A day, a place, a time.
The news was on the radio, while the words of pundits and presidents twisted the lives of civilians without their permission.
And the people, barely – if ever – notice.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Roosevelt’s stern voice reverberated through the radio’s static and into Mary’s home, where it hung like a foreboding fog.
“Pour me some more rum, my love.” Mary’s Mother obediently filled a glass for her Father and continued sewing. Her eyes were fixed on the string, but her mind was wandering somewhere in the past, in a world much simpler than their present. She pricked her finger after a while, the sight of blood anchoring her to reality again.
“The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.”
“Peace,” Father grumbled. “The word has gone bitter in my mouth. I never want to hear it again for as long as I live!” Baby Ella, crying, seemed to protest this thought, but Mary rocked her to submission. The Aryan Race had become masters at the art of silence.
The foreign radio broadcast was illegal in Germany, but Father found a way to intercept a stray signal to hear the announcement. Father says that war that ended all wars didn’t really end anything. It only gave a reason for the destitute Germans to act on their anger, and a scapegoat for the affluent Allies to blame all the damage of the fighting. With the speed of a tycoon, however, one German man rose from the ashes, and gave his disenfranchised people a voice, one that would place ideals first, and throw ethics into the gutter. The tension was optimal, and war ensued, once again.
The president continued, “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” The cards were shuffled once again. Father finished three glasses.
After handing Baby Ella to Mother, Mary grabbed her bag and rushed out of the house as an escape from the fog that threatened to envelop her mind. Still, there was a thick haze outside, but the fresh air made up for the loss. It was midday in Berlin and the city was bustling with blonde-haired people that looked at the ground as if a divine arm was driving their necks downward. She thought of the times when yellow stars hung on hollow bodies that walked the streets, the symbol a reminder of the enemy within. Whenever one of them was on the same street as her, Mary would follow her mother’s stern instructions and give the Jew the entire street to walk on and turn her face completely. The Fuhrer commands his people to be wary of them no matter the circumstance, as the Aryan Race is precious and needs to be protected.
Mary heard bits and pieces of conversation as she walked to the river. A man with a potbelly boasted proudly to the butcher, “Finn, when I tell you that our soldiers are fed the best meat in all of Europe, I mean it. The Fuhrer says they are strong men, strong enough to bring the Allies to their knees. He says that we are gaining on the front.”
Finn narrowed his eyes, “And how would you know that? All the radio speaks about is our success. Doesn’t that seem a little odd to you? I don’t trust the news, my friend, for they exaggerate the smallest of things to fit their story.” He saw Mary watching their conversation. He did not think too much of her at the time.
The larger man’s eyes widened in disbelief, “Are you calling the Fuhrer a liar? The Gestapo would not appreciate ill talk of our leader.” The threat in the man’s eyes was glinting.
“Absolutely not!” Finn laughed sheepishly. When the other man held his malicious gaze, Finn handed him a few bills, an apology from one citizen to another for speaking their truth. Mary, of course, didn’t understand this, for she had been immersed in Nazi ideals since 1933. Her days were spent learning the Fuhrer’s curriculum, attending the Fuhrer’s Youth Group, hearing the Fuhrer’s propaganda on the radio, and sleeping with the Fuhrer’s name in her mouth. His words were her truth. However, after hearing the announcement this morning, something hadn’t seemed right. Mary pulled her scarf tighter and quickened her pace.
She pulled Noah’s letter out of her bag just as she saw the river. He attached a photo of himself smiling in a trench beside a radio with a couple of other young men. Mary thought that their eyes showed souls that were struggling to reconcile two things together.
Clouds of fog circled the bank, but Mary found a spot that was clear enough to see the water flow. Whenever Noah writes, he does so for each member of the family, and notes atop that no one should read the others. It may sound absurd, but Father says that they should listen to the will of a man who is under the constant threat of death. Thus, with only the wind and trees listening, she whispered out her brother’s words aloud.
Soldiers of the Great War that are stationed with me share stories of a deadly gas that would enter the lungs of men who didn’t run away from the trenches in time. The poison would suffocate everyone the same, no matter one’s muscular strength. It was the worst way to die, the men said, as they never had a way to defend themselves. For this war, we have gas masks that the older men clutch to their chests in their sleep.
I have been in the trenches for weeks upon weeks, shooting at anything that moves, be it a soldier or animal. Then again, what is the difference? We have been brought down to our primal instincts, hunting, dominating, and burning anything that threatens us. For soldiers, blood, smoke, and fog have become our oxygen, but for you, it is fabricated truths and hopeless ideals. Our fighting for a supposedly noble cause is of what use if citizens become infected by the virus of obedience? It is compliance without questioning that will be the true fall of man.
You are my sister, so I know that you reminisce. We used to bicker about meaningless trivialities as if they were political negotiations of the day. Intelligently, however, we left the real politics for the adults, who would chew on it like under cooked venison. How you long for a return to life as beautiful as the one we had before.
But, Sister, I hope you will listen to the advice of your dying brother. A soldier understands much more about the citizenry than those old men in their comfortable homes with enough money to die and live a full life again.
Some historical events are a feather on the human timeline, ones that we can blow away and remain unchanged by. Others are stubborn, concrete walls that we hammer at until the mass turns to dust. All the pain, suffering, and patience will mold our souls from our initial state of being to something completely different. Thus, knowledge of the present can not allow us to return to our past. The Great War had crippled the world that we knew, and an attempt to brush over it resulted in another war – one that future generations will judge our character by.
As always, the burden of history is broken on the backs of innocent civilians. We always have to pay the highest price for security, while leaders make false promises of glory for the state and success for all. They take advantage of our patience and increase demands when we are strong enough to handle more. Is this how our world will look like from now and on? A few years of hidden tension, and then an explosion that will disrupt our lives again? In a few days, another country will join this fight, and the people will – once again – stay in submission.
You may have noticed that I said that I was a dying man, but I assure you that my heart is still pumping diligently. But, soon, you will not recognize me anymore, as I will die as an individual, becoming a soldier with everything but a heart. I am positioned next at Auschwitz to take lives with gas chambers – lives that helplessly wait for an end to their endless suffering. Unlike most soldiers, I do not believe that I am doing them a favor, but I suspect that will change very soon. Will I still be human then?
I may return home one day, but I will already be dead. If you love your brother, you will make sure that my words are used to keep me alive. I pray you will understand.
The final wish of a dying man is for his sister to remember – it was the submission that killed our men.
But I do not want to submit.
Mary’s face was wet with emotion. The words clouded her vision more than the surrounding fog. Yet, there wasn’t any comfort to this ambiguity. Pinpricks of understanding nipped her conscious but her course of action remained unknown. She turned on her inner radio, listening closely to the maddening static for closure.
“Mary? Mary, can you hear me?” Noah’s voice was overcome by the disturbance but was as eloquent as she remembered. She cupped her ears together to hold his words in her mind, afraid they will spill into her unforgiving world. “I will be a dead man soon, submitting just as easily as the rest of the men. Do you consider me a hypocrite after reading my letter?” The airy quality of his laugh made Mary’s heart ache. “But you can save me! Oh, yes you can. You can let me die as I am!”
“Oh Noah, what are you saying?” Suddenly, she was in the trenches with a shotgun, and the fog was gaining speed. Noah was in the fog, somehow unaffected. The Gestapo was watching her from the side.
Noah spoke first, “I do not want to submit, Mary. You know what to do.”
She took her first whiff of the poison – the pain! Each breath sliced her throat into little slits. How could she bury someone that wanted a life ever so badly? The gas left blisters on her face. The static reverberated in her eardrums without mercy. Mary screamed and shot a couple of rounds into the fog – a helpless act of denial.
Noah whispered words of comfort as if they were commands of a general, “Your sacrifice will bring me peace.”
With that, she ran into No Man’s Land, leaving the poison gas in the trenches. The fog had cleared upfront, but her throat still ached from the gas attack. A soldier was waiting for her on the other side, with his newspaper cocked like a gun.
“Hello young lady, is there anything you need?” Finn, the butcher, looked up from his newspaper to see Mary, teary eyed, gasping for air.
“Give this to the Gestapo, please.”
He picked up the letter and gave it a read, pausing and sighing at the right moments. When he was done, they stared into each other’s eyes. In Mary’s, he saw an an individual whim of rebellion rather than one of the collective. Still, he was cautious, “I do not know who you are, nor do I want to, but you are asking me to take part in a very inhumane action. Who are you with?”
“I found the letter on the street.” Both of them saw through her lie. Finn’s eyes flickered to the picture.
“And if he is tortured?”
“I think that is what he wishes.” The fog was barely visible, and the warmth of the sun enveloped them both. “I know the police will pay a modest amount for your support.”
“And I assure you, that this is not about the money.” With that, the man folded his newspaper and walked away. Mary waited a few moments before following him across the city. He walked into a police station and slipped the letter into the bin with a small, handwritten note. Mary heard a shot go off in her head.
So when the news of his death came to the family, Mary, without a hint of sorrow, watched her father finish all the rum in the house and her mother dig deeper into the past. Noah was sitting on the floor, beside Mary, playing with the dials on the radio. She asked him a question that only ghosts could answer.
“Do people change, Noah? What is our nature?”
He looked down with a solemn expression, “Most submit and pretend to be living. Some commit and believe that they are winning. And the very few at the top make us believe we chose it all for ourselves.”
There was nothing left to say after that.