Arbeit macht Frei: Work will set you free. Three famous words that greeted those the Nazis sent to Auschwitz. Three words that could not have been a bigger lie. Tomas Kaulitz is a talented young violinist reduced to playing in empty concert halls for Nazi officers. The war has stayed relatively far away until now, when the horrors of the Nazi era take him and his friends away from a ruined Magdeburg.
Tomas looked up, frowning just a bit. His head felt awful.
Georg, his best friend and fellow violinist, looked at him curiously.
“What is it?” he asked, laying his instrument and finely-rosined bow in his lap, “Tomas, are you feeling quite right?”
Tomas shook his head, confusion written across his fine features.
“I can’t say that I know what is the matter. I should be getting home. A good practice, today was.”
He stood up and put his violin in its velvet-lined case.
“Yes, a good practice. Say hello to Wilhelm for me, won’t you?”
Tomas smiled as he left Georg’s small apartment. He took the stairs down and walked out of the old building. The streets of Magdeburg were rapidly darkening and Tomas knew he needed to hurry to return home before the police began their nightly watches. It was not safe to be out at night anymore.
Two years had passed since the Allied Western forces had declared war on Germany. Too many men had been drafted to fight on the Western front against the enemy French and British soldiers. Tomas counted himself lucky to still be a free man. His skill at music had kept him and his fellows home. They performed for officers and their wives in concert halls, entertaining those unfortunate enough to be stuck in such a burned-out city as Magdeburg.
Air raid after air raid had torn the city apart. Georg and his family had been forced to pick themselves up after an Allied bomb exploded atop their former building, destroying it and several buildings in the vicinity. Magdeburg was a city in ruins. Ashes and rubble lay in place of homes and shops. Empty concrete frames dotted the landscape, interspersed with steeples and church walls.
So it was that Tomas counted himself lucky to be employed and alive. The city he had grown up in was reduced to nothing; yet, he was still here and successful. He was whole. He and his friends were paid little for their performances but they received double ration cards in secret, a mercy that kept Tomas and his family afloat.
Tomas walked through the streets. He passed the occasional bored soldier or broken homeless woman. Tomas kept his gaze forwards and his pace swift so that he appeared single-minded in heading home. He should have left earlier, he reminded himself. There was still daylight. There was just barely time enough. Still, he breathed a sigh of sweet relief when his building came into view.
He opened the door to the stairs and checked the mail. Empty. Tomas thanked God for that. There was no letter from the government tonight asking for Tomas or Wilhelm to serve the Vaterland. They had another night of peace.
The front room was empty when he came in. No one was there to ask where he had been all day. Tomas turned the knob on the door to the room he and Wilhelm shared. He set his instrument on the floor and took his shirt off.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” he heard his brother ask.
Tomas shrugged on a clean sweater before turning to look at Wilhelm. He bit his cheek to avoid saying anything, knowing all too well what would tumble out if he did not control himself.
Tomas always wondered why Wilhelm was so careless about his appearance. If he tried, it would be easy enough for Wilhelm to look normal. Waist length black hair and heavy eye make-up, painted nails and tight-fitting clothes, nothing like a good Hitler-jugend, a Hitler Youth, would look. Tomas knew Wilhelm was about to slip out into the night to meet the men at the underground club he frequented, men who had tastes that found Wilhelm’s odd looks entrancing. Tomas was scared that one day Wilhelm would let some man take him home and the man would turn out to be a Gestapo spy or a party supporter who would turn him over to the secret police. Wilhelm was risking everything for pleasure and a few marks in his pockets.
“Please, Bill,” Tomas said, using his twin’s childhood name, “Stay in tonight. There are police already patrolling. Stay with me tonight.”
Wilhelm smiled and played with a strand of his long hair.
“I’ll be home before daybreak,” he said, kissing Tomas’ cheek as he bounded out of the room.
“Don’t stay up for me,” Wilhelm called as the front door shut behind him.
Tomas sat down on the bed they shared in that tiny room and choked back a sob. He could only hope that Wilhelm would make it home alright.
Gustav stared at the telegraph slip in front of him in disbelief. He sucked in a much needed breath and read the message again:
Herr Gustav Schäfer,
You have been selected to join the esteemed service of Company 63 Magdeburg. Please report to Station 25A, Westfall Str. at 1000 on the morrow…
Military service? Gustav rubbed his eyes, wondering what time it was. Outside, it was night dark, the streetlamps a dim glow far below. He tried to memorize the way the moon lit the broken rooftops and the shapes of the rubble. Three years ago the view had been completely different. Dread filled him as the certainty that tonight would be the last time he saw the sight settled into his stomach.
Of the men drafted in his neighborhood, none had returned that Gustav knew of. Herr Kerner’s wife had received a telegraph telling of his death. That had been two months ago. Was that how it would be for him? Gustav wondered, looking out into the darkness. Would he leave tomorrow and never make it home?
Gustav moved to pack his things. He stopped soon after and lay down on his bed, staring at the ceiling.
How long did he have to live?
Georg screamed and threw the empty case- the largest thing at hand- at the wall. It made a resounding crack when it hit that made him feel just a bit better.
He had been preparing for this opportunity for months. The chance to play before members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, ruined for a one night performance for a couple of SS officers.
“This is shit!” he screamed at the thin walls, “I worked so hard for this?! Fuck the officers, fuck the party, fuck the fucking Vaterland!”
He screamed again and again until he heard a soft knock on his door.
Georg, seething, glared at his mother as she walked in.
“Georg,” she said urgently, “Stop yelling! One of the neighbors might hear you!”
“It’s not fair,” he hissed.
“You can’t say things like that, Georg. We will be reported for talking against the party. This is serious. What you are saying is treason. Please quiet down. I know you don’t mean what you are saying. This is anger talking.”
Georg swallowed his retort and nodded mutely. His mother smiled and hugged him lightly.
“Oh, think of it, Georg,” she said happily, “You will be playing for important officers! It will be so wonderful. Your father and I are sure the party will promote him if you play well enough, and you will play well enough, you will, Georg.”
Georg gave his mother a small smile. She did not understand. She loved the National Socialists, she loved the party, she loved the flag, she even loved the Führer with his Charlie Chaplin mustache and dark good looks.
His mother looked at his hair and frowned.
“We need to do something about your hair, my son. It will never do to let the officers see it so long.”
She dragged Georg into the kitchen and pushed him into a chair.
“Hmm, just a cut or a shave?” she asked, a pair of scissors in her hands.
“Hmm,” she said again as she lifted the back of his hair.
Georg heard the metallic shing as the scissors cut through his carefully looked after hair. He watched as long chocolate colored pieces fell about his shoulders and littered the floor. His mother hummed happily as she cut. Georg winced as more and more locks came off.
“It is finished,” she said, “I’ll clean this up, dear. Go find your best suit. I should iron that for you-”
Gustav ignored her happy babble. He went to his room and pulled the dull brown suit out of his closet and laid it on the bed.
He entered the bathroom and closed his eyes, not quite ready to face his newly shorn head. He opened his eyes and looked at the miserable face that reflected back.
His hair was gone. His chance at an audition was gone. His dreams and self stolen away for the enjoyment of a few officers.
Georg leaned against the peeling wallpaper and let the tears fall.