When fifteen year old Jake Allister learns the new neighbor in his apartment complex is an elderly man from Germany named Mr. Wagner, he fears the worst. The guy's old enough to have survived World War II, and to Jake's young mind, that makes him suspect. Because Mr. Wagner isn't Jewish, Jake assumes the man must have been part of the Nazi regime who tortured and killed millions before he was born.
Jake isn't religious, by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is his mother. He had to learn about the Holocaust at school; now he distrusts anything German, including Mr. Wagner. Then he sees the old man watching him and his boyfriend Thad make out in the parking lot. Jake just knows the guy is a Nazi.
But when he finally gets invited into Mr. Wagner's apartment, Jake discovers Jews weren't the only ones who suffered during the Holocaust. For the first time, he begins to grasp the scope of the tragedy that unfurled during the war ... and what it meant to be Jewish -- or gay -- in Nazi Germany.
Cutting off the water in the sink, his mother wiped down the countertop and, in an effort to make conversation, said, “I met our new neighbor yesterday. Mr. Wagner.”
She pronounced it with a V -- Vagner. “Why do you say it like that?” Jake asked. “Is he a vampire or something? I vant to suck your blood.”
“He’s German,” his mother explained, “and a very nice old man. He asked about you.”
Jake felt a chill go down his spine when she said the word German. He’d just learned about World War II his freshman year, and now in his mind Germany was forever linked to the Holocaust. The day he’d learned of the millions of Jews killed in the camps, he had come home close to tears and demanded to know why no one had ever told him about it before. “It’s not really something you tell a kid,” his mother had explained, before telling him about a great-aunt who had died at Dachau.
Though he didn’t want to admit it, Jake felt more than a little prejudiced now -- whenever he heard something said in German, he felt sick to his stomach, and the thought of ever visiting Germany made him want to run as far away as he possibly could. He’d never known his great-aunt -- his mother admitted even she didn’t really know the woman, it’d been an aunt on her father’s side who still lived in Poland even after the rest of the family had moved to America -- but he suspected she wasn’t the only one of his family killed during the war. That no one had stopped the slaughter -- that terrified him the most, that’s what made him so angry. How could anyone let that happen? Why had no one stood up against the Nazis and put an end to it before so many lost their lives?
“It was a different time,” his mother often said. “You just don’t understand.”
Maybe she was right, maybe he didn’t understand, but he knew if any secret police came knocking on the doors in his neighborhood, rounding up people for nothing more than their religious beliefs, he’d try to stop it. He wouldn’t let it happen again.
His mind turned to their newest neighbor, an elderly gentleman he’d seen moving in over the weekend. Two burly guys in a van did all the actual moving, or Jake knew for certain his mother would’ve enlisted his help. Now he was glad he didn’t lift a finger -- the man was most likely old enough to have been alive during the war. How had he spent it? That was what Jake wanted to know.
“Is he Jewish?” he asked, his voice high and tight to his own ears.
His mother gave him a strange look. “What? No, I don’t think so.”
Jake let that digest a moment. “How old is he?”
“Oh, gosh.” His mother leaned her hip against the counter and thought about it. “In his eighties, at least. We’ll have to keep an eye on him, see if he needs any help with anything. He has a cat. He joked it’s almost as old as he is.”
Jake didn’t find that very funny. If the man was that old, he’d definitely been alive in the 1940’s during World War II. If he was German and not Jewish, then that must mean ... “Is he a Nazi?”
“Jake Arthur!” His mother slapped the towel down onto the counter and glared at him. “You can’t just say that about someone! Don’t you know how hurtful that is?”
“But he isn’t a Jew,” Jake tried to explain, “and he’s old enough to have been in the war, so he’s either a Nazi or he didn’t bother fighting when the Nazis took everyone else away. In my mind, that’s just as bad.”
“In my mind, you’re going to be late for school.” His mother gave him a warning look that dared him to contradict her. “We’ll discuss this later. Don’t you dare call him a Nazi to his face, do you hear?”
“He’ll probably lock me up, too,” Jake groused. “Isn’t there someone we can call? The police, or the government, or something? My teacher said the Nazis who are still alive can be tried for their war crimes --”
“He isn’t a Nazi,” his mother assured him. “He’s an old man with a German accent and if I ever hear you accuse him of anything so heinous again, I’ll --”
“Fine.” Jake pushed his chair back from the dining room table and checked to make sure his phone was still in the back pocket of his jeans. He thought he’d felt it vibrate while he ate, but if he tried to check it now, he was likely to lose it, given his mother’s current mood. “What’s your problem, Mom? I was kidding, okay?”
“There are some things you do not kid about,” she said in a clipped tone.