kisses.
Katherina nibbled at his lip. “Report him.”
“For interfering with your duty to the Fatherland. What we are doing here is of great importance.” She simpered. “I don’t know why you worry so much about your grandfather.”
It wasn’t Opa he was afraid of. It had been a long time since he’d looked at Opa with fear instead of resentment, anyway.
She kissed him, a deep, blood-pumping kiss. “You don’t answer to him anymore. You answer to no one but the Party.”
This was supposed to make him feel better; this was supposed to empower him. Pledging his allegiance to the Party meant Opa had little to no authority over him, especially when what Opa wanted conflicted with Adrian’s commitment to the Hitler Youth. Each day, Adrian found it easier to bypass the once unmistakable boundaries of his own conscience; it was the only way he could get through the meetings with the Hitler Youth without presenting a different opinion, even for argument’s sake. Spurning his own dissent during some of the Nazi discussions allowed him to continue enjoying the military exercises and games with his friends.
And then, there were his clandestine meetings with Luther. Remaining under Luther’s tutelage allowed him to keep learning something since he had stopped putting so much effort into his regular classes. His association with Luther had begun as an act of resisting Nazism—and their activities were becoming increasingly illegal—but somewhere along the way, the zeal for their purpose had begun to slip away from him. Adrian was learning it was possible to straddle the line, able to live in and proclaim fealty to both worlds.
And then there was Katherina. While the Hitler Youth strengthened his body, Luther sharpened his mind—and Katherina made toys of them both.
Her breath was hot in his ear. “There’s a janitor’s closet down the hall that no one ever uses. Come.”
He was late. Luther was going to reprimand him. It wasn’t until she began leading him down the hall that he halted. “Not now. I’m sorry, I don’t have time. Maybe tonight?”
“I told you, I’m leaving tonight. My parents are taking us to the country for the weekend. Heinrich, please. Before I leave?”
He frowned. “Find me as soon as you get back. But I can’t right now. I have to go.”
He could tell she was frustrated. He kissed her cheek. “Heil Hitler.”
“Heil Hitler,” she returned, dispirited as she released his hand.
He shielded his eyes from the sun, stepping out of the building. With an involuntary glance at the windows to the apartment he shared with Oma and Opa across the street, he started down the sidewalk.
Luther was marking papers at his desk when Adrian burst in, out of breath. He clicked his heels from the doorway, raising his arm. “Heil Hitler, Herr—”
“You’re late, Herr Burkhardt,” he said without looking up. “We were to meet at precisely five pm. What time does the clock read?”
Eyeing the large clock on the wall behind Luther’s desk, Adrian shut the door behind him. “Seven after, Herr. My Opa found the books hidden under my bed. He was threatening to throw them into the stove.”
“That, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther said, setting aside the papers as he stood, “is a lie.”
Adrian stared at him, sinking into one of the desk chairs. Luther limped around his desk with his cane. “You never volunteer information. And to tell a convincing falsehood, you have to make eye contact. You are supposed to already know that. Someday, your very life may depend on it.”
Adrian sighed, gritting his teeth. He refrained from looking away in annoyance. Neither Luther nor Karl, his Hitler Youth leader, allowed such displays of exasperation toward authority.
Luther observed him without blinking, leaning on his desk. “A report on your conduct in the Hitler Youth has reached me. I found it troubling. Herr Althaus—your squad leader—says he’s impressed with the progress you’ve made. Apparently, you’ve gone from the bottom rung of the ladder to the very top.”
A smile flickered across Adrian’s lips. He’d been able to tell that Karl was pleased with his prowess in their exercises, his determination and quick thinking when they played football or any sport, for that matter. Lately, he’d even been getting the better of Rolf. It was making Rolf more aggressive, and it probably didn’t help that he was courting Katherina.
Katherina had taken to waiting on the corner for Adrian after his meetings at the Hitler Youth headquarters, when she wasn’t meeting with the BDM. The first time she’d done this, Rolf had thought she was there for him. Adrian hadn’t missed the shock, the affront in Rolf’s expression as she wrapped her arm around Adrian’s, walking down the sidewalk. Rolf became more formal with him at school afterward, though it wasn’t until the next exercise with the Hitler Youth that Rolf’s brewing rage found an outlet. During a scuffle to remove the blue bands off the sleeves of their opposing team, Rolf had punched him in the jaw in the confusion—though they were on the same team—removing Adrian’s red band, thus removing him from the game. One of the younger boys had seen, as Adrian had, that this was deliberate, and Adrian wouldn’t stand for being made to appear weak; there was no place in the Hitler Youth for the weak. He tackled Rolf, the two of them fighting, rolling around on the ground. Suddenly, the focus wasn’t on the exercise anymore as the other boys cheered them on. Karl let it go on for a while before separating them, and they were subsequently punished at the next meeting by scrubbing the entire sidewalk with brushes and a bucket of suds. After that, Rolf seemed to accept that Katherina would never be his, ceding her to Adrian. Their friendship resumed after that.
Luther lifted his chin. “You must be very proud.”
Adrian smiled. “I am.”
He jumped in his seat as Luther slammed his cane down on Adrian’s desk with a heavy thwack. “Have you learned nothing that I have been teaching you? Have you so easily abandoned the whole purpose to these meetings?”
Where he would have cowered before, Adrian straightened in his seat. “I have not. I thought you would be pleased, Herr Luther. Karl says I could very well be Bannführer in a few years.”
Luther raised his head. Adrian had never seen his eyes so wide before. His teacher’s stunned silence enlivened him. “That, I accomplished all on my own, even with the pins your tailor leaves in my uniforms, poking me every time I move. Sometimes, I think she leaves them in just to sabotage me.”
“That’s the first logical assumption to come out of your mouth today,” Luther replied. “Frau Hutmacher does indeed leave in her pins, but only under my instructions.”
Adrian’s brow tightened. “What? Why?”
“Because you are getting far too comfortable in that uniform, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther answered in a menacing whisper. “You are forgetting everything I’ve taught you, forgetting all you were trying to escape before. You think your Opa is bad? He is nothing! There is a war coming—”
“I know that,” Adrian said. Lately he had taken to Karl’s speeches about the might of the German Army over Luther’s sly, deprecating remarks toward Herr Hitler’s plans for Germany. “Karl talks about it all the time; that those of us who fight for Germany will be honored and praised. That someday, we will all be given plots of land when we retake the borders .”
That thought alone appealed to him most; he had nothing, and Oma and Opa would leave him nothing once they were gone.
Luther stared at him. He gripped the handle of his cane with both hands. “Does our great Führer have this land already, Herr Burkhardt? If so, why isn’t he giving it to you now?”
Adrian alone knew Luther only referred to Hitler as ‘our great Führer’ when he was being sarcastic. “No. He doesn’t have the land now.”
Luther’s jaw muscles were bulging. “And it sits well with you that he intends on taking this land from someone else? You can justify taking someone else’s property simply because you want it?”
Adrian wavered. He shrugged. “Karl says it was always ours; that the Russians, the Poles, the Volksdeutsche…they took it from us and it’s our right to get it back.”
Adrian swallowed. He’d felt a surge of pride when Karl spoke, but now, regurgitating it back to Luther to justify his feelings, he felt a twinge of guilt. “Those of us with pure blood—Aryan blood. Those of us who bring Hitler glory on the battlefield.”
Luther didn’t move. It startled him when Luther suddenly tucked his cane under his arm, pulling up his pants leg.
Deep scars delved underneath Luther’s gray socks. It looked as if his leg were a lump of clay someone had dropped and then gripped too tightly to pick it back up. His calf was almost completely missing, sunken in like a shriveled peach behind his knee, extending all the way up past his thigh. Adrian hadn’t realized how evident his disgust was in his expression until he met Luther’s gaze.
“Make no mistake, Adrian,” Luther muttered. “There is no glory; there is only this.”
While Adrian was still recovering from the sight, Luther began their lesson, interrogating him about his day first in German, followed by English, French and Russian.
It was dark outside when Luther deemed their lesson over for the night. “We made a contract, Adrian. A verbal one, but one that is based on honor and keeping your word.”
He was still too distracted by the thought of Luther’s maimed leg to feel offended by the implication that he wasn’t. “I’ve kept my word.”
Luther peered at him over his glasses. “You’ve been reading your Bible every night? As I asked you to?”
Adrian blinked. “Most nights.”
Luther gave an admonishing tilt of his head.
“I didn’t think it was as important—”
“It is of absolute importance! The Bible doesn’t change, Adrian. No matter what the condition of the world, the morality of the Bible stays the same. It is of absolute importance in times like this, when what is lawful is not always what is right. It is of absolute importance when the riddle of what is true is in question.”
“I don’t always have time to read it. I have work to do.”
“This,” Luther said, closing his eyes, “is your work.”
“I’m tired, Herr Luther. I’m not even trying to fail my classes anymore; I am legitimately failing. Between this and the meetings and my duties with the Hitler Youth, I don’t always have time.”
Luther studied him. As stern and serious as Luther often was, Adrian detected a flicker of dismay in Luther’s countenance. He watched as Luther stood, and he clenched his jaw as Luther pulled yet another book from his desk drawer.
As if he didn’t have enough to read already. Each night he read a chapter of Pushkin, of Frost, of Dumas—in their native tongues—into the early morning hours. He hadn’t even read from his collection of Heinrich Heine’s works lately, as he used to so often. It was only when he wasn’t falling asleep while reading the others that he bothered to read his Bible.
He felt cross as Luther handed him the book, though that irritability evaporated upon seeing it was a history book. “I know how much you love learning. I know it bothers you that you haven’t been able to dedicate time to it anymore. This is for you to read and study as you wish. It’s the ‘old stuff’; the past our beloved Führer deems irrelevant compared to the history he’s making.”
Adrian flipped through the pages. This simple gesture touched him, though he said nothing.
Luther spoke quietly. “I understand how important it is to you to do your very best. I know the idea of being mediocre is detestable to you. Under normal circumstances, that would be admirable—enviable even. I know all that Karl says sounds good, but…you must learn to listen beyond what he is saying to hear the things he’s not saying. I am not asking you to give your second best because I don’t want you to succeed; I’m trying to save you, whether you see that yet or not. Stop being so outstanding at what you do for Karl, Adrian. Someday, you will thank me for the foresight you don’t yet have.”
As hindered as he had felt by Luther’s guidance lately, he felt only gratitude as he looked at the book. Perhaps it was the fact that he respected and trusted Luther that made him want to please him; perhaps it was the fact that he could hear how much Luther believed in what he was saying. It seemed too mawkish to think he wished to obey Luther, in spite of himself, because he could hear the sincere care in Luther’s voice for him. Oma and Opa never spoke to him like that.
Luther sighed. “There is an excellent lesson in Judges sixteen. Read it. Tonight.”
Luther was scrutinizing him as he did during their simulated interrogations. Adrian wondered what he was looking for. The moment he was in the privacy of his bedroom, he found the passage in the Bible, skin prickling as he read about Samson and Delilah.
How did he know? How could he know? If there was one secret Adrian kept well-concealed from Luther, it was Katherina.
He laid his head on his pillow, contemplating it—contemplating her. She hadn’t been detrimental to his work with Luther. Perhaps this was just another unfounded fear of Luther’s; an unnecessary, eccentric precaution. As long as he wasn’t telling Katherina what he was doing, he couldn’t see why he should end the relationship.
In nearly every interrogation session with Luther, it had been Katherina he’d kept as his secret. He’d kept secret the way the kissing had escalated to touching; how the touching had escalated to taking off clothing; how the nakedness had escalated to…
He blinked, rolling over to face the wall. It was going to be a long weekend without her.
The following Tuesday, he stepped out of the Hitler Youth headquarters with Rolf, starting down the street. Just on the corner, he could see Katherina’s silhouette as the Adler family car pulled up next to them.
Rolf opened the door, pulling his gaze away from Katherina. “I take it you don’t need a ride home.”
Adrian shook his head. “No. Thank you.”
Rolf nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
Even in the darkness, Adrian could make out Katherina’s smile. She gripped his face in the dark, kissing him. “Are your grandparents home?”
“They’re always home.”
“I want to be with you,” she whispered in his ear.
He couldn’t go home; he was supposed to meet Luther. “I don’t really have time right now.”
Her fingers locked with his, tugging at his hand as she stepped into the street. “Walk me home. We can stop by the alley—”
He wrenched free of her with a flash of annoyance. “I can’t go home. I have…I have remedial arithmetic and have to meet Herr Luther now.”
“Remedial arithmetic?” She snorted. “Heinrich, please. I haven’t seen you in almost a week.”
He looked around, conscious of the fact that he was going to be late for Luther again. Luther was bound to punish him for it this time. He grabbed her hand. “Come with me.”
She giggled with anticipation. “Where are you taking me?”
He didn’t answer, taking her down the road, paying for her tram ride towards the Gymnasium. The school was deserted as always, Katherina tittering at his side from the thrill of it all. Adrian shushed her, seeing the light spilling out from Luther’s classroom at the other end of the hall. Turning down another hallway, he took her into the library, shutting the door without a sound.
They weaved around tables, trotting down to one of the aisles of books in the back. He could feel the heat of her breath on his neck in the darkness, meeting her lips with his. Lowering onto the floor, the warmth and softness of her body beneath his was beckoning. Unbuckling his belt, he lifted the skirt of her dress.
He put a hand over her mouth as she reacted to him. When it became too difficult to keep himself quiet, too, he sealed her mouth with his own, when someone gripped his shoulders, ripping him off of Katherina.
There was a click, and the bright beam of a flashlight seared through the darkness. Katherina gasped. Adrian covered himself, looking up from the floor, squinting from the light. The light stayed on him for a second before roving over to Katherina, who had gotten to her feet, fumbling to straighten her dress.
“Fräulein Huber,” a familiar voice said. “I should write your parents for this.”
Katherina stared past the light, jaw quivering as her eyes filled with tears.
Luther’s voice was threateningly low. “I should notify the principal. He would move quickly to have you expelled from this school.” The light shook. “Get out.”
Katherina didn’t spare Adrian a second look, stepping over his legs and heading out of the room. Luther lowered the light to his side only when they heard the library door open and close. “Correct yourself, Herr Burkhardt. Then I want you in my office. Now.”
Adrian sat alone in the dark, listening to the door open and close as Luther left. Heart racing, he fixed his clothes, smoothing his hair before leaning on a shelf to steady his breath, to calm himself, to ready himself with explanations his brain was too disorganized to construct.
Luther was leaning against his desk, head down and arms crossed when Adrian entered. He was looking at Adrian over the frame of his glasses.
“Herr Luther, I…I can explain—”
Adrian swallowed. With a self-conscious gait, he headed up the aisle, lowering into one of the desk chairs.
Luther was glaring at him. “What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t…it was just…Herr Luther, I wasn’t—”
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Luther asked roughly.
“Herr Luther, please, it wasn’t—”
“You have taken everything we’ve worked for, everything we are working toward, and spat on it,” he snapped.
“I want you to answer a question, Adrian, and believe me, I will know if you’re lying.” Glowering, Luther gripped the desktop. “Are you a Nazi?”
Adrian stared at him, agape. “No…no, Luther, it was just…it was stupid. It was just to relieve some stress.”
Luther raised his head. “As if that excuses what you were doing? You are taking advantage of that girl—”
“No, I’m not. Herr Luther, she likes me. She’s mine.”
“What do you mean, she’s yours?”
“I won her from Rolf and she wants to be with me. She’s mine.”
The sudden red rage on Luther’s face stunned him. He watched as Luther yanked his Bible off his desk, limping without his cane toward him. Adrian threw up his hands to shield himself as Luther struck him with it.
“What are you…what is wrong with you?” Adrian shouted.
“You. Do. Not. Own. That. Girl!” Luther bellowed as he battered him. “She is not a piece of property for you to do with as you please!”
He landed two more blows before the assault seemed to stop. Adrian peered over his hands, slowly dropping his arms. Despite the attack, Luther looked calm, as if he were merely having a serious discussion. Luther tossed his Bible on his desk, hobbling back. “That is all she is to you; a method for release. She is not like you; she is one of them, indoctrinated with their values. You were supposed to be a thinker, not a follower. You were supposed to resist Nazism—”
“I’m not a Nazi—”
“But you are using the ideology to excuse your behavior! You are using her belief in it as a tactic to take advantage of her. Tell me you’ve at least been using prophylactics.”
Adrian gulped, before shaking his head. Luther bowed his head, rubbing his eyes. It was a moment before Luther spoke again. “And what will happen when you find out she is in the family way? What will you do about the child?”
Adrian stared at him, giving a halfhearted shrug. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. Karl said it was their duty to perpetuate the race; Katherina said it was her duty to bear children. Until now, his responsibility for a child she might carry hadn’t occurred to him. It was her job to be a mother; it was his job to be a soldier.
Arms crossed, Luther was shaking his head. “I am so disappointed in you, Heinrich. Very disappointed.”
That stung. Luther hadn’t called him Heinrich since their first meeting a year ago.
“These skills I’ve been helping you acquire, this position I’ve been preparing you for, is for someone with paramount dedication; for someone with unfaltering focus and the commitment to follow through. I thought that was you. You need to decide who and what you are loyal to, Heinrich. Until then, I see no reason for us to continue.”
Eyes down, Adrian swallowed. “My name’s not Heinrich.”
Luther sat at his desk, straightening the sleeves of his jacket to write. “It’s not Adrian, either. I don’t know who you are. If I was right about you, you know where to find me. If I was wrong, then we part ways here, never to speak of this again. You will be free to go to your stress reliever and start producing Aryan babies for the Reich; to die for your Führer. Either way, keep the Bible. You’re going to need it.”
The silence that followed scalded Adrian. Luther continued writing at his desk as if he were the only person in the room. Even as Adrian stood, Luther didn’t speak, didn’t even look up to tell him goodbye.
Oma was knitting in the living room when he arrived home. Opa was reading the newspaper, though he never looked up from it or his cigarette.
“Heinrich,” Oma said. “You’re home early. Dinner’s on the stove.”
“Danke, Oma. I’m not hungry.” Uninspired, he meandered down the hallway to his room. Locking the door, he sat on the edge of the bed. What was he supposed to do now? Where did he go from here?
Fingers tapping the wooden frame of his bed, he thought of the books underneath it. It had been a long time since he’d had this much time to himself. Ordinarily, he would spend it reading, or…
A light came on across the street. He watched from the dark of his bedroom as Katherina sat at her vanity, unraveling the braids in her long golden hair. The image used to move him, used to make him dream of greater things. Looking at her now, he felt none of that. He wondered how long it had been gone, and what exactly it was that was fueling him now.
She got up, walking over to the window to close the curtain. For a moment, he thought she could see him, freezing as she looked toward his window. He didn’t move, even as she lowered her gaze, closing the curtain until no light leaked out.
He closed his own curtain before changing out of his uniform and getting into bed. He was going to have to think about things; his moral compass had been tampered with, his desires and ambitions rerouted. His ship had stopped using its sails to take him where he wanted, allowing the current to lead him astray, carrying him according to its own whims. So he dropped his anchor for the time being, to reassess who he was becoming and who it was he wanted to be.
Weeks passed. Without the late lessons with Luther, he was going to bed earlier, feeling rested each morning when he awoke. That was perhaps the only thing he was grateful for.
Despite his natural disposition, he stopped being so tenacious in the Hitler Youth, purposely becoming unexceptional. He stopped offering opinions or comments unless asked directly. He no longer strove to outsmart the other boys during their military exercises or outshine them while playing sports. It was a tricky balance, as he feared the repercussions if Karl or any of the other leaders noticed that he was deliberately irresolute during their activities.
Luther went back to regarding Adrian as insignificant as the next student. His gaze never lingered on him—often never even wandered in his direction during lectures—and he never addressed Adrian, even to answer questions. However, Luther’s aloofness was easier to handle than Katherina’s confusion at his own detachment from her.
He had stopped going straight home after school, walking along the Main or visiting the Zoological Garden just to avoid confronting her at home. He’d even snuck out the back of the Hitler Youth headquarters a couple of times, walking in the opposite direction he usually did.
She finally outsmarted him, waiting outside the headquarters when he arrived. She greeted him with a tentative smile. “I can’t help but feel like you’ve been avoiding me.”
When he didn’t deny this, her smile faded. “You have been avoiding me.”
He looked down at the dusty leather of his shoes.
“Is it…?” She looked around, shuffling her feet. “Is it because of what happened in the library?”
She was still so beautiful, and yet her charm had been lost to him for some reason. It made him feel even worse; they’d been together for a long time. He still remembered the first time she’d given herself to him. She’d told him about a conversation she’d had with her mother; how her mother had asked if she and Adrian would marry in a couple years. Though she’d laughed about it, he knew this was to bait him; to hint to him that it was what she herself wanted. Even then, he hadn’t been sure that was what he wanted, but he’d disregarded that, pleasure inundating his principles. In her mind, she was already his, and so she handed her body over to him as a promise of things to come; he took it, never once promising anything in return.
The Nazi doctrine was teaching him that women were for the sole purpose of procreation, yet looking at Katherina now, he saw a person he had consumed; a person who was a casualty of his own selfishness.
“Katherina,” he said, “I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with you…”
He wasn’t sure how to proceed. Her eyes had filled with tears and she took a step back, hugging herself. “What are you…what are you doing?”
“I just…I need to focus on other things right now. I’m sorry.”
She gulped, avoiding his eyes. It was a moment before she spoke again. “Forever?”
“I don’t know,” he answered sincerely.
She sniffled, shoulders slumped as she stood in front of him. Even as she shuddered from her tears, all he could offer was another apology, heading back toward the headquarters.
He resumed the former reading assignments from Luther in his room. As alone as he felt, Frost’s poems were like conversing in front of a warm fire with a friend who understood him. Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter gave the Russians a much more humanistic quality than what he was hearing about in his Hitler Youth meetings. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers transported him to another time and place, giving him an escape from Opa, from Katherina, from Luther, from Herr Hitler. Sometimes, he even read from the history book Luther had given him and his Bible. It became the favorite part of his day, disappearing into his room after school, after the meetings, to read. Now that he had such a sufficient command of three other languages, it excited him, rendering him awestruck to think of how many other books in the world were available to teach him more.
It had been almost two months since his last conversation with Luther. Even when Adrian handed in his assignments, Luther hardly spared him a glance. Adrian lingered by his desk, wishing for something—a thoughtful look, a word—but Luther was already grading papers, having forgotten him. Out in the hallway was no better. Seeing Katherina was always unavoidable. Today, she was talking to a friend, though her smile dwindled upon seeing him and she looked away, turning to her friend as if she hadn’t noticed him at all.
He walked straight home to change into his uniform to be ready for when Rolf and Mena showed up. Opa didn’t even knock as he opened the door to his room. “Why is Rolf Adler here?”
Adrian didn’t look at him, tying his shoes. “There’s an event at the Römer tonight. We are going together.”
“That’s a boy whose father must be proud,” Opa grumbled as he shut the door. Adrian sat up, glaring at the door. At least Luther was proud of him.
He paused at the thought. Or used to be.
Rolf was standing in the kitchen, back straight, chin up with his hands behind his back. Karl had recently promoted him to Obergefolgschaftsführer, the three pins and fine lines decorating the shoulder straps on his uniform indicating his new position. Adrian had begun using Rolf as a landmark, intending to always remain at least one rank below him.
Rolf clicked his heels, raising his hand upon seeing Adrian, giving him the Hitler greeting. Adrian mirrored him.
Mena was already in the car, scooting over as he and Adrian got in. She looked just like her older brother; white hair and icy blue eyes. “Heil Hitler, Adrian.”
He slammed the door shut, looking at her. “Heil Hitler.”
His eyes fell behind her through the window. A soldier in a gray green uniform paced the sidewalk, hands behind his back. He was older than Adrian, and since he was in uniform, Adrian assumed he must have been eighteen or nineteen. The soldier took off his cap as Katherina appeared through the front door in her BDM uniform, beaming. Adrian became aware of a strange sensation—or rather, a lack of one. He felt no sense of loss in seeing her twinkling gaze, directed at the soldier as he accompanied her down the street. He didn’t even feel wounded to see she had moved on to such an older, more appealing man in a Wehrmacht uniform, compared to a boy transitioning from boyhood to manhood in a Hitler Youth uniform.
“Looks like an Oberschütze, judging by his arm patches,” Rolf commented, following Katherina and the soldier as they drove past the couple. He looked at Adrian. “She’ll be sorry one day.”
Adrian gave an appreciative grin in reply, though more than anything, he felt relieved.
“Did Rolf tell you?” Mena asked, leaning forward to look at him. “He passed his exams. He’ll be going to the Napola in Naumburg soon.”
“That’s great,” Adrian said to Rolf.
Mena was looking at him the same way Katherina used to. “Did you take the Napola exam, Adrian?”
He had thought about it. They only accepted the best of the best—but Luther had said to maintain mediocrity, and upon hearing that Rolf was trying to get in, he regarded that as an indicator that he should take a different path. “No. My grades are more appropriate for the Wehrmacht.”
Mena’s smile flickered as Rolf chuckled. “You aim low. The Wehrmacht takes anyone, unless you’re a Jew.”
Adrian rested his arm on the door. “Where are you aiming?”
Rolf smirked. “The SS.”
The chauffeur dropped them off near the Römerberg, Rolf instructing him to pick them up in a few hours at the same place.
“Stay with me,” he heard Rolf tell his sister. “Father said if you leave my side, I’m to take you home straightaway.”
“You are not Father,” Mena retorted, though she got between him and Adrian. Her arm kept brushing against Adrian’s and he stepped aside, just out of contact.
The bright red Nazi flags and banners with the black Hakenkreuz looked spectacular against the beige and gray buildings. Adrian, Rolf and Mena wandered the area until nightfall, as the people around the square seemed to multiply. Some were carrying torches. Voices resounded off the buildings, men, women and children alike singing “Die Fahne Hoch” at the top of their lungs.
“Come on,” Rolf urged, leading the way.
They melded in with the rest of the group, joining the parade. They added their own voices to the chanting and singing, all the way to the square.
There was a huge bonfire up ahead in the town square, encircled by the swarm of people. One of Chopin’s sonatas was being played by an orchestra somewhere nearby. A strange electricity, a billowing power was coursing through the crowd. It seemed to charge their fervor, and in spite of the order of the people, it felt on the edge of a chaotic riot. It made Adrian uneasy.
Mena was standing on her toes. “I can’t see anything.”
Rolf took hold of her arm, pushing through the people in front of them. Adrian brought up the rear. It wasn’t long before they emerged at the front of the crowd. The image caused Adrian to stop dead in his tracks.
A mountain of books was in flames before him, in the center of the ring. Men in the SA, college students, and boys in the Hitler Youth were adding armful after armful of books to the billowing flames, reducing them to cinders. Adrian fought the impulse to run toward the fire, to rescue the blackened books still intact on the edges. They were destroying more than just pieces of wood and paper; it was knowledge going up in flames. It was the ability to empathize that was filling the square with smoke. It was adventure and escape that was reduced to nothing but ash.
The possibility of ever understanding all things different was being wiped out throughout Germany tonight.
Mena and Rolf were a couple people down, their voices blending with the chants of the crowd. Katherina and her soldier were smiling across the burning pile of books as they chanted. More books were thrown into the pile, sending hot, scorching gusts into the crowd as embers floated in the air. Karl had said this night was to rid Germany of all the un-German filth, making it pure again, but all Adrian could think about was Heinrich Heine. His books, too—all of them—had been reduced to nothing but kindling; all but one, hidden in the wooden frame of Adrian’s bed at home. The black letters of Heine’s words blinded him, overpowering the chants that fought for an equal place in his head:
“Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
The sudden unadulterated fear of such a future engulfed him, and he began to run, leaving behind Rolf and Mena, leaving behind Katherina, leaving behind the crowd and their dazzling flags. His lungs narrowed in his chest, heart pounding, feet hammering against the pavement. Stopping only upon reaching the Gymnasium doors, he yanked on the handles only to find them locked this time. Sprinting around the school, he found Herr Luther’s classroom window, peering into a hopeless black pit devoid of all light.
Disheartened, he wondered if Luther was at the square tonight, too. Finding this unlikely, he dashed off down another street. The apartment building was only a few blocks away, and he jogged up the stairwell upon reaching it, banging on the door.
It was a moment before the door thrust open. Luther appeared on the other side without his tie and vest, wearing a scowl that loosened upon seeing Adrian. Adrian still hadn’t caught his breath, the two of them surveying one another.
His voice cracked as he spoke. “I never wanted this. Any of it.”
The door creaked as Luther released his hold on it. “I know.”
He sniffled, looking away to blink away the tears. “I just…I want to do what’s right. More than that…I want to be a good person. But I don’t even know what either of those are anymore.”
Though he avoided Luther’s eyes out of what felt like shame, he could feel Luther studying him. “Do you like photography, Adrian?”
Hearing Luther refer to him by his chosen name, a smile teetered on his lips. “Do you want me to like photography? Because if you want me to like photography, I will like photography.”
This merited a laugh out of Luther. He stepped back, opening the door wider to invite Adrian inside. “I have been thinking. I found something I’d like for you to be the very best at.”
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