February 23, 1943
How is everything in the land of olives and goats?
I’m sure you’ve heard the results of your assessment by now. I know you were nervous, but Austin and I know that you’ll go above and beyond the expectations set for you. After all, that’s what a soldier does, and you’re nothing if not that. We can’t wait to hear that you got top marks. Be patient, someday soon you’ll be sent to the front and make us proud.
I’ve become engaged since my last letter. His name is Henry Knowles--and don’t worry, he’s of German descent. I wouldn’t entertain anyone below your standards. He’s a work friend of Austin’s, actually. I went to the bar to drop off Austin’s dinner, and, since it was dark, Henry offered to walk me home as a favor to him. And things took off from there. We haven’t set a date for the wedding yet, but it will be soon.
This country has gone mad with the war propaganda. You can’t escape it, no matter where you go! The lies it spreads about Germany and the Führer… it must be a Jewish conspiracy. Every time I see one of those nasty billboards disturbing my view of the countryside, I think of you and how lucky you are to be on the sensible side of this conflict. America better come to its senses soon, or I may riot.
I miss my big brother. May the right side triumph, and may we be on the same side of the Atlantic soon.
I didn’t want to join the Nazi Party.
I know what you’re thinking, “of course he’d say that,” but it’s the truth. I didn’t. Even as I signed my life away, even then, there was that little voice in my head that told me it was wrong. Unforgivable.
But I did. And I have to face that.
Why did I do it? I was terrified, that’s why.
I was born in Texas, in America, the third child of five. I came into this world in 1914, just at the outbreak of World War One. My father died in the war in 1918, a sharpshooter for the American forces in the heart of France. I never got to meet him. My mother did what she could to provide for me and my brothers and sister, but what could she do? She worked day and night in a steel mill until the place exploded and she died too.
After that, a distant relative of ours back in my dad’s homeland of Greece sent for us. None of us wanted to go, but it was the Depression. What could we do? Four orphan boys and a girl with nothing to their name? So, we went.
The Nazis and Italians invaded in April of 1941. My brothers and I signed up to fight the invading force, but the resistance lost. Lester, our guardian, and Lee and Michael, the two oldest, died in the crossfire, leaving me the head of the family to care for Kayla and Austin.
Well, I did what any sane person would do: I sent them on a boat back to Texas. And how did I get the authorization to do that?
You guessed it: destroy any evidence of my involvement in the Greek resistance, and become a Nazi.
I couldn’t leave the party (or the country) for so many reasons. When you join the Nazi party, you join for life… or else. I couldn’t risk anyone finding out about my past in the Greek resistance, or, worse, digging up my deepest secret: I was a homosexual. I’d go from card-carrying elite to disgraced enemy-of-the-state in a millisecond. I’d be tortured and killed long before I ever made it over the border, and Kayla and Austin would lose yet another brother.
Besides, I was lucky. Well, as lucky as I could be with a history marred by tragedy. My mother was of German descent, and I had the papers to prove it. It wasn’t as good as being a full Aryan, but it gave me decent standing compared to my other Mediterranean brethren. And, what’s more, my father Apollo had made quite the reputation as an American sharpshooter. As soon as my higher-ups found out we were related, they started training me up for the military. And I showed enough prowess in that regard that I got eyes on me. As long as I made sure to pledge loyalty to the party and my siblings and I were careful about what we wrote in our letters, everything would be fine.
...or so I thought.
It had been over a year since I’d signed up to join the Nazi Party. One of my superiors called me to his office, and, when I arrived, he wasn’t alone. There was a German with him in an S.S. uniform. He looked familiar, very familiar. I’d seen pictures of him in the military base, but I couldn’t put a name to his face.
“Heil Hitler,” I said with the usual salute. The German responded in kind. I expected him to tell me his name, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned to my Greek superior and said in German, “Translate for me. ‘Do you know why you’re here?’”
My superior repeated the sentence in Greek. “No, I don’t,” I said, purposefully in German.
The German raised his eyebrows, impressed. “You speak German? That is surprising.”
“I’ve studied it every day since you welcomed me into your ranks,” I said. It was true. I’d studied the language diligently from the day I signed up. I figured it would come in handy and possibly add legitimacy to my mother’s German origins.
“At ease, then,” the German said. He waved his hand at my superior, and he left the room. I was alone with the S.S. officer. My heart started to race.
“You are half-Aryan, yes?” the German asked.
“Yes, on my mother’s side,” I answered. “Would you like to see my papers?”
“I already have,” the German said. “You are from America?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“You have not been to Germany?”
“No.” Then, I quickly added, “but I would like to.” I needed to make a good impression. One mess-up with a man with such high standing would be my death sentence.
The German smiled. Mission accomplished. “Your wish will be granted,” he said.
My eyes widened. I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from saying, ‘what? ’”
“This…” I gulped, “this is an honor, sir.”
“An honor? Yes. You are by far the best sharpshooter in the Greek military; possibly one of the best in Germany’s ranks, period.”
He paused. “I’m honored,” I said, to fill the silence.
“Yes, yes. Your superiors speak most highly of you. They say there is none better in skill or discretion.”
If you only knew, I thought as my secrets crossed my mind.
“You are hereby appointed as the Führer’s personal guard.”
“What?” I said in English before I could stop myself. My heart went into overdrive. Cold sweat coated my palms and upper lip. My mouth hung open. I was terrified. I was beyond terrified. What if German spies looked into my past? What if they already have? What if they found out about my time in the Greek resistance--or, worse, my homosexuality? Was this a prank? A test? A trick? Would I end up tortured behind bars the moment I stepped inside Germany’s borders?
“There was a plot discovered,” the German continued as though he hadn’t heard my exclamation. “An attempt on the Führer’s life. After the incompetence displayed by his former guard, I have personally overseen this restaffing. You are to be flown to Berlin immediately to begin your new position. Lodgings, clothing, and other necessities will be provided for you when you arrive.”
“Th-- thank you, sir,” I stammered. My brain was running at a million miles an hour.
“William Solace, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Obersturmführer [lieutenant] and accepted into the ranks of the Schutzstaffel [S.S.] as Führer Hitler’s personal guard.” He handed me a new uniform to change into, complete with the badges and sleeves of an S.S. officer. I accepted it; it took everything I had to keep my hands from shaking. “Change quickly. The automobile to your ship leaves within the half-hour. Heil Hitler.”
“Heil Hitler,” I managed with the proper salute. I held my stance as I watched the German walk away.
Then, suddenly, I realized who he was.
Heinrich Himmler stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “The party is counting on you, Lieutenant Solace. Don’t fail them.”
I hated ships. After my first experience coming to Greece from America, I was so traumatized that I swore never to be on a boat again. But, this time was worse. A large, commercial ship going at a normal pace with my family around me was one thing. Speeding on rocky waves at full throttle alone for four days straight was another. I spent the entire trip in my cabin with a bucket next to my head for when I threw up. And I threw up a lot.
I was so seasick that I was actually thankful when we reached port in Hamburg. The captain ushered me into an automobile the moment I touched ground, and it was there on the four-hour ride to Berlin that terror finally set in. I was in enemy territory. I was a pretender with secrets that made me a traitor to the most powerful and brutal regime in the world. And, now, not only was I going to live and serve in their base of operations, I was also going to spend every day with the leader of it all. All eyes would be on me. How long could I hope to conceal my true self from dozens--maybe even hundreds--of people who, whether out of envy or hatred, wanted me gone? Hitler had already had one attempt on his life; what if there was another? Now I would be the first line of defense; the first target to take out. How long would I last?
How long until Austin and Kayla lost another brother?
I’ll have to write them, I realized. I won’t be able to tell them how afraid I am, but they’ll be able to read between the lines, I think. They’re smart enough to know.
If I’d had a pen and paper with me, I’d have written them right in the car, just to distract myself. But, I didn’t, so I was left alone with my swirling, racing thoughts. I soon closed my eyes, and those thoughts turned into vivid nightmares of every horror I was sure would come.
The sun had already set when I felt the auto screech to a halt. Roused from my sleep, I opened my eyes right as the driver opened my door. My hands played with the badges sewn on my collar. I was dead nervous. Emphasis on the “dead.”
“Welcome to the Old Chancellery, Lieutenant Solace,” the driver said.
I stepped out of the auto and had to stifle a gasp. In front of me stood the largest building I’d ever seen. It was three floors of what looked like white marble, complete with grand columns and windows and cobblestone roofing. In the center of it all was a beautiful courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the building and contained behind a wrought-iron fence with brick pillars. It was definitely grand enough to be the center of the S.S., to say the absolute least.
“It is quite impressive, isn’t it?” a woman said. I jumped a little, startled. I hadn’t even noticed she was there. She was a pretty young woman around my age, dressed in fine clothes and pearls. She stood behind a man in an S.S. uniform.
“You could say that,” I said. I gave the two of them the usual greeting and salute, which they echoed.
“At ease,” the man said. “Your reputation precedes you, Lieutenant.”
“It’s an honor to be here, sir,” I said with the most convincing smile I could muster.
“I’m Colonel Erich Octavian,” the man said. “And this is my fiancée, Bianca di Angelo.”
“It’s an honor to meet you,” Miss di Angelo said. “Do you have any belongings in the car?”
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Well then, shall we?” Colonel Octavian gestured towards the open gate.
“Lead the way, sir,” I said. Colonel Octavian started down the path, Miss di Angelo walking close behind. I took a deep breath. That gate… would it be the gate of heaven or hell?
Only one way to find out, I thought, and mustered the strength to enter.
I didn’t sleep that night. How could I, knowing that, as soon as the sun rose, I’d be within an arm’s length of Adolf Hitler? The dread of what was to come chased away any chance my body might’ve had at resting. And, after four days throwing up, insomnia was quite a feat.
I debated writing Kayla and Austin, but Heinrich Himmler had specifically mentioned discretion when he promoted me, so there was a pretty decent chance that I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about my new position. Writing them and even hinting at my promotion could be grounds for execution for me, and possibly releasing a hit squad for my brother and sister. I couldn’t risk that. Still, that meant I had to endure the terror alone. And that was nearly unbearable.
More than anything, I needed a friend.
As soon as I was able, I rose from my bed and meticulously got myself dressed, making sure to iron out every wrinkle, straighten every patch, button every button. I had to look as respectable as possible or Hilter might see me as disrespectful, and pissing off such a man wouldn’t be good for my health. Everything had to be absolutely perfect. I had to be absolutely perfect.
So, you know, no pressure.
My room was a big step up from the Greek barracks. A large bed, a small closet, dressers, a bookshelf, a desk… all were luxuries I hadn’t had in my impoverished life. I had a carpet beneath my feet and framed pictures hanging on walls covered with actual paint instead of whitewash. I got the sense that other bedrooms would be quite larger and grander than this one, but I was more than happy with what I got.
As Himmler promised, the room was stocked with everything I could ever need. The closet hung fresh uniforms, the desk drawers brimmed with paper, pens, and other office supplies, and the bookshelf was stuffed with novels of both fiction and non-fiction (and, of course, a whole lot of Nazi propoganda). The only real thing lacking was civilian clothing, but I doubted I’d ever be allowed to wear such a thing, even at my own wedding. I’d probably be buried in the same uniform I was wearing right now, with the symbols of my biggest shame plastered across every inch of my body.
While I waited for someone to come fetch me from my room, my eyes wandered to the bookshelf. I ran my fingers across the spines of each book. Hardcover. They were all hardcover. Had I ever seen a hardcover book before?
I laughed when I saw I’d been provided with a few textbook volumes on the German language. “To assist you with your studies,” I said to myself in an over exaggerated German accent. I wasn’t sure if those books were a compliment on my initiative or an insult that I was not up to par.
No one here liked anyone who was different.
My eyes were drawn to another book, one with its title in vivid scarlet, sitting in the center of the shelf at eye-level. “Mein Kampf,” I read aloud. I’d heard of this book before, it was the book Hitler wrote before he rose to power.
I stood there, staring at the book that started it all, in a sort of trance. Part of me debated whether I should pick it up or not. But, I never got the chance, because my door opened and Colonel Octavian came into the room.
I stood at attention. His eyes grazed over my uniform. I waited, nervous, but his face revealed nothing. “I am to escort you to the Führer. Come.”
He turned and walked out of the room. I glanced around one last time, and, heart racing, followed… the image of Mein Kampf still seared into my brain.