Sleight of Hand by Joel Whoopy-Cat Illian -- © 2004-2005 All Rights Reserved.
The night was dark, but the atmosphere was filled with electricity and excitement. Although the sky was black, it seemed nearly as bright as day inside the arena.
From his seat on the stage Rolf could not have asked for a better view of the spectacle that was laid out before him. He had never seen so many people in one place in all his young life. They stretched out beyond the stage as far as the eye could see – a veritable sea of humanity. They stood in perfect ranks, elbow to elbow, in such beautiful order as to make a parade grounds sergeant proud. Some held banners proudly; all gazed forward attentively with un-straying eyes.
No, he had never seen so many people before. He had never seen so many swastikas before either. Oak-ringed swastikas, swastikas proudly being clutched by majestic eagles, swastikas on arm bands, swastikas on flags, golden swastikas that glistened in the light of dancing flames – it was enough to draw tears to his eyes and bring a lump to his throat.
Nor had he ever before seen so many important people gathered together – at least not personally, he hadn’t. There was Josef Goebbels; the speech he had delivered earlier that evening was a masterful piece of orative wonder. There was Hermann Goering who, in any other context, might have appeared pompous and obese. But here, as the Fuhrer’s trusted Marshal of the Luftwaffe, he simply appeared regal and confident. There was Himmler, feared by all; his small frame and little round glasses might have been the subject of goading and derision if not for the fearsome power he possessed and his proven willingness to wield his fierce temper on any who dared cross him.
The stirring sound of Wagner filled the arena like a wave, blaring from the dozens of enormous speakers strategically placed at regular intervals around the arena. Although he had heard these throbbing notes a thousand times in his life, they never failed to send a chill down Rolf’s spine. A distant relative of the great composer, Rolf had grown up listening to Wagner. Surely no man had more perfectly and precisely depicted the greatness of the German race than Wagner.
A cheer rose up from the crowd and at once filled the air like fog on a cool Bavarian morning in late autumn. Thousands of arms raised in perfect synchronicity with cheers of “Sig Heil! Sig Heil!” Then Rolf finally realized why. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Him. Approaching from Rolf’s left, the Fuhrer slowly ascended the stairs to the stage, confidently and deliberately striding toward the podium. The hairs on the back of Rolf’s neck stood on end at the sight of Him. He was almost overcome with emotion. It was Hitler himself! What more could a teenage Nazi wish for than to be this close to ‘der Fuhrer’? His head was swimming and he felt dizzy with wonder and emotion.
Rolf looked to his friend Werner sitting to his right. Werner returned his gaze and both shook their heads, overcome by the emotion and fervor of the moment. With arms extending out before them, they joined the intoxicating chant, “Sig Heil! Sig Heil!”
Rolf had waited for this moment for almost three years. To be so close to the beloved Fuhrer was almost more than he could believe. And the best part was yet to come! Once the Fuhrer had finished his speech to the crowd, Rolf and his Hitlerjugend comrades were scheduled to meet their supreme leader in person! The mere thought of it was enough to cause the young boy’s palms to sweat profusely in anticipation. How long he had waited for an occasion such as this! He thought back on the many sacrifices he had made on the long journey toward this very night. But, he knew, it was all worth it in the end. At least he hoped it had been worth it.
He thought back on the years of tribulation, the ideas and notions he had been struggling with ever since the Fuhrer had come to power, vowing to regain the esteem and prestige the German people had lost at Versailles.
Rolf’s father had been a master magician and entertainer: The Great Steinbrennen. Although half Jewish on his father’s side, Rolf’s mother’s relation to the great composer Wagner, albeit somewhat distant, had spared them the fate suffered by so many other Jews in Nazi Germany.
In school Rolf had learned to despise and to hide the Jewish blood that flowed through his veins. His father had tried his best to teach Rolf to be proud of his heritage, to think for himself, and not to follow along with the crowd. As Hitler began his speech, Rolf tried his best to pay attention to what the Fuhrer was saying, but he couldn’t stop his mind from drifting.
He recalled from his youth the memories of his fathers’ own frequent speeches. The Nazis, his father had told him on more than one occasion, were simply a political party. They had no more a monopoly on truth than any other group of humans. It was up to him to decide for himself what was true and what was false; what was fact and what was actually a lie thinly veiled in simple propaganda. “Think for yourself, dear Rolf,” his father had always concluded his speeches. “Don’t let Hitler or Goebbels or Marx or anyone else persuade you to believe something you know to be wrong! You must think for yourself, my precious son.”
But Rolf’s schoolteachers had been well prepared to counter any such divisive ideology that might be taught at home. Rolf and his classmates had been thoroughly schooled in the “real truth”. “Brainwashing,” his father had called it; “indoctrination in the undeniable facts of life” is what his Headmaster had rebutted. And although Rolf’s father would come to die heartbroken in the knowledge that his son’s mind had been won over by the Headmaster, in fact it was his own words that eventually caused his son to choose the path that he did. “After all,” Rolf remembered concluding, “Father taught me to think for myself.”
That’s why, at age 14, Rolf had done what he himself would have considered unthinkable only a few years previously. He had joined the Hitler Youth where he had distinguished himself as a born leader – “an example of a truly dedicated Nazi of which Aryans everywhere should be proud,” as one instructor had commended. But such praise was not handed out lightly. To receive such praise had meant Rolf had to not only perform exceptionally; it had also required him to take “that extra step,” something truly difficult that would convince his superiors that indeed he was a worthy soldier for The Cause.
The decision to turn in his own parents for ‘subversion’ was indeed the most difficult thing Rolf had ever had to do up to that point in his life. Deep inside, he feared that he would regret it for the rest of his life. But if he was truly dedicated to the path he had laid out for himself, it was a step that was simply required of him. Despite the pangs of guilt he felt, Rolf knew that if he was going to accomplish his goals in life, betraying his father and mother was a small price to pay in the larger scheme of things.
He was 17 now. He had advanced quickly, passing every test, accomplishing every task, and doing all that had been asked of him. He had endured the brutal hazing at the hands of his fellow youth. He had participated in the rounding up of subversives, beating many of them severely. He had killed men, women, even children with his own hands, and had sent countless others off to the camps. He had proven himself ‘worthy’ in every respect.
But had it all been worth it? All the pain and suffering he had caused, all the torturous nightmares he’d endured, the overwhelming feelings of guilt that hung over his head like a cloud, was the end result truly worth all that? Yes, he concluded, it would all be worth it after tonight. For this was the culmination of all toward which he had worked these past three years. He was now a young man of steel, a formidable fighting machine. Tonight he would be rewarded for all he had been forced to endure.
The Fuhrer was in fine form tonight. His eloquence was matched only by his passion. He pounded his fist on the podium as he spoke of the Jewish scourge. He clenched his fists before his face in anguish as he spoke of the Thousand Year Reich. He turned his side to the audience as he spoke of the Red Menace, casually combing his hair with his hand as he listened to his minions crying, “Heil! Heil! Heil!” with their hands raised in loyalty.
Rolf joined them, of course. The blood pulsed through him until he felt that the vein on his forehead might actually burst as his classmates used to tease him. But no one teased him about anything anymore! All who knew him knew Rolf to be a fiercely loyal trooper, a man of unquestionable dedication, willing to devour any who stood in his way. That is why he was to be honored this night, as the faithful servant of the Fuhrer that he had shown himself to be.
His eyes were drawn to the Fuhrer’s body guards in their pitch black uniforms, the jagged ‘S’s emblazoned on their helmets. The blood-red arm bands stood out against the black uniforms; the swastika, in turn, stood out boldly against the white circle circumscribed about it. They looked like living statues, tall and strong, motionless. What dedication it must take, Rolf mused, for these men to stand unwavering for hours on end, their MP38 submachine guns in hand. Viewing them from behind, he couldn’t see if their fingers were actually on the triggers or if they were outside the trigger-guards. Either way, they would surely be capable of gunning down anyone who tried to harm their beloved Fuhrer.
...Not that anything like that had ever happened. It would be sheer suicide for anyone to even try it in such a setting as this. Within seconds 100,000 screaming Nazis would surely pounce upon the poor soul who dared to think of such shameful treachery. No pity would be had for any such fool, Rolf mused, allowing a wry smile to creep across his face momentarily.
“It’s nearly your moment, Rolf.”
It took a moment for Rolf to respond to the voice. He turned to see the face of his friend Werner proudly beaming back at him. From the day Rolf had betrayed his parents to the Gestapo, Werner had been his closest companion. They were nearly inseparable. Rolf had helped Werner with his tactical studies; Werner, in turn, had helped Rolf with his indoctrination training. Together they had advanced to the top of their class within the Hitler Youth. Werner admired Rolf like no one else, short of the Fuhrer himself, of course; he thought of Rolf as a perfect example for all true Aryans. “If only he knew,” Rolf thought to himself.
Commandant Reichmann had confidentially spoken with Rolf only the day before. As proud as the Commandant was of Rolf, he said there was one more task required of him before he could become a member of the Elite Cadres. (There was always ‘one more task’, it seemed.) Rolf must provide the hungry Gestapo with one more sacrificial lamb. While they were outside participating in physical training last week, agents had entered the recruits’ barracks. Among Werner’s personal things they had found a notebook filled with handwritten poems – subversive poems, the Commandant had said.
Rolf knew Werner better than anyone. He knew that his companion was probably the most loyal Nazi in their class. He was even more dedicated to The Cause than Rolf himself was. That’s why Rolf had felt compelled to write the poems and plant the notebook among Werner’s possessions. After tonight’s ceremony, he had promised the Commandant, he would personally deliver Werner over to the SS. To expedite the handing over of Werner to the Gestapo, Rolf suggested that he invite Werner to be his guest at the ceremony. The gleam in the Commandant’s eyes told Rolf that this further act would truly place him among the Most Elite.
Of all the treacherous deeds Rolf had perpetrated over the past three years, the betrayal of his ‘friend’ Werner was the only one for which he felt no guilt. Werner was friendly enough, to be sure; and he was, indeed, the closest thing Rolf had to a ‘friend’. But inside, Rolf knew, Werner was a sniveling weasel. He had advanced through the ranks by turning in numerous friends and relatives for subversive activities. But none of these were close friends or relatives. Most were mere acquaintances or distant relation at best. Rolf knew in his heart (and indeed had been told bluntly by Werner himself) that the people Werner betrayed were only scarcely known to him. He knew none of his victims well enough to truly know whether or not they were Enemies of the State. In each and every case they were but bait, used by Werner to advance himself within the Reich.
Again Rolf thought to himself, “If only he knew.” He couldn’t resist a silent chuckle.
Now the Fuhrer was on the ‘home stretch.’ His voice cracked as he screamed his concluding paragraphs. From this close, Rolf could tell, for the first time in his life, that these furious speeches truly took a toll on the Fuhrer. He was utterly spent. Like a marathon runner approaching his final kilometer, the Fuhrer struggled to finish his address to the masses, determined not to deny his audience even a single nugget of the masterful speech that had been written for him especially for this night. So onward he plodded despite the mental and physical efforts he had put forth in delivering his performance tonight. What a glorious display of Aryan Supremacy ‘der Fuhrer’ had put on this evening! What a spectacle it all was!
Upon concluding his address the Fuhrer remained at the podium for nearly fifteen minutes as the crowd shouted and cheered and worshipped their leader. Rolf could see the Fuhrer consuming this praise, deriving nourishment from it every bit as much as Rolf received literal nutrition from a meal. And what a generous feast of praise the Fuhrer was enjoying! Despite the outward look of nonchalance he displayed as he continued to stand behind the podium, Rolf was close enough to see that Hitler was eating it up voraciously.
After screaming for more than twelve straight minutes, Rolf could no longer refrain from coughing as his parched throat battled his vocal chords for saliva. Werner’s well practiced voice continued to cheer, and Rolf noticed the slightest hint of a sneer out of the corner of his eye when Werner saw that he was able to continue while Rolf was not. But Rolf would not allow his saluting hand to falter even if he had less control over his voice. And as soon as he had regained his breath he continued to cheer along with Werner and the tens of thousands before him.
At long last, it appeared the Fuhrer had finally consumed his fill of praise for this night and he slowly backed away from the podium, nodding as he did so, his own arm raised, returning the crowd’s salute. Then he turned and faced the smaller gallery of dignitaries, including Rolf and Werner, behind the podium. His salute to these – his Most Faithful – was a signal to all that he was done for that evening. Rolf’s heart nearly stopped beating altogether when the Fuhrer turned in his general direction and returned the salute. It seemed that the Fuhrer was looking him straight in the eyes, although, he had to admit, surely everyone in the gallery was thinking the very same thing about themselves.
Goebbels returned to the podium as the Fuhrer made his way to an area on the left-hand side of the stage (the right-hand side from Rolf and Werner’s perspective in the gallery behind the podium) where a small table had been assembled with a stack of medals and awards that were to be distributed.
As Goebbels gave a brief introduction to the crowd, a group of some dozen cadets simultaneously stood at the prearranged cue and made their way down to the stage floor from the gallery behind the podium. They stood tall and proud as Hitler gave each of them an award, a handshake, and a bent-armed salute. When the last of them had been duly honored the crowd gave an enthusiastic “Heil!” and they exited the stage to return to the gallery, making way for the next batch of honorees.
Several small groups came and went in similar fashion. In each case, an aide selected the appropriate award from the table, handed it to the Fuhrer who, in turn, presented it to the recipient. To Rolf’s mind it seemed to drag on forever. Werner, however, seemed to be having the time of his life cheering with the crowd for each new group of honorees. Rolf found himself wondering if Werner was truly inspired by these faithful recipients or if he was simply caught up in the fervor of the moment. Knowing the ambitious and jealous Werner as he did, Rolf decided it was surely more of the latter than the former.
Soon the group presentations were completed and Goebbels, from his position at the podium, gave some introductory words about the individual awards that were now to be given. This, Rolf knew, was his cue to leave his seat and take his place standing on the stage floor with the other recipients of individual honors.
As Rolf stood to walk down to the stage floor Werner reached up and gave him a hard slap on the back, nodding to Rolf from his seat, “You’ve earned this!” To an outside observer it surely would have seemed sincere enough, but Rolf knew Werner well enough to recognize it as the disingenuous praise that it was.
As he took his place in line with the small group of fellow Major Award recipients, facing the crowd from the stage, he could see Hitler at the far end of the stage along with the aide who was in charge of handing the appropriate medal to the Fuhrer as each cadet’s name was announced. Beyond them was a trio of armed guards, still standing like statues, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Although the gallery he’d been sitting in was essentially on this very stage, Rolf was keenly aware of how much more intensely the heat from the lights was when one was actually down on the stage itself.
He could scarcely believe that in a few short minutes he would at last be face-to-face with the Fuhrer he had so faithfully served – the culmination of all his years of hard work and sacrifice. Rolf’s heart was pounding so loudly he was sure the others could hear it. But as he stole a quick glance to his left and to his right from the corners of his eyes, he realized the others were every bit as nervous as he was. Well, perhaps not quite as nervous as he, Rolf admitted. He noticed the sweat rolling off the brow of the cadet to his left. The cadet to his right was hardly able to stand; his hands, hanging straight down at his sides, were visibly shaking ever so slightly. For his part, Rolf himself felt almost dizzy with excitement. Tens of thousands were listening to Goebbels as he sang the praises of the men who now stood before them. Major Party figures were hearing of the gallant deeds of Rolf and the boys who stood with him on the stage. It was almost more than a person could stand, Rolf thought, an honor every good Nazi would do nearly anything to share, but one that only a very few had ever experienced.
Now Goebbels introduced the first of the evening’s individual award-winners. The first boy, at the far right of the line, nearest to the podium, did a crisp right-face and strode towards Hitler at the far end of the stage. Out of the corner of his eye Rolf watched as the cadet came to a sharp halt before the Fuhrer, bowing his head as the medal was placed around his neck. He then gave his beloved Fuhrer a tight salute which was returned in kind by Hitler. The crowd cheered wildly as the first boy exited the stage, the proudest person in the Reich at that moment.
The second boy in line was introduced and repeated the actions of the first. Despite the incredible excitement Rolf felt, old doubts returned to his mind quite suddenly and unexpectedly. He tried to shake them off, but he couldn’t. His mind was racing as he recalled his own despicable actions of the past few years. He pictured the countless men he had beaten to death, or nearly so; he could hear the screams, the pleas for mercy, the venomous curses spewing from his own mouth as he had worked his way up the ladder, working toward a singular goal, the culmination of which was this very evening of honor and pride.
The third boy had received his medal and was exiting the stage as the fourth was now being introduced.
But Rolf’s mind continued to race even faster than his heart was pounding in his chest. He saw the faces of his parents, the unmistakable look of betrayal and shock they wore as the Gestapo had dragged them from their home while their own son looked on pitilessly. He felt the tears welling up in his eyes uncontrollably as the fifth boy’s name was being called. How many people had he caused to suffer unspeakable abuse, Rolf wondered. Dozens? Scores? Probably more - hundreds, he supposed. Was it all really worth it? Was all this truly worth the suffering he had caused? Tonight he would be honored for all those deeds, and his actions, he supposed, would be remembered forever; but at what cost?
Suddenly the boy to Rolf’s immediate right briskly left his side and began his nervous walk toward Hitler to receive his award. Rolf hadn’t even heard the sixth boy’s name called. Now Rolf stood in realization that he would be the next name Goebbels would speak. In a matter of moments he would be walking toward the Fuhrer himself to receive the honor toward which he had worked so diligently all these years. He still found it hard to believe that he was now a mere twenty meters from his ultimate goal. He struggled to push the thoughts from his mind, but now that the Prize was so close, he found it impossible to think of anything else.
And then it came. Without warning, Goebbels was speaking his name. Rolf turned to see that the boy who had previously stood to his right was already leaving the stage with a medal proudly hanging from his neck. Now it was Rolf’s turn. He felt as though he was in a dream or a trance. He could hear Goebbels telling the crowd of his accomplishments and merits, but Rolf heard none of it. He felt as though he was outside his body, watching himself from a distance as he made his way across the stage. Goebbels continued to sing Rolf’s praises, recounting his many Deeds of Honor and Acts of Courage and Integrity, all done for the Reich and for the Fuhrer.
The walk across the stage seemed miles long to Rolf. But now he was finding strength, purpose, and focus. He thought of his father and the many things he had tried to teach his young son. If his father had been here tonight, Rolf knew, he would have been proud of his son. Wouldn’t he? Yes, Rolf concluded, he would surely be proud. If he had been given the chance to be with his father just a little while longer, Rolf surely could have convinced him of the worthiness of his actions, the worthiness of The Cause. Surely his father would have eventually been able to see the importance of the goal toward which Rolf had been working. Surely he could have shown his father that the Prize toward which Rolf had striven these past years was both noble and honorable. He silently prayed that his father was, even now, looking down on him with pride as he made the final few steps across the stage, being honored by the Fuhrer with all the Reich watching him, honoring him, determined to model themselves after such an outstanding example of the kind of quality product the Fatherland could produce.
Finally Rolf found himself standing less than a meter from Hitler. Clicking his heels together, he stood tall and proud before the Fuhrer. Rolf’s 193cm frame towered over Hitler; a truly fine specimen of Aryan perfection was he. As Goebbels read his commendation to the crowd, Rolf’s steely eyes met Hitler’s. At the appointed moment Hitler was handed Rolf’s medal and the boy bowed low as the Fuhrer placed it about Rolf’s neck.
The crowd cheered as Rolf’s right arm shot up in salute to his Fuhrer. Then Rolf turned his head to the crowd and raised his left arm up in salute. The crowd cheered madly although more than a few people wondered about the boy’s left-handed salute. It wasn’t complicated, really, Rolf thought to himself. Simple misdirection his father would have called it. The Great Steinbrennen had taught many children the basics of being a good magician. His own son had always been his best student.
A simple movement with one hand naturally causes anyone to follow that hand with their eyes, completely failing to notice what might be happening in the other hand. When combined with proper use of the magician’s eyes, The Great Steinbrennen had taught, you can do almost anything with your other hand. Rolf’s father had always ended these words by producing a coin or an egg or a handkerchief in the other hand, demonstrating how easily an act of sleight-of-hand can be executed even when the audience is being told how and what is being done.
But Rolf wasn’t going to produce a coin, an egg, or a kerchief from his other hand. Years of practice by his father’s side had made Rolf an adept young illusionist before his days in the Hitler Youth. Three more years of practicing for this very moment had made him so proficient that even his father, The Great Steinbrennen, would have been impressed. Rolf’s left hand hadn’t been in the air for more than a moment before he had easily slipped the stiletto down his right shirt sleeve and into his right hand which was still hanging loosely at his side. He could feel the razor-sharp blade pass between the fingers of his right hand until the handle was firmly in his hand.
The next move was as well practiced as his sleight of hand had been. Still partially palming the long, thin stiletto, Rolf effortlessly slipped it into Hitler’s belly, just above the belt buckle, and in a single motion, he firmly grasped the handle and turned it ninety degrees, finally jerking it upward, tearing through the Fuhrer’s stomach and dissecting his diaphragm in no more than a second or two. Before anyone could process what was happening before them, Rolf removed the knife from Hitler’s chest and sliced it across the Fuhrer’s throat. Hitler paled immediately and staggered for a brief moment before collapsing face-first onto the stage floor.
More than a dozen 9mm bullets had ripped through Rolf’s body even before most of the audience could realize what had just happened. As young Rolf staggered backward from the impact of the first volley, he was hit by a dozen more shots from the guards at the far end of the stage, sending Rolf reeling forward. By the time Rolf had fallen to the floor, shrieks of startled terror could be heard from those close enough to see the attack clearly. Rolf’s body fell next to the Fuhrer’s and the two of them lay face-to-face on their bellies as their lives both swiftly slipped away.
In the microseconds before he died Rolf looked directly into the eyes of the Fuhrer. Hitler’s eyes were filled with confusion and fear, his face was quickly turning a pallid shade of blue from the lack of oxygen in his blood. Rolf felt no pain. He simply stared at the Fuhrer and smiled. Rolf watched the life exit the Fuhrer over a period of what might have been hours or possibly only seconds – he couldn’t tell which.
Everything was turning white and he thought about the great sacrifice he had just made on behalf of his beloved Fatherland. Once again Rolf felt as though he was outside his body looking down upon himself from far away. As the view began to fade, Rolf’s last thoughts were of his family. Yes, he decided, his father would indeed have been proud to see him tonight. As he thought, one last time, about all the suffering he had inflicted and endured in pursuit of this one incredible moment in time, he could reach only one conclusion. Perhaps it had all been worth it after all.
~ Joel “Whoopy-Cat” Illian - 27 October 2004