The Book Thief



  “Listen, Liesel.” Papa placed his arm around her and walked her on. “This is our secret, this book. We’ll read it at night or in the basement, just like the others—but you have to promise me something.”

  “Anything, Papa.”

  The night was smooth and still. Everything listened. “If I ever ask you to keep a secret for me, you will do it.”

  “I promise.”

  “Good. Now come on. If we’re any later, Mama will kill us, and we don’t want that, do we? No more book stealing then, huh?”

  Liesel grinned.

  What she didn’t know until later was that within the next few days, her foster father managed to trade some cigarettes for another book, although this one was not for her. He knocked on the door of the Nazi Party office in Molching and took the opportunity to ask about his membership application. Once this was discussed, he proceeded to give them his last scraps of money and a dozen cigarettes. In return, he received a used copy of Mein Kampf.

  “Happy reading,” said one of the party members.

  “Thank you.” Hans nodded.

  From the street, he could still hear the men inside. One of the voices was particularly clear. “He will never be approved,” it said, “even if he buys a hundred copies of Mein Kampf.” The statement was unanimously agreed upon.

  Hans held the book in his right hand, thinking about postage money, a cigaretteless existence, and the foster daughter who had given him this brilliant idea.

  “Thank you,” he repeated, to which a passerby inquired as to what he’d said.

  With typical affability, Hans replied, “Nothing, my good man, nothing at all. Heil Hitler,” and he walked down Munich Street, holding the pages of the Führer.

  There must have been a good share of mixed feelings at that moment, for Hans Hubermann’s idea had not only sprung from Liesel, but from his son. Did he already fear he’d never see him again? On the other hand, he was also enjoying the ecstasy of an idea, not daring just yet to envision its complications, dangers, and vicious absurdities. For now, the idea was enough. It was indestructible. Transforming it into reality, well, that was something else altogether. For now, though, let’s let him enjoy it.

  We’ll give him seven months.

  Then we come for him.

  And oh, how we come.

  THE MAYOR’S LIBRARY

  Certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street, to which Liesel was currently oblivious. To distort an overused human expression, the girl had more immediate fish to fry:

  She had stolen a book.

  Someone had seen her.

  The book thief reacted. Appropriately.

  Every minute, every hour, there was worry, or more to the point, paranoia. Criminal activity will do that to a person, especially a child. They envision a prolific assortment of caughtoutedness. Some examples: People jumping out of alleys. Schoolteachers suddenly being aware of every sin you’ve ever committed. Police showing up at the door each time a leaf turns or a distant gate slams shut.

  For Liesel, the paranoia itself became the punishment, as did the dread of delivering some washing to the mayor’s house. It was no mistake, as I’m sure you can imagine, that when the time came, Liesel conveniently overlooked the house on Grande Strasse. She delivered to the arthritic Helena Schmidt and picked up at the cat-loving Weingartner residence, but she ignored the house belonging to Bürgermeister Heinz Hermann and his wife, Ilsa.

  ANOTHER QUICK TRANSLATION

  Bürgermeister = mayor

  On the first occasion, she stated that she simply forgot about that place—a poor excuse if ever I’ve heard one—as the house straddled the hill, overlooking the town, and it was unforgettable. When she went back and still returned empty-handed, she lied that there was no one home.

  “No one home?” Mama was skeptical. Skepticism gave her an itch for the wooden spoon. She waved it at Liesel and said, “Get back over there now, and if you don’t come home with the washing, don’t come home at all.”

  “Really?”

  That was Rudy’s response when Liesel told him what Mama had said. “Do you want to run away together?”

  “We’ll starve.”

  “I’m starving anyway!” They laughed.

  “No,” she said, “I have to do it.”

  They walked the town as they usually did when Rudy came along. He always tried to be a gentleman and carry the bag, but each time, Liesel refused. Only she had the threat of a Watschen loitering over her head, and therefore only she could be relied upon to carry the bag correctly. Anyone else was more likely to manhandle it, twist it, or mistreat it in even the most minimal way, and it was not worth the risk. Also, it was likely that if she allowed Rudy to carry it for her, he would expect a kiss for his services, and that was not an option. Besides, she was accustomed to its burden. She would swap the bag from shoulder to shoulder, relieving each side every hundred steps or so.

  Liesel walked on the left, Rudy the right. Rudy talked most of the time, about the last soccer match on Himmel Street, working in his father’s shop, and whatever else came to mind. Liesel tried to listen but failed. What she heard was the dread, chiming through her ears, growing louder the closer they stepped toward Grande Strasse.

  “What are you doing? Isn’t this it?”

  Liesel nodded that Rudy was right, for she had tried to walk past the mayor’s house to buy some time.

  “Well, go on,” the boy hurried her. Molching was darkening. The cold was climbing out of the ground. “Move it, Saumensch.” He remained at the gate.

  After the path, there were eight steps up to the main entrance of the house, and the great door was like a monster. Liesel frowned at the brass knocker.

  “What are you waiting for?” Rudy called out.

  Liesel turned and faced the street. Was there any way, any way at all, for her to evade this? Was there another story, or let’s face it, another lie, that she’d overlooked?

  “We don’t have all day.” Rudy’s distant voice again. “What the hell are you waiting for?”

  “Will you shut your trap, Steiner?” It was a shout delivered as a whisper.

  “What?”

  “I said shut up, you stupid Saukerl ….”

  With that, she faced the door again, lifted back the brass knuckle, and tapped it three times, slowly. Feet approached from the other side.

  At first, she didn’t look at the woman but focused on the washing bag in her hand. She examined the drawstring as she passed it over. Money was handed out to her and then, nothing. The mayor’s wife, who never spoke, simply stood in her bathrobe, her soft fluffy hair tied back into a short tail. A draft made itself known. Something like the imagined breath of a corpse. Still there were no words, and when Liesel found the courage to face her, the woman wore an expression not of reproach, but utter distance. For a moment, she looked over Liesel’s shoulder at the boy, then nodded and stepped back, closing the door.

  For quite a while, Liesel remained, facing the blanket of upright wood.

  “Hey, Saumensch!” No response. “Liesel!”

  Liesel reversed.

  Cautiously.

  She took the first few steps backward, calculating.

  Perhaps the woman hadn’t seen her steal the book after all. It had been getting dark. Perhaps it was one of those times when a person appears to be looking directly at you when, in fact, they’re contentedly watching something else or simply daydreaming. Whatever the answer, Liesel didn’t attempt any further analysis. She’d gotten away with it and that was enough.

  She turned and handled the remainder of the steps normally, taking the last three all at once.

  “Let’s go, Saukerl.” She even allowed herself a laugh. Eleven-year-old paranoia was powerful. Eleven-year-old relief was euphoric.

  A LITTLE SOMETHING TO

  DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA

  She had gotten away with nothing.

  The mayor’s wife had seen her, all right.

  She
was just waiting for the right moment.

  • • •

  A few weeks passed.

  Soccer on Himmel Street.

  Reading The Shoulder Shrug between two and three o’clock each morning, post-nightmare, or during the afternoon, in the basement.

  Another benign visit to the mayor’s house.

  All was lovely.

  Until.

  When Liesel next visited, minus Rudy, the opportunity presented itself. It was a pickup day.

  The mayor’s wife opened the door and she was not holding the bag, like she normally would. Instead, she stepped aside and motioned with her chalky hand and wrist for the girl to enter.

  “I’m just here for the washing.” Liesel’s blood had dried inside of her. It crumbled. She almost broke into pieces on the steps.

  The woman said her first word to her then. She reached out, cold-fingered, and said, “Warte—wait.” When she was sure the girl had steadied, she turned and walked hastily back inside.

  “Thank God,” Liesel exhaled. “She’s getting it.” It being the washing.

  What the woman returned with, however, was nothing of the sort.

  When she came and stood with an impossibly frail steadfastness, she was holding a tower of books against her stomach, from her navel to the beginnings of her breasts. She looked so vulnerable in the monstrous doorway. Long, light eyelashes and just the slightest twinge of expression. A suggestion.

  Come and see, it said.

  She’s going to torture me, Liesel decided. She’s going to take me inside, light the fireplace, and throw me in, books and all. Or she’ll lock me in the basement without any food.

  For some reason, though—most likely the lure of the books—she found herself walking in. The squeaking of her shoes on the wooden floorboards made her cringe, and when she hit a sore spot, inducing the wood to groan, she almost stopped. The mayor’s wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question.

  Are you ready?

  Liesel craned her neck a little, as if she might see over the door that stood in her way. Clearly, that was the cue to open it.

  “Jesus, Mary …”

  She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

  With wonder, she smiled.

  That such a room existed!

  Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face.

  There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.

  “Can I?”

  The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wooden-floored land. The books were miles away.

  The woman nodded.

  Yes, you can.

  • • •

  Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.

  How many books had she touched?

  How many had she felt?

  She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them. They were too perfect.

  To her left, she saw the woman again, standing by a large desk, still holding the small tower against her torso. She stood with a delighted crookedness. A smile appeared to have paralyzed her lips.

  “Do you want me to—?”

  Liesel didn’t finish the question but actually performed what she was going to ask, walking over and taking the books gently from the woman’s arms. She then placed them into the missing piece in the shelf, by the slightly open window. The outside cold was streaming in.

  For a moment, she considered closing it, but thought better of it. This was not her house, and the situation was not to be tampered with. Instead, she returned to the lady behind her, whose smile gave the appearance now of a bruise and whose arms were hanging slenderly at each side. Like girls’ arms.

  What now?

  An awkwardness treated itself to the room, and Liesel took a final, fleeting glance at the walls of books. In her mouth, the words fidgeted, but they came out in a rush. “I should go.”

  It took three attempts to leave.

  She waited in the hallway for a few minutes, but the woman didn’t come, and when Liesel returned to the entrance of the room, she saw her sitting at the desk, staring blankly at one of the books. She chose not to disturb her. In the hallway, she picked up the washing.

  This time, she avoided the sore spot in the floorboards, walking the long length of the corridor, favoring the left-hand wall. When she closed the door behind her, a brass clank sounded in her ear, and with the washing next to her, she stroked the flesh of the wood. “Get going,” she said.

  At first, she walked home dazed.

  The surreal experience with the roomful of books and the stunned, broken woman walked alongside her. She could see it on the buildings, like a play. Perhaps it was similar to the way Papa had his Mein Kampf revelation. Wherever she looked, Liesel saw the mayor’s wife with the books piled up in her arms. Around corners, she could hear the shuffle of her own hands, disturbing the shelves. She saw the open window, the chandelier of lovely light, and she saw herself leaving, without so much as a word of thanks.

  Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.

  “You said nothing.” Her head shook vigorously, among the hurried footsteps. “Not a ‘goodbye.’ Not a ‘thank you.’ Not a ‘that’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.’ Nothing!” Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn’t mean she should have no manners at all. It didn’t mean she couldn’t be polite.

  She walked a good few minutes, struggling with indecision.

  On Munich Street, it came to an end.

  Just as she could make out the sign that said STEINER—SCHNEIDERMEISTER, she turned and ran back.

  This time, there was no hesitation.

  She thumped the door, sending an echo of brass through the wood. Scheisse!

  It was not the mayor’s wife, but the mayor himself who stood before her. In her hurry, Liesel had neglected to notice the car that sat out front, on the street.

  Mustached and black-suited, the man spoke. “Can I help you?”

  Liesel could say nothing. Not yet. She was bent over, short of air, and fortunately, the woman arrived when she’d at least partially recovered. Ilsa Hermann stood behind her husband, to the side.

  “I forgot,” Liesel said. She lifted the bag and addressed the mayor’s wife. Despite the forced labor of breath, she fed the words through the gap in the doorway—between the mayor and the frame—to the woman. Such was her effort to breathe that the words escaped only a few at a time. “I forgot … I mean, I just … wanted,” she said, “to … thank you.”

  The mayor’s wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door.

&nb
sp; It took Liesel a minute or so to leave.

  She smiled at the steps.

  ENTER THE STRUGGLER

  Now for a change of scenery.

  We’ve both had it too easy till now, my friend, don’t you think? How about we forget Molching for a minute or two?

  It will do us some good.

  Also, it’s important to the story.

  We will travel a little, to a secret storage room, and we will see what we see.

  A GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING

  To your left,

  perhaps your right,

  perhaps even straight ahead,

  you find a small black room.

  In it sits a Jew.

  He is scum.

  He is starving.

  He is afraid.

  Please—try not to look away.

  • • •

  A few hundred miles northwest, in Stuttgart, far from book thieves, mayors’ wives, and Himmel Street, a man was sitting in the dark. It was the best place, they decided. It’s harder to find a Jew in the dark.

  He sat on his suitcase, waiting. How many days had it been now?

  He had eaten only the foul taste of his own hungry breath for what felt like weeks, and still, nothing. Occasionally voices wandered past and sometimes he longed for them to knuckle the door, to open it, to drag him out, into the unbearable light. For now, he could only sit on his suitcase couch, hands under his chin, his elbows burning his thighs.

  There was sleep, starving sleep, and the irritation of half awakeness, and the punishment of the floor.

  Ignore the itchy feet.

  Don’t scratch the soles.

  And don’t move too much.

  Just leave everything as it is, at all cost. It might be time to go soon. Light like a gun. Explosive to the eyes. It might be time to go. It might be time, so wake up. Wake up now, Goddamn it! Wake up.