The Book Thief



  “What’s going on, Herbert? I’m losing customers quicker than I can count.”

  Bollinger didn’t flinch anymore. Standing upright, he delivered the fact as a question of his own. “Well, Hans. Are you a member?”

  “Of what?”

  But Hans Hubermann knew exactly what the man was talking about.

  “Come on, Hansi,” Bollinger persisted. “Don’t make me spell it out.”

  The tall painter waved him away and walked on.

  As the years passed by, the Jews were being terrorized at random throughout the country, and in the spring of 1937, almost to his shame, Hans Hubermann finally submitted. He made some inquiries and applied to join the Party.

  After lodging his form at the Nazi headquarters on Munich Street, he witnessed four men throw several bricks into a clothing store named Kleinmann’s. It was one of the few Jewish shops that were still in operation in Molching. Inside, a small man was stuttering about, crushing the broken glass beneath his feet as he cleaned up. A star the color of mustard was smeared to the door. In sloppy lettering, the words JEWISH FILTH were spilling over at their edges. The movement inside tapered from hurried to morose, then stopped altogether.

  Hans moved closer and stuck his head inside. “Do you need some help?”

  Mr. Kleinmann looked up. A dust broom was fixed powerlessly to his hand. “No, Hans. Please. Go away.” Hans had painted Joel Kleinmann’s house the previous year. He remembered his three children. He could see their faces but couldn’t recall their names.

  “I will come tomorrow,” he said, “and repaint your door.”

  Which he did.

  It was the second of two mistakes.

  The first occurred immediately after the incident.

  He returned to where he’d come from and drove his fist onto the door and then the window of the NSDAP. The glass shuddered but no one replied. Everyone had packed up and gone home. A last member was walking in the opposite direction. When he heard the rattle of the glass, he noticed the painter.

  He came back and asked what was wrong.

  “I can no longer join,” Hans stated.

  The man was shocked. “Why not?”

  Hans looked at the knuckles of his right hand and swallowed. He could already taste the error, like a metal tablet in his mouth. “Forget it.” He turned and walked home.

  Words followed him.

  “You just think about it, Herr Hubermann. Let us know what you decide.”

  He did not acknowledge them.

  The following morning, as promised, he rose earlier than usual, but not early enough. The door at Kleinmann’s Clothing was still moist with dew. Hans dried it. He managed to match the color as close as humanly possible and gave it a good solid coat.

  Innocuously, a man walked past.

  “Heil Hitler,” he said.

  “Heil Hitler,” Hans replied.

  THREE SMALL BUT

  IMPORTANT FACTS

  1. The man who walked past was Rolf Fischer, one of Molching’s greatest Nazis.

  2. A new slur was painted on the door within sixteen hours.

  3. Hans Hubermann was not granted membership in the Nazi Party. Not yet, anyway.

  For the next year, Hans was lucky that he didn’t revoke his membership application officially. While many people were instantly approved, he was added to a waiting list, regarded with suspicion. Toward the end of 1938, when the Jews were cleared out completely after Kristallnacht, the Gestapo visited. They searched the house, and when nothing or no one suspicious was found, Hans Hubermann was one of the fortunate:

  He was allowed to stay.

  What probably saved him was that people knew he was at least waiting for his application to be approved. For this, he was tolerated, if not endorsed as the competent painter he was.

  Then there was his other savior.

  It was the accordion that most likely spared him from total ostracism. Painters there were, from all over Munich, but under the brief tutorage of Erik Vandenburg and nearly two decades of his own steady practice, there was no one in Molching who could play exactly like him. It was a style not of perfection, but warmth. Even mistakes had a good feeling about them.

  He “heil Hitlered” when it was asked of him and he flew the flag on the right days. There was no apparent problem.

  Then, on June 16, 1939 (the date was like cement now), just over six months after Liesel’s arrival on Himmel Street, an event occurred that altered the life of Hans Hubermann irreversibly.

  It was a day in which he had some work.

  He left the house at 7 a.m. sharp.

  He towed his paint cart behind him, oblivious to the fact that he was being followed.

  When he arrived at the work site, a young stranger walked up to him. He was blond and tall, and serious.

  The pair watched each other.

  “Would you be Hans Hubermann?”

  Hans gave him a single nod. He was reaching for a paintbrush.

  “Yes, I would.”

  “Do you play the accordion, by any chance?”

  This time, Hans stopped, leaving the brush where it was. Again, he nodded.

  The stranger rubbed his jaw, looked around him, and then spoke with great quietness, yet great clarity. “Are you a man who likes to keep a promise?”

  Hans took out two paint cans and invited him to sit down. Before he accepted the invitation, the young man extended his hand and introduced himself. “My name’s Kugler. Walter. I come from Stuttgart.”

  They sat and talked quietly for fifteen minutes or so, arranging a meeting for later on, in the night.

  A GOOD GIRL

  In November 1940, when Max Vandenburg arrived in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, he was twenty-four years old. His clothes seemed to weigh him down, and his tiredness was such that an itch could break him in two. He stood shaking and shaken in the doorway.

  “Do you still play the accordion?”

  Of course, the question was really, “Will you still help me?”

  Liesel’s papa walked to the front door and opened it. Cautiously, he looked outside, each way, and returned. The verdict was “nothing.”

  Max Vandenburg, the Jew, closed his eyes and drooped a little further into safety. The very idea of it was ludicrous, but he accepted it nonetheless.

  Hans checked that the curtains were properly closed. Not a crack could be showing. As he did so, Max could no longer bear it. He crouched down and clasped his hands.

  The darkness stroked him.

  His fingers smelled of suitcase, metal, Mein Kampf, and survival.

  It was only when he lifted his head that the dim light from the hallway reached his eyes. He noticed the pajamaed girl, standing there, in full view.

  “Papa?”

  Max stood up, like a struck match. The darkness swelled now, around him.

  “Everything’s fine, Liesel,” Papa said. “Go back to bed.”

  She lingered a moment before her feet dragged from behind. When she stopped and stole one last look at the foreigner in the kitchen, she could decipher the outline of a book on the table.

  “Don’t be afraid,” she heard Papa whisper. “She’s a good girl.”

  For the next hour, the good girl lay wide awake in bed, listening to the quiet fumbling of sentences in the kitchen.

  One wild card was yet to be played.

  A SHORT HISTORY OF THE JEWISH FIST FIGHTER

  Max Vandenburg was born in 1916.

  He grew up in Stuttgart.

  When he was younger, he grew to love nothing more than a good fistfight.

  He had his first bout when he was eleven years old and skinny as a whittled broom handle.

  Wenzel Gruber.

  That’s who he fought.

  He had a smart mouth, that Gruber kid, and wire-curly hair. The local playground demanded that they fight, and neither boy was about to argue.

  They fought like champions.

  For a minute.

  Just when it was getting inte
resting, both boys were hauled away by their collars. A watchful parent.

  A trickle of blood was dripping from Max’s mouth.

  He tasted it, and it tasted good.

  • • •

  Not many people who came from his neighborhood were fighters, and if they were, they didn’t do it with their fists. In those days, they said the Jews preferred to simply stand and take things. Take the abuse quietly and then work their way back to the top. Obviously, every Jew is not the same.

  He was nearly two years old when his father died, shot to pieces on a grassy hill.

  When he was nine, his mother was completely broke. She sold the music studio that doubled as their apartment and they moved to his uncle’s house. There he grew up with six cousins who battered, annoyed, and loved him. Fighting with the oldest one, Isaac, was the training ground for his fist fighting. He was trounced almost every night.

  At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.

  As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hothead like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He kept to himself and sacrificed everything for his family—and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.

  As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.

  Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes, and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.

  The man’s face was so accepting.

  So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull—the endless jawline, stretching for miles; the pop-up cheek-bones; and the pothole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.

  Where’s the fight? he wondered.

  Where’s the will to hold on?

  Of course, at thirteen, he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.

  With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die—a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.

  “When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”

  Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.

  Yes.

  I like that a lot.

  From that moment on, he started to fight with greater regularity. A group of die-hard friends and enemies would gather down at a small reserve on Steber Street, and they would fight in the dying light. Archetypal Germans, the odd Jew, the boys from the east. It didn’t matter. There was nothing like a good fight to expel the teenage energy. Even the enemies were an inch away from friendship.

  He enjoyed the tight circles and the unknown.

  The bittersweetness of uncertainty:

  To win or to lose.

  It was a feeling in the stomach that would be stirred around until he thought he could no longer tolerate it. The only remedy was to move forward and throw punches. Max was not the type of boy to die thinking about it.

  • • •

  His favorite fight, now that he looked back, was Fight Number Five against a tall, tough, rangy kid named Walter Kugler. They were fifteen. Walter had won all four of their previous encounters, but this time, Max could feel something different. There was new blood in him—the blood of victory—and it had the capability to both frighten and excite.

  As always, there was a tight circle crowded around them. There was grubby ground. There were smiles practically wrapped around the onlooking faces. Money was clutched in filthy fingers, and the calls and cries were filled with such vitality that there was nothing else but this.

  God, there was such joy and fear there, such brilliant commotion.

  The two fighters were clenched with the intensity of the moment, their faces loaded up with expression, exaggerated with the stress of it. The wide-eyed concentration.

  After a minute or so of testing each other out, they began moving closer and taking more risks. It was a street fight after all, not an hour-long title fight. They didn’t have all day.

  “Come on, Max!” one of his friends was calling out. There was no breath between any of the words. “Come on, Maxi Taxi, you’ve got him now, you’ve got him, Jew boy, you’ve got him, you’ve got him!”

  A small kid with soft tufts of hair, a beaten nose, and swampy eyes, Max was a good head shorter than his opposition. His fighting style was utterly graceless, all bent over, nudging forward, throwing fast punches at the face of Kugler. The other boy, clearly stronger and more skillful, remained upright, throwing jabs that constantly landed on Max’s cheeks and chin.

  Max kept coming.

  Even with the heavy absorption of punches and punishment, he continued moving forward. Blood discolored his lips. It would soon be dried across his teeth.

  There was a great roar when he was knocked down. Money was almost exchanged.

  Max stood up.

  He was beaten down one more time before he changed tactics, luring Walter Kugler a little closer than he’d wanted to come. Once he was there, Max was able to apply a short, sharp jab to his face. It stuck. Exactly on the nose.

  Kugler, suddenly blinded, shuffled back, and Max seized his chance. He followed him over to the right and jabbed him once more and opened him up with a punch that reached into his ribs. The right hand that ended him landed on his chin. Walter Kugler was on the ground, his blond hair peppered with dirt. His legs were parted in a V. Tears like crystal floated down his skin, despite the fact that he was not crying. The tears had been bashed out of him.

  The circle counted.

  They always counted, just in case. Voices and numbers.

  The custom after a fight was that the loser would raise the hand of the victor. When Kugler finally stood up, he walked sullenly to Max Vandenburg and lifted his arm into the air.

  “Thanks,” Max told him.

  Kugler proffered a warning. “Next time I kill you.”

  Altogether, over the next few years, Max Vandenburg and Walter Kugler fought thirteen times. Walter was always seeking revenge for that first victory Max took from him, and Max was looking to emulate his moment of glory. In the end, the record stood at 10-3 for Walter.

  They fought each other until 1933, when they were seventeen. Grudging respect turned to genuine friendship, and the urge to fight left them. Both held jobs until Max was sacked with the rest of the Jews at the Jedermann Engineering Factory in ‘35. That wasn’t long after the Nuremberg Laws came in, forbidding Jews to have German citizenship and for Germans and Jews to intermarry.

  “Jesus,” Walter said one evening, when they met on the small corner where they used to fight. “That was a time, wasn’t it? There was none of this around.” He gave the star on Max’s sleeve a backhanded slap. “We could never fight like that now.”

  Max disagreed. “Yes we could. You can’t marry a Jew, but there’s no law against fighting one.”

  Walter smiled. “There’s probably a law rewarding it—as long as you win.”

  For the next few years, they saw each other sporadically at best. Max, with the rest of the Jews, was steadily rejected and repeatedly trodden upon, while Walter disappeared inside his job. A printing firm.

  If you’re the type who’s interested, yes, there were a few girls in those years. One named Tania, the other Hildi. Neither of them lasted. There was no time, most likely due to the uncertainty and mounting pressure. Max needed to scavenge for work. What could he offer those girls? By 1938, it was difficult to imagine that life could get any harder.

  Then came November 9. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass.

  It was the very incident that destroyed so many of his fellow Jews, but it proved to be Max Vandenburg’s moment of escape. He was twenty-two.
r />   Many Jewish establishments were being surgically smashed and looted when there was a clatter of knuckles on the apartment door. With his aunt, his mother, his cousins, and their children, Max was crammed into the living room.

  “Aufmachen!”

  The family watched each other. There was a great temptation to scatter into the other rooms, but apprehension is the strangest thing. They couldn’t move.

  Again. “Open up!”

  Isaac stood and walked to the door. The wood was alive, still humming from the beating it had just been given. He looked back at the faces naked with fear, turned the lock, and opened the door.

  As expected, it was a Nazi. In uniform.

  “Never.”

  That was Max’s first response.

  He clung to his mother’s hand and that of Sarah, the nearest of his cousins. “I won’t leave. If we all can’t go, I don’t go, either.”

  He was lying.

  When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn’t want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he?

  But he did.

  “Bring nothing,” Walter told him. “Just what you’re wearing. I’ll give you the rest.”

  “Max.” It was his mother.

  From a drawer, she took an old piece of paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “If ever …” She held him one last time, by the elbows. “This could be your last hope.”

  He looked into her aging face and kissed her, very hard, on the lips.

  “Come on.” Walter pulled at him as the rest of the family said their goodbyes and gave him money and a few valuables. “It’s chaos out there, and chaos is what we need.”

  They left, without looking back.

  It tortured him.

  If only he’d turned for one last look at his family as he left the apartment. Perhaps then the guilt would not have been so heavy. No final goodbye.