The Book Thief



  Sure enough, when they turned around, the farmer was running at them, the weapon held aloft.

  The whole group ran for the fence line and made their way over. Rudy, who was farthest away, caught up quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid being last. As he pulled his leg up, he became entangled.

  “Hey!”

  The sound of the stranded.

  The group stopped.

  Instinctively, Liesel ran back.

  “Hurry up!” Arthur called out. His voice was far away, as if he’d swallowed it before it exited his mouth.

  White sky.

  The others ran.

  Liesel arrived and started pulling at the fabric of his pants. Rudy’s eyes were opened wide with fear. “Quick,” he said, “he’s coming.”

  Far off, they could still hear the sound of deserting feet when an extra hand grabbed the wire and reefed it away from Rudy Steiner’s pants. A piece was left on the metallic knot, but the boy was able to escape.

  “Now move it,” Arthur advised them, not long before the farmer arrived, swearing and struggling for breath. The ax held on now, with force, to his leg. He called out the futile words of the robbed:

  “I’ll have you arrested! I’ll find you! I’ll find out who you are!”

  That was when Arthur Berg replied.

  “The name is Owens!” He loped away, catching up to Liesel and Rudy. “Jesse Owens!”

  When they made it to safe ground, fighting to suck the air into their lungs, they sat down and Arthur Berg came over. Rudy wouldn’t look at him. “It’s happened to all of us,” Arthur said, sensing the disappointment. Was he lying? They couldn’t be sure and they would never find out.

  A few weeks later, Arthur Berg moved to Cologne.

  They saw him once more, on one of Liesel’s washing delivery rounds. In an alleyway off Munich Street, he handed Liesel a brown paper bag containing a dozen chestnuts. He smirked. “A contact in the roasting industry.” After informing them of his departure, he managed to proffer a last pimply smile and to cuff each of them on the forehead. “Don’t go eating all those things at once, either,” and they never saw Arthur Berg again.

  As for me, I can tell you that I most definitely saw him.

  A SMALL TRIBUTE TO ARTHUR BERG,

  A STILL-LIVING MAN

  The Cologne sky was yellow and rotting, flaking at the edges.

  He sat propped against a wall with a child in his arms. His sister.

  When she stopped breathing, he stayed with her, and I could sense he would hold her for hours.

  There were two stolen apples in his pocket.

  This time, they played it smarter. They ate one chestnut each and sold the rest of them door to door.

  “If you have a few pfennig to spare,” Liesel said at each house, “I have chestnuts.” They ended up with sixteen coins.

  “Now,” Rudy grinned, “revenge.”

  That same afternoon, they returned to Frau Diller’s, “heil Hitlered,” and waited.

  “Mixed candy again?” She schmunzeled, to which they nodded. The money splashed the counter and Frau Diller’s smile fell slightly ajar.

  “Yes, Frau Diller,” they said in unison. “Mixed candy, please.”

  The framed Führer looked proud of them.

  Triumph before the storm.

  THE STRUGGLER, CONCLUDED

  The juggling comes to an end now, but the struggling does not. I have Liesel Meminger in one hand, Max Vandenburg in the other. Soon, I will clap them together. Just give me a few pages.

  The struggler:

  If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.

  The train ride was far away now, the snorer most likely tucked up in the carriage she’d made her bed, traveling on. Now there were only footsteps between Max and survival. Footsteps and thoughts, and doubts.

  He followed the map in his mind, from Pasing to Molching. It was late when he saw the town. His legs ached terribly, but he was nearly there—the most dangerous place to be. Close enough to touch it.

  Just as it was described, he found Munich Street and made his way along the footpath.

  Everything stiffened.

  Glowing pockets of streetlights.

  Dark, passive buildings.

  The town hall stood like a giant ham-fisted youth, too big for his age. The church disappeared in darkness the farther his eyes traveled upward.

  It all watched him.

  He shivered.

  He warned himself. “Keep your eyes open.”

  (German children were on the lookout for stray coins. German Jews kept watch for possible capture.)

  In keeping with the usage of number thirteen for luck, he counted his footsteps in groups of that number. Just thirteen footsteps, he would tell himself. Come on, just thirteen more. As an estimate, he completed ninety sets, till at last, he stood on the corner of Himmel Street.

  In one hand, he held his suitcase.

  The other was still holding Mein Kampf.

  Both were heavy, and both were handled with a gentle secretion of sweat.

  Now he turned on to the side street, making his way to number thirty-three, resisting the urge to smile, resisting the urge to sob or even imagine the safety that might be awaiting him. He reminded himself that this was no time for hope. Certainly, he could almost touch it. He could feel it, somewhere just out of reach. Instead of acknowledging it, he went about the business of deciding again what to do if he was caught at the last moment or if by some chance the wrong person awaited him inside.

  Of course, there was also the scratchy feeling of sin.

  How could he do this?

  How could he show up and ask people to risk their lives for him? How could he be so selfish?

  Thirty-three.

  They looked at each other.

  • • •

  The house was pale, almost sick-looking, with an iron gate and a brown spit-stained door.

  From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment, he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking toward his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him.

  Slowly, then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.

  PART FOUR

  the standover man

  featuring:

  the accordionist—a promise keeper—a good girl—

  a jewish fist fighter—the wrath of rosa—a lecture—

  a sleeper—the swapping of nightmares—

  and some pages from the basement

  THE ACCORDIONIST

  (The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)

  There was a young man standing in the kitchen. The key in his hand felt like it was rusting into his palm. He didn’t speak anything like hello, or please help, or any other such expected sentence. He asked two questions.

  QUESTION ONE

  “Hans Hubermann?”

  QUESTION TWO

  “Do you still play the accordion?”

  As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.

  Papa, alert and appalled, stepped closer.

  To the kitchen, he whispered, “Of course I do.”

  It all dated back many years, to World War I.

  They’re strange, those wars.

  Full of blood and violence—but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. “It’s true,” people will mutter. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. It was that fox who saved my life,” or, “They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?”

  Hans Hubermann’s story was a little like that. When I found it within the book thief’s words, I realized that we passed each other once in a while during that period, though neither of us scheduled a meeting. Personally,
I had a lot of work to do. As for Hans, I think he was doing his best to avoid me.

  The first time we were in the vicinity of each other, Hans was twenty-two years old, fighting in France. The majority of young men in his platoon were eager to fight. Hans wasn’t so sure. I had taken a few of them along the way, but you could say I never even came close to touching Hans Hubermann. He was either too lucky, or he deserved to live, or there was a good reason for him to live.

  In the army, he didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and he could shoot straight enough so as not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight at me.

  A SMALL BUT NOTE WORTHY NOTE

  I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men.

  They are not.

  They’re running at me.

  He’d been in the fight for almost six months when he ended up in France, where, at face value, a strange event saved his life. Another perspective would suggest that in the nonsense of war, it made perfect sense.

  On the whole, his time in the Great War had astonished him from the moment he entered the army. It was like a serial. Day after day after day. After day:

  The conversation of bullets.

  Resting men.

  The best dirty jokes in the world.

  Cold sweat—that malignant little friend—outstaying its welcome in the armpits and trousers.

  He enjoyed the card games the most, followed by the few games of chess, despite being thoroughly pathetic at it. And the music. Always the music.

  It was a man a year older than himself—a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg—who taught him to play the accordion. The two of them gradually became friends due to the fact that neither of them was terribly interested in fighting. They preferred rolling cigarettes to rolling in snow and mud. They preferred shooting craps to shooting bullets. A firm friendship was built on gambling, smoking, and music, not to mention a shared desire for survival. The only trouble with this was that Erik Vandenburg would later be found in several pieces on a grassy hill. His eyes were open and his wedding ring was stolen. I shoveled up his soul with the rest of them and we drifted away. The horizon was the color of milk. Cold and fresh. Poured out among the bodies.

  All that was really left of Erik Vandenburg was a few personal items and the fingerprinted accordion. Everything but the instrument was sent home. It was considered too big. Almost with self-reproach, it sat on his makeshift bed at the base camp and was given to his friend, Hans Hubermann, who happened to be the only man to survive.

  HE SURVIVED LIKE THIS

  He didn’t go into battle that day.

  For that, he had Erik Vandenburg to thank. Or more to the point, Erik Vandenburg and the sergeant’s toothbrush.

  That particular morning, not too long before they were leaving, Sergeant Stephan Schneider paced into the sleeping quarters and called everyone to attention. He was popular with the men for his sense of humor and practical jokes, but more so for the fact that he never followed anyone into the fire. He always went first.

  On certain days, he was inclined to enter the room of resting men and say something like, “Who comes from Pasing?” or, “Who’s good with mathematics?” or, in the fateful case of Hans Hubermann, “Who’s got neat handwriting?”

  No one ever volunteered, not after the first time he did it. On that day, an eager young soldier named Philipp Schlink stood proudly up and said, “Yes, sir, I come from Pasing.” He was promptly handed a toothbrush and told to clean the shit house.

  When the sergeant asked who had the best penmanship, you can surely understand why no one was keen to step forward. They thought they might be first to receive a full hygiene inspection or scrub an eccentric lieutenant’s shit-trampled boots before they left.

  “Now come on,” Schneider toyed with them. Slapped down with oil, his hair gleamed, though a small piece was always upright and vigilant at the apex of his head. “At least one of you useless bastards must be able to write properly.”

  In the distance, there was gunfire.

  It triggered a reaction.

  “Look,” said Schneider, “this isn’t like the others. It will take all morning, maybe longer.” He couldn’t resist a smile. “Schlink was polishing that shit house while the rest of you were playing cards, but this time, you’re going out there.”

  Life or pride.

  He was clearly hoping that one of his men would have the intelligence to take life.

  Erik Vandenburg and Hans Hubermann glanced at each other. If someone stepped forward now, the platoon would make his life a living hell for the rest of their time together. No one likes a coward. On the other hand, if someone was to be nominated …

  Still no one stepped forward, but a voice stooped out and ambled toward the sergeant. It sat at his feet, waiting for a good kicking. It said, “Hubermann, sir.” The voice belonged to Erik Vandenburg. He obviously thought that today wasn’t the appropriate time for his friend to die.

  The sergeant paced up and down the passage of soldiers.

  “Who said that?”

  He was a superb pacer, Stephan Schneider—a small man who spoke, moved, and acted in a hurry. As he strode up and down the two lines, Hans looked on, waiting for the news. Perhaps one of the nurses was sick and they needed someone to strip and replace bandages on the infected limbs of injured soldiers. Perhaps a thousand envelopes were to be licked and sealed and sent home with death notices in them.

  At that moment, the voice was put forward again, moving a few others to make themselves heard. “Hubermann,” they echoed. Erik even said, “Immaculate handwriting, sir, immaculate.”

  “It’s settled, then.” There was a circular, small-mouthed grin. “Hubermann. You’re it.”

  The gangly young soldier made his way forward and asked what his duty might be.

  The sergeant sighed. “The captain needs a few dozen letters written for him. He’s got terrible rheumatism in his fingers. Or arthritis. You’ll be writing them for him.”

  This was no time to argue, especially when Schlink was sent to clean the toilets and the other one, Pflegger, nearly killed himself licking envelopes. His tongue was infection blue.

  “Yes, sir.” Hans nodded, and that was the end of it. His writing ability was dubious to say the least, but he considered himself lucky. He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle.

  None of them came back.

  That was the first time Hans Hubermann escaped me. The Great War.

  A second escape was still to come, in 1943, in Essen.

  Two wars for two escapes.

  Once young, once middle-aged.

  Not many men are lucky enough to cheat me twice.

  He carried the accordion with him during the entirety of the war.

  When he tracked down the family of Erik Vandenburg in Stuttgart upon his return, Vandenburg’s wife informed him that he could keep it. Her apartment was littered with them, and it upset her too much to look at that one in particular. The others were reminder enough, as was her once-shared profession of teaching it.

  “He taught me to play,” Hans informed her, as though it might help.

  Perhaps it did, for the devastated woman asked if he could play it for her, and she silently wept as he pressed the buttons and keys of a clumsy “Blue Danube Waltz.” It was her husband’s favorite.

  “You know,” Hans explained to her, “he saved my life.” The light in the room was small, and the air restrained. “He—if there’s anything you ever need.” He slid a piece of paper with his name and address on it across the table. “I’m a painter by trade. I’ll paint your apartment for free, whenever you like.” He knew it was useless compensation, but he offered anyway.

  The woman took the paper, and not long after, a small child wandered in and sat on her lap.

  “This is Max,” the woman said, but the boy was too young and shy to say any
thing. He was skinny, with soft hair, and his thick, murky eyes watched as the stranger played one more song in the heavy room. From face to face, he looked on as the man played and the woman wept. The different notes handled her eyes. Such sadness.

  Hans left.

  “You never told me,” he said to a dead Erik Vandenburg and the Stuttgart skyline. “You never told me you had a son.”

  After a momentary, head-shaken stoppage, Hans returned to Munich, expecting never to hear from those people again. What he didn’t know was that his help would most definitely be needed, but not for painting, and not for another twenty years or so.

  There were a few weeks before he started painting. In the good-weather months, he worked vigorously, and even in winter, he often said to Rosa that business might not be pouring, but it would at least drizzle now and again.

  For more than a decade, it all worked.

  Hans Junior and Trudy were born. They grew up making visits to their papa at work, slapping paint on walls and cleaning brushes.

  When Hitler rose to power in 1933, though, the painting business fell slightly awry. Hans didn’t join the NSDAP like the majority of people did. He put a lot of thought into his decision.

  THE THOUGHT PROCESS OF

  HANS HUBERMANN

  He was not well-educated or political, but if nothing else, he was a man who appreciated fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a party that antagonized people in such a way.

  Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the hatred could last, and it was a conscious decision not to follow Hitler. On many levels, it was a disastrous one.

  Once the persecution began, his work slowly dried up. It wasn’t too bad to begin with, but soon enough, he was losing customers. Handfuls of quotes seemed to vanish into the rising Nazi air.

  He approached an old faithful named Herbert Bollinger—a man with a hemispheric waistline who spoke Hochdeutsch (he was from Hamburg)—when he saw him on Munich Street. At first, the man looked down, past his girth, to the ground, but when his eyes returned to the painter, the question clearly made him uncomfortable. There was no reason for Hans to ask, but he did.