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The Swastika Tattoo

September 1944

     The question exploded upon Rudolf Meier like a torpedo hitting the hull of a German U-boat.
     His head jerked violently to see who could possibly have voiced such an outrage and then Rudolf’s gaze landed on the son of the farmer who owned the fields where he and other Nazi prisoners of war labored.
     “Why do the German people still believe in Hitler?” the youth asked, unexpectedly throwing his inquiry into the stifling air. In that terrible moment of frozen impotence,
Rudolf knew he would never forget the brazen American kid who stood in the midst of a scorching Arizona cotton field, leaning against the wooden handle of a hoe.
     The German straightened suddenly from his bent position where he had been digging fiercely at a tenacious weed. “Why do you ask such a thing?” Rudolf spat out his words, rage soaking his voice. Wasn’t it bad enough he suffered such degrading work tending the hated baumwolle? Rudolf felt no better than a lowly nigger in this parched American wasteland, and now there was the added injury of a stupid American questioning the German people’s love for Der Führer. Like the small flame of a match to a cigarette, Rudolf’s fury lit the crumpled edge of his German soul.
     The teenager answered Rudolf’s angry words without flinching. “Well, in school yesterday—in my civics class—we were discussing the war and our teacher said the German people would gladly follow Hitler into…well, into Hades. Of course, you need to understand my teacher’s brother was killed in the Normandy invasion…fighting you guys, so maybe that’s why she thinks that. I heard you speak English to the guard, so I thought I would ask you why the German people still believe in Hitler.”
     Rudolf stared at the American with unwavering suspicion. He guessed him to be about seventeen. Rudolf’s first inclination was to retort he was a prisoner and not allowed to talk to impudent farmers’ sons, but he knew the sluggish guards did not care. Deciding to answer the question after a long moment, Rudolf looked around to make sure none of the other POWs could hear; he did not want to be seen talking with the enemy.
     “We believe in Adolf Hitler because he made life better for us,” Rudolf said, trying to keep a calm demeanor, but his right eye began twitching. “Before Hitler, under the Weimar Republic, there was no work for the German people because of the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles. The Führer brought food to our tables, gave us work for our hands. He is our leader, our strength.”
     The teenager digested that for a moment and then countered, “Yes, but he’s led you into this awful war. Germany is losing…”
     Rudolf’s face, burned brown from the Arizona sun, blanched. He wanted to strike out against this idiot who voiced such blasphemy, but he knew the trouble he would be in if he did. Instead, in a measured tone, he said, “Don’t be so sure of that,” and then he abruptly turned from the source of his enmity, his eye still twitching against his fierce will. Rudolf quickly found another patch of weeds in an adjacent cotton row to hack into, hoping it would alleviate his wrath.
     Moments later when Rudolf glanced back at the farmer’s son, he saw a quizzical look, as if the youth wanted to say more, but the guards called the men together to take them back to Camp Papago Park. Rudolf carried his hoe to the shed at the end of the field and turned it in; he was glad for the end of this day and the disrespectful questions by the American.
     Back in his barrack, Rudolf removed his boots and placed them carefully at the foot of his cot, and then he stripped off his clothes, filthy with the dust of the cotton field and his sharp-smelling sweat. He dropped them on the floor, one on top of the other in a messy pile, and then sat wearily on his cot in his underwear. The interminable heat was even more stifling in the small barrack, and Rudolf’s longing for the green of his beloved homeland permeated his being. Disgusted with his circumstances, Rudolf’s thoughts turned easily to the conversation with the American bastard.
     He pondered the heresy of the question about German fidelity to Adolf Hitler and then his mind roamed through his knowledge about democracy. Considering it from all angles—what he had been taught in the Third Reich and what he had viewed himself as a prisoner of war—Rudolf determined the American democratic system was a farce. It was beyond logic that every citizen could have a voice in their government, and the turmoil of the failed Weimar Republic imposed upon Germany after WWI certainly proved that.
     Rudolf smiled faintly, knowing the German people would never again want self-governance because only Der Führer knew what was best for the Fatherland. With all his heart, Rudolf Meier believed in the Führerprinzip, the obligation that everyone must obey the nation’s leader. Germany’s glory was because its leader, Adolf Hitler, had led the country out of its economic crisis, and spread its military force far and wide throughout Europe. While he conceded the Wehrmacht was pulling back now on all fronts, that would soon change, and the world would crumple once again under Germany’s might. Rudolf felt certain of the Fatherland’s triumph, and when that moment happened, America—this country of mixed races and a foolish belief in individual freedom—would simply capitulate.
     Although he grudgingly acknowledged the economic strength of America, he believed it to be a country riddled with Jew bankers and bank-robbing Dagos busy lining their own pockets. Rudolf shook his head in wonderment: Americans had no thought for the national community like Germans—they were too busy stealing from one another other in their capitalistic greed.
     Rudolf remembered the celebration a year ago, in the fall of 1943, when he and other POWs heard about a tremendous German victory; the news passing jubilantly from man to man, like a soccer ball kicked down the field toward the goal line.
     Werner Carl, a swarthy torpedo mechanic who had served with Rudolf on Unterseeboot-893 (known as U-893), ran into the barrack Rudolf shared with other German submariners. Barely containing himself, he yelled, “We just heard over the radio—we took Rome!” Carl slapped Rudolf on the back and there were smiles on all the men’s faces. “Field-marshal Kesselring and his airborne troops seized Rome and then they freed Mussolini from a hotel where he was held captive!”
     “Such good news!” one of the men shouted. “Maybe our officers will allow us to celebrate!” Rudolf smiled along with the other men at the prospect of cracking open the hidden alcoholic cache made from citrus fruit they secretly brewed under the noses of the American guards, hiding it beneath the altar in the prison chapel.
     That was a fine memory, Rudolf acknowledged as he walked toward the bathhouse carrying his clean clothes; he had to keep his focus on the Third Reich’s successes, as minor as they may be now.