The Book Thief



  The door was opened and shut, and a figure was crouched over him. The hand splashed at the cold waves of his clothes and the grimy currents beneath. A voice came down, behind it.

  “Max,” it whispered. “Max, wake up.”

  His eyes did not do anything that shock normally describes. No snapping, no slapping, no jolt. Those things happen when you wake from a bad dream, not when you wake into one. No, his eyes dragged themselves open, from darkness to dim. It was his body that reacted, shrugging upward and throwing out an arm to grip the air.

  The voice calmed him now. “Sorry it’s taken so long. I think people have been watching me. And the man with the identity card took longer than I thought, but—” There was a pause. “It’s yours now. Not great quality, but hopefully good enough to get you there if it comes to that.” He crouched down and waved a hand at the suitcase. In his other hand, he held something heavy and flat. “Come on—off.” Max obeyed, standing and scratching. He could feel the tightening of his bones. “The card is in this.” It was a book. “You should put the map in here, too, and the directions. And there’s a key—taped to the inside cover.” He clicked open the case as quietly as he could and planted the book like a bomb. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

  He left a small bag filled with bread, fat, and three small carrots. Next to it was a bottle of water. There was no apology. “It’s the best I could do.”

  Door open, door shut.

  Alone again.

  What came to him immediately then was the sound.

  Everything was so desperately noisy in the dark when he was alone. Each time he moved, there was the sound of a crease. He felt like a man in a paper suit.

  The food.

  Max divided the bread into three parts and set two aside. The one in his hand he immersed himself in, chewing and gulping, forcing it down the dry corridor of his throat. The fat was cold and hard, scaling its way down, occasionally holding on. Big swallows tore them away and sent them below.

  Then the carrots.

  Again, he set two aside and devoured the third. The noise was astounding. Surely, the Führer himself could hear the sound of the orange crush in his mouth. It broke his teeth with every bite. When he drank, he was quite positive that he was swallowing them. Next time, he advised himself, drink first.

  Later, to his relief, when the echoes left him and he found the courage to check with his fingers, each tooth was still there, intact. He tried for a smile, but it didn’t come. He could only imagine a meek attempt and a mouthful of broken teeth. For hours, he felt at them.

  He opened the suitcase and picked up the book.

  He could not read the title in the dark, and the gamble of striking a match seemed too great right now.

  When he spoke, it was the taste of a whisper.

  “Please,” he said. “Please.”

  He was speaking to a man he had never met. As well as a few other important details, he knew the man’s name. Hans Hubermann. Again, he spoke to him, to the distant stranger. He pleaded.

  “Please.”

  THE ATTRIBUTES OF SUMMER

  So there you have it.

  You’re well aware of exactly what was coming to Himmel Street by the end of 1940.

  I know.

  You know.

  Liesel Meminger, however, cannot be put into that category.

  For the book thief, the summer of that year was simple. It consisted of four main elements, or attributes. At times, she would wonder which was the most powerful.

  AND THE NOMINEES ARE …

  1. Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.

  2. Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.

  3. Playing soccer on Himmel Street.

  4. The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.

  The Shoulder Shrug, she decided, was excellent. Each night, when she calmed herself from her nightmare, she was soon pleased that she was awake and able to read. “A few pages?” Papa asked her, and Liesel would nod. Sometimes they would complete a chapter the next afternoon, down in the basement.

  The authorities’ problem with the book was obvious. The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light. Unforgivable. He was a rich man who was tired of letting life pass him by—what he referred to as the shrugging of the shoulders to the problems and pleasures of a person’s time on earth.

  In the early part of summer in Molching, as Liesel and Papa made their way through the book, this man was traveling to Amsterdam on business, and the snow was shivering outside. The girl loved that—the shivering snow. “That’s exactly what it does when it comes down,” she told Hans Hubermann. They sat together on the bed, Papa half asleep and the girl wide awake.

  Sometimes she watched Papa as he slept, knowing both more and less about him than either of them realized. She often heard him and Mama discussing his lack of work or talking despondently about Hans going to see their son, only to discover that the young man had left his lodging and was most likely already on his way to war.

  “Schlaf gut, Papa,” the girl said at those times. “Sleep well,” and she slipped around him, out of bed, to turn off the light.

  The next attribute, as I’ve mentioned, was the mayor’s library.

  To exemplify that particular situation, we can look to a cool day in late June. Rudy, to put it mildly, was incensed.

  Who did Liesel Meminger think she was, telling him she had to take the washing and ironing alone today? Wasn’t he good enough to walk the streets with her?

  “Stop complaining, Saukerl,” she reprimanded him. “I just feel bad. You’re missing the game.”

  He looked over his shoulder. “Well, if you put it like that.” There was a Schmunzel. “You can stick your washing.” He ran off and wasted no time joining a team. When Liesel made it to the top of Himmel Street, she looked back just in time to see him standing in front of the nearest makeshift goals. He was waving.

  “Saukerl,” she laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that he was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds can get.

  She started to run, to Grande Strasse and the mayor’s house.

  Certainly, there was sweat, and the wrinkled pants of breath, stretching out in front of her.

  But she was reading.

  The mayor’s wife, having let the girl in for the fourth time, was sitting at the desk, simply watching the books. On the second visit, she had given permission for Liesel to pull one out and go through it, which led to another and another, until up to half a dozen books were stuck to her, either clutched beneath her arm or among the pile that was climbing higher in her remaining hand.

  On this occasion, as Liesel stood in the cool surrounds of the room, her stomach growled, but no reaction was forthcoming from the mute, damaged woman. She was in her bathrobe again, and although she observed the girl several times, it was never for very long. She usually paid more attention to what was next to her, to something missing. The window was opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

  Liesel sat on the floor. The books were scattered around her.

  After forty minutes, she left. Every title was returned to its place.

  “Goodbye, Frau Hermann.” The words always came as a shock. “Thank you.” After which the woman paid her and she left. Every movement was accounted for, and the book thief ran home.

  As summer set in, the roomful of books became warmer, and with every pickup or delivery day the floor was not as painful. Liesel would sit with a small pile of books next to her, and she’d read a few paragraphs of each, trying to memorize the words she didn’t know, to ask Papa when she made it home. Later on, as an adolescent, when Liesel wrote about those books, she no longer remembered the titles. Not one. Perhaps had she stolen them, she would have been better equipped.

  What she did remember was that one of the picture books had a name written clumsily on the inside cover:

  THE NAME OF A BOY
br />   Johann Hermann

  Liesel bit down on her lip, but she could not resist it for long. From the floor, she turned and looked up at the bathrobed woman and made an inquiry. “Johann Hermann,” she said. “Who is that?”

  The woman looked beside her, somewhere next to the girl’s knees.

  Liesel apologized. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be asking such things ….” She let the sentence die its own death.

  The woman’s face did not alter, yet somehow she managed to speak. “He is nothing now in this world,” she explained. “He was my …”

  THE FILES OF RECOLLECTION

  Oh, yes, I definitely remember him.

  The sky was murky and deep like quicksand.

  There was a young man parceled up in barbed wire, like a giant crown of thorns. I untangled him and carried him out. High above the earth, we sank together, to our knees. It was just another day, 1918.

  • • •

  “Apart from everything else,” she said, “he froze to death.” For a moment, she played with her hands, and she said it again. “He froze to death, I’m sure of it.”

  The mayor’s wife was just one of a worldwide brigade. You have seen her before, I’m certain. In your stories, your poems, the screens you like to watch. They’re everywhere, so why not here? Why not on a shapely hill in a small German town? It’s as good a place to suffer as any.

  The point is, Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it.

  She could have shot herself, scratched herself, or indulged in other forms of self-mutilation, but she chose what she probably felt was the weakest option—to at least endure the discomfort of the weather. For all Liesel knew, she prayed for summer days that were cold and wet. For the most part, she lived in the right place.

  When Liesel left that day, she said something with great uneasiness. In translation, two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair at Ilsa Hermann’s feet. They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy.

  TWO GIANT WORDS

  I’M SORRY

  Again, the mayor’s wife watched the space next to her. A blank-page face.

  “For what?” she asked, but time had elapsed by then. The girl was already well out of the room. She was nearly at the front door. When she heard it, Liesel stopped, but she chose not to go back, preferring to make her way noiselessly from the house and down the steps. She took in the view of Molching before disappearing down into it, and she pitied the mayor’s wife for quite a while.

  At times, Liesel wondered if she should simply leave the woman alone, but Ilsa Hermann was too interesting, and the pull of the books was too strong. Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence.

  She was a girl.

  In Nazi Germany.

  How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.

  And how awful (and yet exhilarating!) it would feel many months later, when she would unleash the power of this newfound discovery the very moment the mayor’s wife let her down. How quickly the pity would leave her, and how quickly it would spill over into something else completely ….

  Now, though, in the summer of 1940, she could not see what lay ahead, in more ways than one. She was witness only to a sorrowful woman with a roomful of books whom she enjoyed visiting. That was all. It was part two of her existence that summer.

  Part three, thank God, was a little more lighthearted—Himmel Street soccer.

  Allow me to play you a picture:

  Feet scuffing road.

  The rush of boyish breath.

  Shouted words: “Here! This way! Scheisse!”

  The coarse bounce of ball on road.

  • • •

  All were present on Himmel Street, as well as the sound of apologies, as summer further intensified.

  The apologies belonged to Liesel Meminger.

  They were directed at Tommy Müller.

  By the start of July, she finally managed to convince him that she wasn’t going to kill him. Since the beating she’d handed him the previous November, Tommy was still frightened to be around her. In the soccer meetings on Himmel Street, he kept well clear. “You never know when she might snap,” he’d confided in Rudy, half twitching, half speaking.

  In Liesel’s defense, she never gave up on trying to put him at ease. It disappointed her that she’d successfully made peace with Ludwig Schmeikl and not with the innocent Tommy Müller. He still cowered slightly whenever he saw her.

  “How could I know you were smiling for me that day?” she asked him repeatedly.

  She’d even put in a few stints as goalie for him, until everyone else on the team begged him to go back in.

  “Get back in there!” a boy named Harald Mollenhauer finally ordered him. “You’re useless.” This was after Tommy tripped him up as he was about to score. He would have awarded himself a penalty but for the fact that they were on the same side.

  Liesel came back out and would somehow always end up opposing Rudy. They would tackle and trip each other, call each other names. Rudy would commentate: “She can’t get around him this time, the stupid Saumensch Arschgrobbler. She hasn’t got a hope.” He seemed to enjoy calling Liesel an ass scratcher. It was one of the joys of childhood.

  Another of the joys, of course, was stealing. Part four, summer 1940.

  In fairness, there were many things that brought Rudy and Liesel together, but it was the stealing that cemented their friendship completely. It was brought about by one opportunity, and it was driven by one inescapable force—Rudy’s hunger. The boy was permanently dying for something to eat.

  On top of the rationing situation, his father’s business wasn’t doing so well of late (the threat of Jewish competition was taken away, but so were the Jewish customers). The Steiners were scratching things together to get by. Like many other people on the Himmel Street side of town, they needed to trade. Liesel would have given him some food from her place, but there wasn’t an abundance of it there, either. Mama usually made pea soup. On Sunday nights she cooked it—and not just enough for one or two repeat performances. She made enough pea soup to last until the following Saturday. Then on Sunday, she’d cook another one. Pea soup, bread, sometimes a small portion of potatoes or meat. You ate it up and you didn’t ask for more, and you didn’t complain.

  At first, they did things to try to forget about it.

  Rudy wouldn’t be hungry if they played soccer on the street. Or if they took bikes from his brother and sister and rode to Alex Steiner’s shop or visited Liesel’s papa, if he was working that particular day. Hans Hubermann would sit with them and tell jokes in the last light of afternoon.

  With the arrival of a few hot days, another distraction was learning to swim in the Amper River. The water was still a little too cold, but they went anyway.

  “Come on,” Rudy coaxed her in. “Just here. It isn’t so deep here.” She couldn’t see the giant hole she was walking into and sank straight to the bottom. Dog-paddling saved her life, despite nearly choking on the swollen intake of water.

  “You Saukerl,” she accused him when she collapsed onto the riverbank.

  Rudy made certain to keep well away. He’d seen what she did to Ludwig Schmeikl. “You can swim now, can’t you?”

  Which didn’t particularly cheer her up as she marched away. Her hair was pasted to the side of her face and snot was flowing from her nose.

  He called after her. “Does this mean I don’t get a kiss for teaching you?”

  “Saukerl!”

  The nerve of him!

  It was inevitable.

  The depressing pea soup and Rudy’s hunger finally drove them to thievery. It inspir
ed their attachment to an older group of kids who stole from the farmers. Fruit stealers. After a game of soccer, both Liesel and Rudy learned the benefits of keeping their eyes open. Sitting on Rudy’s front step, they noticed Fritz Hammer—one of their older counterparts—eating an apple. It was of the Klar variety—ripening in July and August—and it looked magnificent in his hand. Three or four more of them clearly bulged in his jacket pockets. They wandered closer.

  “Where did you get those?” Rudy asked.

  The boy only grinned at first. “Shhh,” and he stopped. He then proceeded to pull an apple from his pocket and toss it over. “Just look at it,” he warned them. “Don’t eat it.”

  The next time they saw the same boy wearing the same jacket, on a day that was too warm for it, they followed him. He led them toward the upstream section of the Amper River. It was close to where Liesel sometimes read with her papa when she was first learning.

  A group of five boys, some lanky, a few short and lean, stood waiting.

  There were a few such groups in Molching at the time, some with members as young as six. The leader of this particular outfit was an agreeable fifteen-year-old criminal named Arthur Berg. He looked around and saw the two eleven-year-olds dangling off the back. “Und?” he asked. “And?”

  “I’m starving,” Rudy replied.

  “And he’s fast,” said Liesel.

  Berg looked at her. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion.” He was teenage tall and had a long neck. Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face. “But I like you.” He was friendly, in a smart-mouth adolescent way. “Isn’t this the one who beat up your brother, Anderl?” Word had certainly made its way around. A good hiding transcends the divides of age.

  Another boy—one of the short, lean ones—with shaggy blond hair and ice-colored skin, looked over. “I think so.”

  Rudy confirmed it. “It is.”

  Andy Schmeikl walked across and studied her, up and down, his face pensive before breaking into a gaping smile. “Great work, kid.” He even slapped her among the bones of her back, catching a sharp piece of shoulder blade. “I’d get whipped for it if I did it myself.”