The Book Thief


No final grip of the eyes.

  Nothing but goneness.

  For the next two years, he remained in hiding, in an empty storeroom. It was in a building where Walter had worked in previous years. There was very little food. There was plenty of suspicion. The remaining Jews with money in the neighborhood were emigrating. The Jews without money were also trying, but without much success. Max’s family fell into the latter category. Walter checked on them occasionally, as inconspicuously as he could. One afternoon, when he visited, someone else opened the door.

  When Max heard the news, his body felt like it was being screwed up into a ball, like a page littered with mistakes. Like garbage.

  Yet each day, he managed to unravel and straighten himself, disgusted and thankful. Wrecked, but somehow not torn into pieces.

  Halfway through 1939, just over six months into the period of hiding, they decided that a new course of action needed to be taken. They examined the piece of paper Max was handed upon his desertion. That’s right—his desertion, not only his escape. That was how he viewed it, amid the grotesquerie of his relief. We already know what was written on that piece of paper:

  ONE NAME, ONE ADDRESS

  Hans Hubermann

  Himmel Street 33, Molching

  “It’s getting worse,” Walter told Max. “Anytime now, they could find us out.” There was much hunching in the dark. “We don’t know what might happen. I might get caught. You might need to find that place …. I’m too scared to ask anyone for help here. They might put me in.” There was only one solution. “I’ll go down there and find this man. If he’s turned into a Nazi—which is very likely—I’ll just turn around. At least we know then, richtig?”

  Max gave him every last pfennig to make the trip, and a few days later, when Walter returned, they embraced before he held his breath. “And?”

  Walter nodded. “He’s good. He still plays that accordion your mother told you about—your father’s. He’s not a member of the party. He gave me money.” At this stage, Hans Hubermann was only a list. “He’s fairly poor, he’s married, and there’s a kid.”

  This sparked Max’s attention even further. “How old?”

  “Ten. You can’t have everything.”

  “Yes. Kids have big mouths.”

  “We’re lucky as it is.”

  They sat in silence awhile. It was Max who disturbed it.

  “He must already hate me, huh?”

  “I don’t think so. He gave me the money, didn’t he? He said a promise is a promise.”

  A week later, a letter came. Hans notified Walter Kugler that he would try to send things to help whenever he could. There was a one-page map of Molching and Greater Munich, as well as a direct route from Pasing (the more reliable train station) to his front door. In his letter, the last words were obvious.

  Be careful.

  Midway through May 1940, Mein Kampf arrived, with a key taped to the inside cover.

  The man’s a genius, Max decided, but there was still a shudder when he thought about traveling to Munich. Clearly, he wished, along with the other parties involved, that the journey would not have to be made at all.

  You don’t always get what you wish for.

  Especially in Nazi Germany.

  Again, time passed.

  The war expanded.

  Max remained hidden from the world in another empty room.

  Until the inevitable.

  Walter was notified that he was being sent to Poland, to continue the assertion of Germany’s authority over both the Poles and Jews alike. One was not much better than the other. The time had come.

  Max made his way to Munich and Molching, and now he sat in a stranger’s kitchen, asking for the help he craved and suffering the condemnation he felt he deserved.

  Hans Hubermann shook his hand and introduced himself.

  He made him some coffee in the dark.

  The girl had been gone quite a while, but now some more footsteps had approached arrival. The wildcard.

  In the darkness, all three of them were completely isolated. They all stared. Only the woman spoke.

  THE WRATH OF ROSA

  Liesel had drifted back to sleep when the unmistakable voice of Rosa Hubermann entered the kitchen. It shocked her awake.

  “Was ist los?”

  Curiosity got the better of her then, as she imagined a tirade thrown down from the wrath of Rosa. There was definite movement and the shuffle of a chair.

  After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.

  Mama was grave.

  Her plump figure glowed with worry.

  Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.

  When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.

  Max declined, preferring instead to rush to the sink and vomit. His back convulsed and his arms were well spread. His fingers gripped the metal.

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Rosa muttered. “Another one.”

  Turning around, Max apologized. His words were slippery and small, quelled by the acid. “I’m sorry. I think I ate too much. My stomach, you know, it’s been so long since … I don’t think it can handle such—”

  “Move,” Rosa ordered him. She started cleaning up.

  When she was finished, she found the young man at the kitchen table, utterly morose. Hans was sitting opposite, his hands cupped above the sheet of wood.

  Liesel, from the hallway, could see the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it, the worried expression scribbled like a mess onto Mama.

  She looked at both her foster parents.

  Who were these people?

  LIESEL’S LECTURE

  Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity?

  What was easier to define was their predicament.

  THE SITUATION OF HANS AND

  ROSA HUBERMANN

  Very sticky indeed.

  In fact, frightfully sticky.

  When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.

  The surprising point to make is that despite this iridescent fear glowing as it did in the dark, they somehow resisted the urge for hysteria.

  Mama ordered Liesel away.

  “Bett, Saumensch.” The voice calm but firm. Highly unusual.

  Papa came in a few minutes later and lifted the covers on the vacant bed.

  “Alles gut, Liesel? Is everything good?”

  “Yes, Papa.”

  “As you can see, we have a visitor.” She could only just make out the shape of Hans Hubermann’s tallness in the dark. “He’ll sleep in here tonight.”

  “Yes, Papa.”

  A few minutes later, Max Vandenburg was in the room, noiseless and opaque. The man did not breathe. He did not move. Yet, somehow, he traveled from the doorway to the bed and was under the covers.

  “Everything good?”

  It was Papa again, talking this time to Max.

  The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. Such was his feeling of shame. “Yes. Thank you.” He said it again, when Papa made his way over to his customary position in the chair next to Liesel’s bed. “Thank you.”

  Another hour passed before Liesel fell asleep.

  She slept hard and long.

&
nbsp; A hand woke her just after eight-thirty the next morning.

  The voice at the end of it informed her that she would not be attending school that day. Apparently, she was sick.

  When she awoke completely, she watched the stranger in the bed opposite. The blanket showed only a nest of lopsided hair at the top, and there was not a sound, as if he’d somehow trained himself even to sleep more quietly. With great care, she walked the length of him, following Papa to the hall.

  For the first time ever, the kitchen and Mama were dormant. It was a kind of bemused, inaugural silence. To Liesel’s relief, it lasted only a few minutes.

  There was food and the sound of eating.

  Mama announced the day’s priority. She sat at the table and said, “Now listen, Liesel. Papa’s going to tell you something today.” This was serious—she didn’t even say Saumensch. It was a personal feat of abstinence. “He’ll talk to you and you have to listen. Is that clear?”

  The girl was still swallowing.

  “Is that clear, Saumensch?”

  That was better.

  The girl nodded.

  When she reentered the bedroom to fetch her clothes, the body in the opposite bed had turned and curled up. It was no longer a straight log but a kind of Z shape, reaching diagonally from corner to corner. Zigzagging the bed.

  She could see his face now, in the tired light. His mouth was open and his skin was the color of eggshells. Whiskers coated his jaw and chin, and his ears were hard and flat. He had a small but misshapen nose.

  “Liesel!”

  She turned.

  “Move it!”

  She moved, to the washroom.

  Once changed and in the hallway, she realized she would not be traveling far. Papa was standing in front of the door to the basement. He smiled very faintly, lit the lamp, and led her down.

  • • •

  Among the mounds of drop sheets and the smell of paint, Papa told her to make herself comfortable. Ignited on the walls were the painted words, learned in the past. “I need to tell you some things.”

  Liesel sat on top of a meter-tall heap of drop sheets, Papa on a fifteen-liter paint can. For a few minutes, he searched for the words. When they came, he stood to deliver them. He rubbed his eyes.

  “Liesel,” he said quietly, “I was never sure if any of this would happen, so I never told you. About me. About the man upstairs.” He walked from one end of the basement to the other, the lamplight magnifying his shadow. It turned him into a giant on the wall, walking back and forth.

  When he stopped pacing, his shadow loomed behind him, watching. Someone was always watching.

  “You know my accordion?” he said, and there the story began.

  He explained World War I and Erik Vandenburg, and then the visit to the fallen soldier’s wife. “The boy who came into the room that day is the man upstairs. Verstehst? Understand?”

  The book thief sat and listened to Hans Hubermann’s story. It lasted a good hour, until the moment of truth, which involved a very obvious and necessary lecture.

  “Liesel, you must listen.” Papa made her stand up and held her hand.

  They faced the wall.

  Dark shapes and the practice of words.

  Firmly, he held her fingers.

  “Remember the Führer’s birthday—when we walked home from the fire that night? Remember what you promised me?”

  The girl concurred. To the wall, she said, “That I would keep a secret.”

  “That’s right.” Between the hand-holding shadows, the painted words were scattered about, perched on their shoulders, resting on their heads, and hanging from their arms. “Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.” Hans was clearly worried that he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact.

  Toward the end, Hans Hubermann looked at Liesel Meminger and made certain she was focused.

  He gave her a list of consequences.

  “If you tell anyone about that man …”

  Her teacher.

  Rudy.

  It didn’t matter whom.

  What mattered was that all were punishable.

  “For starters,” he said, “I will take each and every one of your books—and I will burn them.” It was callous. “I’ll throw them in the stove or the fireplace.” He was certainly acting like a tyrant, but it was necessary. “Understand?”

  The shock made a hole in her, very neat, very precise.

  Tears welled.

  “Yes, Papa.”

  “Next.” He had to remain hard, and he needed to strain for it. “They’ll take you away from me. Do you want that?”

  She was crying now, in earnest. “Nein.”

  “Good.” His grip on her hand tightened. “They’ll drag that man up there away, and maybe Mama and me, too—and we will never, ever come back.”

  And that did it.

  The girl began to sob so uncontrollably that Papa was dying to pull her into him and hug her tight. He didn’t. Instead, he squatted down and watched her directly in the eyes. He unleashed his quietest words so far. “Verstehst du mich?” Do you understand me?”

  The girl nodded. She cried, and now, defeated, broken, her papa held her in the painted air and the kerosene light.

  “I understand, Papa, I do.”

  Her voice was muffled against his body, and they stayed like that for a few minutes, Liesel with squashed breath and Papa rubbing her back.

  Upstairs, when they returned, they found Mama sitting in the kitchen, alone and pensive. When she saw them, she stood and beckoned Liesel to come over, noticing the dried-up tears that streaked her. She brought the girl into her and heaped a typically rugged embrace around her body. “Alles gut, Saumensch?”

  She didn’t need an answer.

  Everything was good.

  But it was awful, too.

  THE SLEEPER

  Max Vandenburg slept for three days.

  In certain excerpts of that sleep, Liesel watched him. You might say that by the third day it became an obsession, to check on him, to see if he was still breathing. She could now interpret his signs of life, from the movement of his lips, his gathering beard, and the twigs of hair that moved ever so slightly when his head twitched in the dream state.

  Often, when she stood over him, there was the mortifying thought that he had just woken up, his eyes splitting open to view her—to watch her watching. The idea of being caught out plagued and enthused her at the same time. She dreaded it. She invited it. Only when Mama called out to her could she drag herself away, simultaneously soothed and disappointed that she might not be there when he woke.

  Sometimes, close to the end of the marathon of sleep, he spoke.

  There was a recital of murmured names. A checklist.

  Isaac. Aunt Ruth. Sarah. Mama. Walter. Hitler.

  Family, friend, enemy.

  They were all under the covers with him, and at one point, he appeared to be struggling with himself. “Nein,” he whispered. It was repeated seven times. “No.”

  Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared.

  When the time came, he awoke with the nasty thrill of disorientation. His mouth opened a moment after his eyes and he sat up, right-angled.

  “Ay!”

  A patch of voice escaped his mouth.

  When he saw the upside-down face of a girl above him, there was the fretful moment of unfamiliarity and the grasp for recollection—to decode exactly where and when he was currently sitting. After a few seconds, he managed
to scratch his head (the rustle of kindling) and he looked at her. His movements were fragmented, and now that they were open, his eyes were swampy and brown. Thick and heavy.

  As a reflex action, Liesel backed away.

  She was too slow.

  The stranger reached out, his bed-warmed hand taking her by the forearm.

  “Please.”

  His voice also held on, as if possessing fingernails. He pressed it into her flesh. “Papa!” Loud.

  “Please!” Soft.

  It was late afternoon, gray and gleaming, but it was only dirty-colored light that was permitted entrance into the room. It was all the fabric of the curtains allowed. If you’re optimistic, think of it as bronze.

  When Papa came in, he first stood in the doorway and witnessed Max Vandenburg’s gripping fingers and his desperate face. Both held on to Liesel’s arm. “I see you two have met,” he said.

  Max’s fingers started cooling.

  THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES

  Max Vandenburg promised that he would never sleep in Liesel’s room again. What was he thinking that first night? The very idea of it mortified him.

  He rationalized that he was so bewildered upon his arrival that he allowed such a thing. The basement was the only place for him as far as he was concerned. Forget the cold and the loneliness. He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival.

  “I’m sorry,” he confessed to Hans and Rosa on the basement steps. “From now on I will stay down here. You will not hear from me. I will not make a sound.”

  Hans and Rosa, both steeped in the despair of the predicament, made no argument, not even in regard to the cold. They heaved blankets down and topped up the kerosene lamp. Rosa admitted that there could not be much food, to which Max fervently asked her to bring only scraps, and only when they were not wanted by anyone else.

  “Na, na,” Rosa assured him. “You will be fed, as best I can.”

  They also took the mattress down, from the spare bed in Liesel’s room, replacing it with drop sheets—an excellent trade.

  • • •