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.
Wilhelm smiled as he stepped off the small stage. The audience clapped and whistled around their cigars and cigarettes as Wilhelm made his way to a seat in the back of the club. He made certain that every man in the place noticed the way his hips rolled from side to side.
A roaming hand brushed against Wilhelm’s back. He smacked it away playfully, shooting the guest a sensual smile. Wilhelm did not mind the man touching him: if he was lucky, the man would find him later and offer to buy him a drink. They would talk in silky metaphors and allusions until they settled on a price and a location. Then the man would leave Wilhelm be until his hour came and they would leave together, maybe to a back alley, maybe to a nearby apartment. If the guest was rich enough, Wilhelm might get a chance to ride in an automobile all the way to the bedroom.
Wilhelm settled into a seat at a well-positioned table where he could see and be seen. He took the cigarette a waiter handed him and lit it with a match. He blew the match out and set it on the table. Wilhelm looked up as he took a drag from the cigarette. He grimaced. The singer on stage now was his biggest rival. Her stage name was Astrid. She was not nearly as pretty as Wilhelm but she had a voice that could shatter the ice around the most conservative man’s heart. It was soft, sweet, and incredibly feminine in a way Wilhelm could not match.
He made an impolite gesture at her and heard a man chuckle.
Startled, Wilhelm could only watch as a blonde man took the chair next to him.
“You know, she’s nowhere near as good as you are,” the man said.
Wilhelm arched an eyebrow and tapped his cigarette against the ashtray, stalling.
“Johannes von Brandenburg,” the man said, offering Wilhelm a hand in greeting.
Wilhelm took it, smiling serenely.
“And you are?” Johannes asked.
“You either know or you don’t,” he said.
The man chuckled.
“Point taken, Fräulein Minna,” Johannes said, smiling with an easy confidence, “You are extraordinarily beautiful, really, quite the exception. The crème de la crème, if you will.”
He reached out a finger and stroked Wilhelm’s cheek, his rough knuckles a sharp contrast to Wilhelm’s baby-soft skin.
“I have a proposition to make, my darling Minna. How would you like to leave Magdeburg?”
“And he said that there are dance halls in Hamburg and Berlin where I could play every night and earn a hundred Marks for every song! This is so unbelievable, Tomas!” Wilhelm shouted excitedly as he stripped out of his performance dress.
“Wilhelm, I don’t think this is a good idea. You alone in a big city, it’s not safe.”
“But I won’t be alone,” Wilhelm said as he moved from behind the changing screen, “Johannes will be with me and his friends and there will be all the customers and you will be with me, too, of course.”
“Wait, what? I never said I was going with you. You didn’t even ask me!” Tomas said, giving Wilhelm a perturbed look.
“What else would you do, Tomas? I’m your twin. You wouldn’t stay here without me, would you?” he asked, his pretty eyes wide with emotion, “We’ve always done everything together, why stop now?”
“Wilhelm, I have my own life here. I can’t just leave to move to Hamburg or Berlin. How will I make any money?” Tomas pointed out.
Wilhelm laughed and clapped Tomas on the shoulder.
“You’ll play with me, stupid,” Wilhelm said, amused, “I’ll sing and you’ll play your violin. Can’t you imagine it? The two of us making music together. It will be the most extraordinary thing those Hamburgers have ever heard!”
“Wilhelm…” Tomas grumbled as he watched his brother dance around the room.
Wilhelm flashed him a brilliant smile.
“It’s going to be perfect, Tomas, I just know it,” he said happily.
The first thing Gustav learned to hate about the military was the phrase, “Ja wohl!”
It was the affirmative response to every question and order, the words shouted out while marching and saluting. They were drilled five hours a day, three in the morning and two in the evening. The rest of the time was spent learning commands and proper etiquette.
Most of their time was spent at chores or in the barracks. Beds were to be made to specifications and floors cleaned, walls built, and uniforms laundered. The work was mind-numbing and exhausting, leaving the new ‘recruits’ with little to think about other than sleep.
The orders came through that the unit would be shipped out the following week. They were headed north, to fight on the eastern border. Where exactly that border was now was not known. Gustav hoped it would be not too far north. Winter was coming and it was icy enough at home. Kiel would be hellishly cold and Warsaw would be misery itself.
Gustav blinked and willed his thoughts away.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sergeant Heidler snapped.
“Get a move on!” Sergeant Heidler shouted, “We don’t have all day! Get to the showers sofort!”
“Ja wohl,” Gustav muttered.
“I can’t hear you, Schäfer!” Heidler warned.
“Ja wohl!” Gustav shouted.
“That’s a lad. Now, get to the showers!”
Gustav nodded and jogged off to the barracks. He really did not understand why the sergeant had to yell all the time. It made his head ache and Gustav only did it a few times a day. The sergeant yelled all the time.
God did he hate the army.
It was a good thing no one expected violinists to smile while they played or Georg would have been in trouble. As it was, he could barely control his anger at the bored SS officers watching him.
He doubted any of them knew what truly good music was. They had asked him and his fellow performers for marching tunes and lewd ballads set to popular contemporary music. Nothing at all noteworthy or even challenging, the music infuriated Georg.
He could be playing before true musicians and composers. He could be playing Bach and Beethoven to cultured people. Instead, he was here, playing thoughtless jigs to uninterested officers and their antsy child-wives who sat on their hands to avoid springing out of their seats. Ignorant, infantile idiots all of them.
Georg sighed loudly when the officers had finally exhausted their demands for songs. He set his violin in his lap and looked to the other performers. They looked equally unamused to be playing in front of the evening’s audience. Tomas was not with them. Georg had not heard from his friend and fellow violinist in three days. Tomas had missed practice the last two days without a note or an explanation. Georg hoped his friend was merely sick and that his absence had nothing to do with Wilhelm.
Georg liked Wilhelm, he honestly did. But there was something about that boy that screamed dangerous in Georg’s mind. There was only so far a person could go before his very appearance defied the social order. One day Wilhelm would tread too far and there would be no turning back: he would be gone, stolen in the night by the secret police. Georg only prayed that Tomas would stay away from his younger brother’s affairs. It would kill Georg if Tomas were to suddenly disappear.