The Book Thief
Downstairs, Hans and Max placed the mattress beneath the steps and built a wall of drop sheets at the side. The sheets were high enough to cover the whole triangular entrance, and if nothing else, they were easily moved if Max was in dire need of extra air.
Papa apologized. “It’s quite pathetic. I realize that.”
“Better than nothing,” Max assured him. “Better than I deserve—thank you.”
With some well-positioned paint cans, Hans actually conceded that it did simply look like a collection of junk gathered sloppily in the corner, out of the way. The one problem was that a person needed only to shift a few cans and remove a drop sheet or two to smell out the Jew.
“Let’s just hope it’s good enough,” he said.
“It has to be.” Max crawled in. Again, he said it. “Thank you.”
For Max Vandenburg, those were the two most pitiful words he could possibly say, rivaled only by I’m sorry. There was a constant urge to speak both expressions, spurred on by the affliction of guilt.
How many times in those first few hours of awakeness did he feel like walking out of that basement and leaving the house altogether? It must have been hundreds.
Each time, though, it was only a twinge.
Which made it even worse.
He wanted to walk out—Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)—but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.
• • •
For his first few days in the basement, Liesel had nothing to do with him. She denied his existence. His rustling hair, his cold, slippery fingers.
His tortured presence.
Mama and Papa.
There was such gravity between them, and a lot of failed decision-making.
They considered whether they could move him.
In this situation, they were friendless and paralyzed. There was nowhere else for Max Vandenburg to go. It was them. Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesel had never seen them look at each other so much, or with such solemnity.
It was they who took the food down and organized an empty paint can for Max’s excrement. The contents would be disposed of by Hans as prudently as possible. Rosa also took him some buckets of hot water to wash himself. The Jew was filthy.
Outside, a mountain of cold November air was waiting at the front door each time Liesel left the house.
Drizzle came down in spades.
Dead leaves were slumped on the road.
Soon enough, it was the book thief’s turn to visit the basement. They made her.
She walked tentatively down the steps, knowing that no words were required. The scuffing of her feet was enough to rouse him.
In the middle of the basement, she stood and waited, feeling more like she was standing in the center of a great dusky field. The sun was setting behind a crop of harvested drop sheets.
When Max came out, he was holding Mein Kampf. Upon his arrival, he’d offered it back to Hans Hubermann but was told he could keep it.
Naturally, Liesel, while holding the dinner, couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was a book she had seen a few times at the BDM, but it hadn’t been read or used directly in their activities. There were occasional references to its greatness, as well as promises that the opportunity to study it would come in later years, as they progressed into the more senior Hitler Youth division.
Max, following her attention, also examined the book.
“Is?” she whispered.
There was a queer strand in her voice, planed off and curly in her mouth.
The Jew moved only his head a little closer. “Bitte? Excuse me?” She handed him the pea soup and returned upstairs, red, rushed, and foolish.
“Is it a good book?”
She practiced what she’d wanted to say in the washroom, in the small mirror. The smell of urine was still about her, as Max had just used the paint can before she’d come down. So ein G’schtank, she thought. What a stink.
No one’s urine smells as good as your own.
The days hobbled on.
Each night, before the descent into sleep, she would hear Mama and Papa in the kitchen, discussing what had been done, what they were doing now, and what needed to happen next. All the while, an image of Max hovered next to her. It was always the injured, thankful expression on his face and the swamp-filled eyes.
Only once was there an outburst in the kitchen.
His voice was abrasive, but he brought it back to a muffled whisper in a hurry.
“I have to keep going, though, at least a few times a week. I can’t be here all the time. We need the money, and if I quit playing there, they’ll get suspicious. They might wonder why I’ve stopped. I told them you were sick last week, but now we have to do everything like we always have.”
Therein lay the problem.
Life had altered in the wildest possible way, but it was imperative that they act as if nothing at all had happened.
Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.
That was the business of hiding a Jew.
As days turned into weeks, there was now, if nothing else, a beleaguered acceptance of what had transpired—all the result of war, a promise keeper, and one piano accordion. Also, in the space of just over half a year, the Hubermanns had lost a son and gained a replacement of epically dangerous proportions.
What shocked Liesel most was the change in her mama. Whether it was the calculated way in which she divided the food, or the considerable muzzling of her notorious mouth, or even the gentler expression on her cardboard face, one thing was becoming clear.
AN ATTRIBUTE OF ROSA HUBERMANN
She was a good woman for a crisis.
Even when the arthritic Helena Schmidt canceled the washing and ironing service, a month after Max’s debut on Himmel Street, she simply sat at the table and brought the bowl toward her. “Good soup tonight.”
The soup was terrible.
Every morning when Liesel left for school, or on the days she ventured out to play soccer or complete what was left of the washing round, Rosa would speak quietly to the girl. “And remember, Liesel …” She would point to her mouth and that was all. When Liesel nodded, she would say, “Good girl, Saumensch. Now get going.”
True to Papa’s words, and even Mama’s now, she was a good girl. She kept her mouth shut everywhere she went. The secret was buried deep.
She town-walked with Rudy as she always did, listening to his jabbering. Sometimes they compared notes from their Hitler Youth divisions, Rudy mentioning for the first time a sadistic young leader named Franz Deutscher. If Rudy wasn’t talking about Deutscher’s intense ways, he was playing his usual broken record, providing renditions and re-creations of the last goal he scored in the Himmel Street soccer stadium.
“I know,” Liesel would assure him. “I was there.”
“So I saw it, Saukerl.”
“How do I know that? For all I know, you were probably on the ground somewhere, licking up the mud I left behind when I scored.”
Perhaps it was Rudy who kept her sane, with the stupidity of his talk, his lemon-soaked hair, and his cockiness.
He seemed to resonate with a kind of confidence that life was still nothing but a joke—an endless succession of soccer goals, trickery, and a constant repertoire of meaningless chatter.
Also, there was the mayor’s wife, and reading in her husband’s library. It was cold in there now, colder with every visit, but still Liesel could not stay away. She would choose a handful of books and read small segments of each, until one afternoon, she found one she could not put down. It was called The Whistler. She was originally drawn to it because of her sporadic sighting
s of the whistler of Himmel Street—Pfiffikus. There was the memory of him bent over in his coat and his appearance at the bonfire on the Führer’s birthday.
The first event in the book was a murder. A stabbing. A Vienna street. Not far from the Stephansdom—the cathedral in the main square.
A SMALL EXCERPT FROM
She lay there, frightened, in a pool of blood, a strange tune singing in her ear. She recalled the knife, in and out, and a smile. As always, the whistler had smiled as he ran away, into a dark and murderous night ….
Liesel was unsure whether it was the words or the open window that caused her to tremble. Every time she picked up or delivered from the mayor’s house, she read three pages and shivered, but she could not last forever.
Similarly, Max Vandenburg could not withstand the basement much longer. He didn’t complain—he had no right—but he could slowly feel himself deteriorating in the cold. As it turned out, his rescue owed itself to some reading and writing, and a book called The Shoulder Shrug.
“Liesel,” said Hans one night. “Come on.”
Since Max’s arrival, there had been a considerable hiatus in the reading practice of Liesel and her papa. He clearly felt that now was a good time to resume. “Na, komm,” he told her. “I don’t want you slacking off. Go and get one of your books. How about The Shoulder Shrug?”
The disturbing element in all of this was that when she came back, book in hand, Papa was motioning that she should follow him down to their old workroom. The basement.
“But, Papa,” she tried to tell him. “We can’t—”
“What? Is there a monster down there?”
It was early December and the day had been icy. The basement became unfriendlier with each concrete step.
“It’s too cold, Papa.”
“That never bothered you before.”
“Yes, but it was never this cold ….”
When they made their way down, Papa whispered to Max, “Can we borrow the lamplight, please?”
With trepidation, the sheets and cans moved and the light was passed out, exchanging hands. Looking at the flame, Hans shook his head and followed it with some words. “Es ist ja Wahnsinn, net? This is crazy, no?” Before the hand from within could reposition the sheets, he caught it. “Bring yourself, too. Please, Max.”
Slowly then, the drop sheets were dragged aside and the emaciated body and face of Max Vandenburg appeared. In the moist light, he stood with a magic discomfort. He shivered.
Hans touched his arm, to bring him closer.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You cannot stay down here. You’ll freeze to death.” He turned. “Liesel, fill up the tub. Not too hot. Make it just like it is when it starts cooling down.”
Liesel ran up.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
She heard it again when she reached the hallway.
When he was in the pint-sized bath, Liesel listened at the washroom door, imagining the tepid water turning to steam as it warmed his iceberg body. Mama and Papa were at the climax of debate in the combined bedroom and living room, their quiet voices trapped inside the corridor wall.
“He’ll die down there, I promise you.”
“But what if someone sees in?”
“No, no, he only comes up at night. In the day, we leave everything open. Nothing to hide. And we use this room rather than the kitchen. Best to keep away from the front door.”
Then Mama. “All right … Yes, you’re right.”
“If we gamble on a Jew,” said Papa soon after, “I would prefer to gamble on a live one,” and from that moment, a new routine was born.
Each night, the fire was lit in Mama and Papa’s room, and Max would silently appear. He would sit in the corner, cramped and perplexed, most likely by the kindness of the people, the torment of survival, and overriding all of it, the brilliance of the warmth.
With the curtains clamped tight, he would sleep on the floor with a cushion beneath his head, as the fire slipped away and turned to ash.
In the morning, he would return to the basement.
A voiceless human.
The Jewish rat, back to his hole.
Christmas came and went with the smell of extra danger. As expected, Hans Junior did not come home (both a blessing and an ominous disappointment), but Trudy arrived as usual, and fortunately, things went smoothly.
THE QUALITIES OF SMOOTHNESS
Max remained in the basement.
Trudy came and went without any suspicion.
• • •
It was decided that Trudy, despite her mild demeanor, could not be trusted.
“We trust only the people we have to,” Papa stated, “and that is the three of us.”
There was extra food and the apology to Max that this was not his religion, but a ritual nonetheless.
He didn’t complain.
What grounds did he have?
He explained that he was a Jew in upbringing, in blood, but also that Jewry was now more than ever a label—a ruinous piece of the dumbest luck around.
It was then that he also took the opportunity to say he was sorry that the Hubermanns’ son had not come home. In response, Papa told him that such things were out of their control. “After all,” he said, “you should know it yourself—a young man is still a boy, and a boy sometimes has the right to be stubborn.”
They left it at that.
For the first few weeks in front of the fire, Max remained wordless. Now that he was having a proper bath once a week, Liesel noticed that his hair was no longer a nest of twigs, but rather a collection of feathers, flopping about on his head. Still shy of the stranger, she whispered it to her papa.
“His hair is like feathers.”
“What?” The fire had distorted the words.
“I said,” she whispered again, leaning closer, “his hair is like feathers ….”
Hans Hubermann looked across and nodded his agreement. I’m sure he was wishing to have eyes like the girl. They didn’t realize that Max had heard everything.
Occasionally he brought the copy of Mein Kampf and read it next to the flames, seething at the content. The third time he brought it, Liesel finally found the courage to ask her question.
He looked up from the pages, forming his fingers into a fist and then flattening them back out. Sweeping away the anger, he smiled at her. He lifted the feathery fringe and dumped it toward his eyes. “It’s the best book ever.” Looking at Papa, then back at the girl. “It saved my life.”
The girl moved a little and crossed her legs. Quietly, she asked it.
So began a kind of storytelling phase in the living room each night. It was spoken just loud enough to hear. The pieces of a Jewish fist-fighting puzzle were assembled before them all.
Sometimes there was humor in Max Vandenburg’s voice, though its physicality was like friction—like a stone being gently rubbed across a large rock. It was deep in places and scratched apart in others, sometimes breaking off altogether. It was deepest in regret, and broken off at the end of a joke or a statement of self-deprecation.
“Crucified Christ” was the most common reaction to Max Vandenburg’s stories, usually followed by a question.
How long did you stay in that room?
Where is Walter Kugler now?
Do you know what happened to your family?
Where was the snorer traveling to?
A 10-3 losing record!
Why would you keep fighting him?
When Liesel looked back on the events of her life, those nights in the living room were some of the clearest memories she had. She could see the burning light on Max’s eggshell face and even taste the human flavor of his words. The course of his survival was related, piece by piece, as if he were cutting each part out of him and presenting it on a plate.
“I’m so selfish.”
hen he said that, he used his forearm to shield his face. “Leaving people behind. Coming here. Putting all of you in danger …” He dropped everything out of him and started pleading with them. Sorrow and desolation were clouted across his face. “I’m sorry. Do you believe me? I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m—!”
His arm touched the fire and he snapped it back.
They all watched him, silent, until Papa stood and walked closer. He sat next to him.
“Did you burn your elbow?”
One evening, Hans, Max, and Liesel were sitting in front of the fire. Mama was in the kitchen. Max was reading Mein Kampf again.
“You know something?” Hans said. He leaned toward the fire. “Liesel’s actually a good little reader herself.” Max lowered the book. “And she has more in common with you than you might think.” Papa checked that Rosa wasn’t coming. “She likes a good fistfight, too.”
Liesel, at the high end of eleven, and still rake-skinny as she sat against the wall, was devastated. “I’ve never been in a fight!”
“Shhh,” Papa laughed. He waved at her to keep her voice down and tilted again, this time to the girl. “Well, what about the hiding you gave Ludwig Schmeikl, huh?”
“I never—” She was caught. Further denial was useless. “How did you find out about that?”
“I saw his papa at the Knoller.”
Liesel held her face in her hands. Once uncovered again, she asked the pivotal question. “Did you tell Mama?”
“Are you kidding?” He winked at Max and whispered to the girl, “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
That night was also the first time Papa played his accordion at home for months. It lasted half an hour or so until he asked a question of Max.
“Did you learn?”
The face in the corner watched the flames. “I did.” There was a considerable pause. “Until I was nine. At that age, my mother sold the music studio and stopped teaching. She kept only the one instrument but gave up on me not long after I resisted the learning. I was foolish.”
“No,” Papa said. “You were a boy.”
During the nights, both Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg would go about their other similarity. In their separate rooms, they would dream their nightmares and wake up, one with a scream in drowning sheets, the other with a gasp for air next to a smoking fire.