The Book Thief



  Arthur had moved on to Rudy. “And you’re the Jesse Owens one, aren’t you?”

  Rudy nodded.

  “Clearly,” said Arthur, “you’re an idiot—but you’re our kind of idiot. Come on.” They were in.

  When they reached the farm, Liesel and Rudy were thrown a sack. Arthur Berg gripped his own burlap bag. He ran a hand through his mild strands of hair. “Either of you ever stolen before?”

  “Of course,” Rudy certified. “All the time.” He was not very convincing.

  Liesel was more specific. “I’ve stolen two books,” at which Arthur laughed, in three short snorts. His pimples shifted position.

  “You can’t eat books, sweetheart.”

  From there, they all examined the apple trees, who stood in long, twisted rows. Arthur Berg gave the orders. “One,” he said. “Don’t get caught on the fence. You get caught on the fence, you get left behind. Understood?” Everyone nodded or said yes. “Two. One in the tree, one below. Someone has to collect.” He rubbed his hands together. He was enjoying this. “Three. If you see someone coming, you call out loud enough to wake the dead—and we all run. Richtig?”

  “Richtig.” It was a chorus.

  TWO DEBUTANT APPLE THIEVES,

  WHISPERING

  “Liesel—are you sure? Do you still want to do this?”

  “Look at the barbed wire, Rudy. It’s so high.”

  “No, no, look, you throw the sack on. See? Like them.”

  “All right.”

  “Come on then!”

  “I can’t!” Hesitation. “Rudy, I—”

  “Move it, Saumensch!”

  He pushed her toward the fence, threw the empty sack on the wire, and they climbed over, running toward the others. Rudy made his way up the closest tree and started flinging down the apples. Liesel stood below, putting them into the sack. By the time it was full, there was another problem.

  “How do we get back over the fence?”

  The answer came when they noticed Arthur Berg climbing as close to a fence post as possible. “The wire’s stronger there.” Rudy pointed. He threw the sack over, made Liesel go first, then landed beside her on the other side, among the fruit that spilled from the bag.

  Next to them, the long legs of Arthur Berg stood watching in amusement.

  “Not bad,” landed the voice from above. “Not bad at all.”

  When they made it back to the river, hidden among the trees, he took the sack and gave Liesel and Rudy a dozen apples between them.

  “Good work,” was his final comment on the matter.

  That afternoon, before they returned home, Liesel and Rudy consumed six apples apiece within half an hour. At first, they entertained thoughts of sharing the fruit at their respective homes, but there was considerable danger in that. They didn’t particularly relish the opportunity of explaining just where the fruit had come from. Liesel even thought that perhaps she could get away with only telling Papa, but she didn’t want him thinking that he had a compulsive criminal on his hands. So she ate.

  On the riverbank where she learned to swim, each apple was disposed of. Unaccustomed to such luxury, they knew it was likely they’d be sick.

  They ate anyway.

  “Saumensch!” Mama abused her that night. “Why are you vomiting so much?”

  “Maybe it’s the pea soup,” Liesel suggested.

  “That’s right,” Papa echoed. He was over at the window again. “It must be. I feel a bit sick myself.”

  “Who asked you, Saukerl?” Quickly, she turned back to face the vomiting Saumensch. “Well? What is it? What is it, you filthy pig?”

  But Liesel?

  She said nothing.

  The apples, she thought happily. The apples, and she vomited one more time, for luck.

  THE ARYAN SHOPKEEPER

  They stood outside Frau Diller’s, against the whitewashed wall.

  Apiece of candy was in Liesel Meminger’s mouth.

  The sun was in her eyes.

  Despite these difficulties, she was still able to speak and argue.

  ANOTHER CONVERSATION

  BETWEEN RUDY AND LIESEL]

  “Hurry up, Saumensch, that’s ten already.”

  “It’s not, it’s only eight—I’ve got two to go.”

  “Well, hurry up, then. I told you we should have gotten a knife and sawn it in half …. Come on, that’s two.”

  “All right. Here. And don’t swallow it.”

  “Do I look like an idiot?”

  [A short pause] “This is great, isn’t it?”

  “It sure is, Saumensch.”

  At the end of August and summer, they found one pfennig on the ground. Pure excitement.

  It was sitting half rotten in some dirt, on the washing and ironing route. A solitary corroded coin.

  “Take a look at that!”

  Rudy swooped on it. The excitement almost stung as they rushed back to Frau Diller’s, not even considering that a single pfennig might not be the right price. They burst through the door and stood in front of the Aryan shopkeeper, who regarded them with contempt.

  “I’m waiting,” she said. Her hair was tied back and her black dress choked her body. The framed photo of the Führer kept watch from the wall.

  “Heil Hitler,” Rudy led.

  “Heil Hitler,” she responded, straightening taller behind the counter. “And you?” She glared at Liesel, who promptly gave her a “heil Hitler” of her own.

  It didn’t take Rudy long to dig the coin from his pocket and place it firmly on the counter. He looked straight into Frau Diller’s spectacled eyes and said, “Mixed candy, please.”

  Frau Diller smiled. Her teeth elbowed each other for room in her mouth, and her unexpected kindness made Rudy and Liesel smile as well. Not for long.

  She bent down, did some searching, and came back. “Here,” she said, tossing a single piece of candy onto the counter. “Mix it yourself.”

  Outside, they unwrapped it and tried biting it in half, but the sugar was like glass. Far too tough, even for Rudy’s animal-like choppers. Instead, they had to trade sucks on it until it was finished. Ten sucks for Rudy. Ten for Liesel. Back and forth.

  “This,” Rudy announced at one point, with a candy-toothed grin, “is the good life,” and Liesel didn’t disagree. By the time they were finished, both their mouths were an exaggerated red, and as they walked home, they reminded each other to keep their eyes peeled, in case they found another coin.

  Naturally, they found nothing. No one can be that lucky twice in one year, let alone a single afternoon.

  Still, with red tongues and teeth, they walked down Himmel Street, happily searching the ground as they went.

  The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.

  THE STRUGGLER, CONTINUED

  We move forward now, to a cold night struggle. We’ll let the book thief catch up later.

  It was November 3, and the floor of the train held on to his feet. In front of him, he read from the copy of Mein Kampf. His savior. Sweat was swimming out of his hands. Fingermarks clutched the book.

  BOOK THIEF PRODUCTIONS

  OFFICIALLY PRESENTS

  Mein Kampf

  (My Struggle)

  by

  Adolf Hitler

  Behind Max Vandenburg, the city of Stuttgart opened its arms in mockery.

  He was not welcome there, and he tried not to look back as the stale bread disintegrated in his stomach. A few times, he shifted again and watched the lights become only a handful and then disappear altogether.

  Look proud, he advised himself. You cannot look afraid. Read the book. Smile at it. It’s a great book—the greatest book you’ve ever read. Ignore that woman on the other side. She’s asleep now anyway. Come on, Max, you’re only a few hours away.

  As it had turned out, the promised return visit in the room of darkness didn’t take days; it had taken a week and a half. Then another week till the next, and another, until he lost all sense of the pas
sing of days and hours. He was relocated once more, to another small storage room, where there was more light, more visits, and more food. Time, however, was running out.

  “I’m leaving soon,” his friend Walter Kugler told him. “You know how it is—the army.”

  “I’m sorry, Walter.”

  Walter Kugler, Max’s friend from childhood, placed his hand on the Jew’s shoulder. “It could be worse.” He looked his friend in his Jewish eyes. “I could be you.”

  That was their last meeting. A final package was left in the corner, and this time, there was a ticket. Walter opened Mein Kampf and slid it inside, next to the map he’d brought with the book itself. “Page thirteen.” He smiled. “For luck, yes?”

  “For luck,” and the two of them embraced.

  When the door shut, Max opened the book and examined the ticket. Stuttgart to Munich to Pasing. It left in two days, in the night, just in time to make the last connection. From there, he would walk. The map was already in his head, folded in quarters. The key was still taped to the inside cover.

  He sat for half an hour before stepping toward the bag and opening it. Apart from food, a few other items sat inside.

  THE EXTRACONTENTS OF

  WALTER KUGLER’S GIFT

  One small razor.

  A spoon—the closest thing to a mirror.

  Shaving cream.

  A pair of scissors.

  When he left it, the storeroom was empty but for the floor.

  “Goodbye,” he whispered.

  The last thing Max saw was the small mound of hair, sitting casually against the wall.

  Goodbye.

  With a clean-shaven face and lopsided yet neatly combed hair, he had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been.

  In his stomach was the electric combination of nourishment and nausea.

  He walked to the station.

  He showed his ticket and identity card, and now he sat in a small box compartment of the train, directly in danger’s spotlight.

  “Papers.”

  That was what he dreaded to hear.

  It was bad enough when he was stopped on the platform. He knew he could not withstand it twice.

  The shivering hands.

  The smell—no, the stench—of guilt.

  He simply couldn’t bear it again.

  Fortunately, they came through early and only asked for the ticket, and now all that was left was a window of small towns, the congregations of lights, and the woman snoring on the other side of the compartment.

  For most of the journey, he made his way through the book, trying never to look up.

  The words lolled about in his mouth as he read them.

  Strangely, as he turned the pages and progressed through the chapters, it was only two words he ever tasted.

  Mein Kampf. My struggle—

  The title, over and over again, as the train prattled on, from one German town to the next.

  Mein Kampf.

  Of all the things to save him.

  TRICKSTERS

  You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy. She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg. Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms. Her mother abandoned her.

  But anything was better than being a Jew.

  In the time leading up to Max’s arrival, another washing customer was lost, this time the Weingartners. The obligatory Schimpferei occurred in the kitchen, and Liesel composed herself with the fact that there were still two left, and even better, one of them was the mayor, the wife, the books.

  As for Liesel’s other activities, she was still causing havoc with Rudy Steiner. I would even suggest that they were polishing their wicked ways.

  They made a few more journeys with Arthur Berg and his friends, keen to prove their worth and extend their thieving repertoire. They took potatoes from one farm, onions from another. Their biggest victory, however, they performed alone.

  As witnessed earlier, one of the benefits of walking through town was the prospect of finding things on the ground. Another was noticing people, or more important, the same people, doing identical things week after week.

  A boy from school, Otto Sturm, was one such person. Every Friday afternoon, he rode his bike to church, carrying goods to the priests.

  For a month, they watched him, as good weather turned to bad, and Rudy in particular was determined that one Friday, in an abnormally frosty week in October, Otto wouldn’t quite make it.

  “All those priests,” Rudy explained as they walked through town. “They’re all too fat anyway. They could do without a feed for a week or so.” Liesel could only agree. First of all, she wasn’t Catholic. Second, she was pretty hungry herself. As always, she was carrying the washing. Rudy was carrying two buckets of cold water, or as he put it, two buckets of future ice.

  Just before two o’clock, he went to work.

  Without any hesitation, he poured the water onto the road in the exact position where Otto would pedal around the corner.

  Liesel had to admit it.

  There was a small portion of guilt at first, but the plan was perfect, or at least as close to perfect as it could be. At just after two o’clock every Friday, Otto Sturm turned onto Munich Street with the produce in his front basket, at the handlebars. On this particular Friday, that was as far as he would travel.

  The road was icy as it was, but Rudy put on the extra coat, barely able to contain a grin. It ran across his face like a skid.

  “Come on,” he said, “that bush there.”

  After approximately fifteen minutes, the diabolical plan bore its fruit, so to speak.

  Rudy pointed his finger into a gap in the bush. “There he is.”

  Otto came around the corner, dopey as a lamb.

  He wasted no time in losing control of the bike, sliding across the ice, and lying facedown on the road.

  When he didn’t move, Rudy looked at Liesel with alarm. “Crucified Christ,” he said, “I think we might have killed him!” He crept slowly out, removed the basket, and they made their getaway.

  “Was he breathing?” Liesel asked, farther down the street.

  “Keine Ahnung,” Rudy said, clinging to the basket. He had no idea.

  From far down the hill, they watched as Otto stood up, scratched his head, scratched his crotch, and looked everywhere for the basket.

  “Stupid Scheisskopf.” Rudy grinned, and they looked through the spoils. Bread, broken eggs, and the big one, Speck. Rudy held the fatty ham to his nose and breathed it gloriously in. “Beautiful.”

  As tempting as it was to keep the victory to themselves, they were overpowered by a sense of loyalty to Arthur Berg. They made their way to his impoverished lodging on Kempf Strasse and showed him the produce. Arthur couldn’t hold back his approval.

  “Who did you steal this from?”

  It was Rudy who answered. “Otto Sturm.”

  “Well,” he nodded, “whoever that is, I’m grateful to him.” He walked inside and returned with a bread knife, a frying pan, and a jacket, and the three thieves walked the hallway of apartments. “We’ll get the others,” Arthur Berg stated as they made it outside. “We might be criminals, but we’re not totally immoral.” Much like the book thief, he at least drew the line somewhere.

  A few more doors were knocked on. Names were called out to apartments from streets below, and soon, the whole conglomerate of Arthur Berg’s fruit-stealing troop was on its way to the Amper. In the clearing on the other side, a fire was lit and what was left of the eggs was salvaged and fried. The bread and Speck were cut. With hands and knives, every last piece of Otto Sturm’s delivery was eaten. No priest in sight.

  It was only at the end that an argument developed, regarding the basket. The majority of boys wanted to burn it. Fritz Hammer and Andy Schmeikl wanted to keep it, but Arthur Berg, showing his incongruous moral aptitude, had a better idea.

  “You two,” he said to R
udy and Liesel. “Maybe you should take it back to that Sturm character. I’d say that poor bastard probably deserves that much.”

  “Oh, come on, Arthur.”

  “I don’t want to hear it, Andy.”

  “Jesus Christ.”

  “He doesn’t want to hear it, either.”

  The group laughed and Rudy Steiner picked up the basket. “I’ll take it back and hang it on their mailbox.”

  He had walked only twenty meters or so when the girl caught up. She would be home far too late for comfort, but she was well aware that she had to accompany Rudy Steiner through town, to the Sturm farm on the other side.

  For a long time, they walked in silence.

  “Do you feel bad?” Liesel finally asked. They were already on the way home.

  “About what?”

  “You know.”

  “Of course I do, but I’m not hungry anymore, and I bet he’s not hungry, either. Don’t think for a second that the priests would get food if there wasn’t enough to go around at home.”

  “He just hit the ground so hard.”

  “Don’t remind me.” But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.

  Five days after their bittersweet little victory, Arthur Berg emerged again and invited them on his next stealing project. They ran into him on Munich Street, on the way home from school on a Wednesday. He was already in his Hitler Youth uniform. “We’re going again tomorrow afternoon. You interested?”

  They couldn’t help themselves. “Where?”

  “The potato place.”

  Twenty-four hours later, Liesel and Rudy braved the wire fence again and filled their sack.

  The problem showed up as they made their getaway.

  “Christ!” shouted Arthur. “The farmer!” It was his next word, however, that frightened. He called it out as if he’d already been attacked with it. His mouth ripped open. The word flew out, and the word was ax.