The Book Thief
Sometimes, when Liesel was reading with Papa close to three o’clock, they would both hear the waking moment of Max. “He dreams like you,” Papa would say, and on one occasion, stirred by the sound of Max’s anxiety, Liesel decided to get out of bed. From listening to his history, she had a good idea of what he saw in those dreams, if not the exact part of the story that paid him a visit each night.
She made her way quietly down the hallway and into the living and bedroom.
The whisper was soft, clouded in the throat of sleep.
To begin with, there was no sound of reply, but he soon sat up and searched the darkness.
With Papa still in her bedroom, Liesel sat on the other side of the fireplace from Max. Behind them, Mama loudly slept. She gave the snorer on the train a good run for her money.
The fire was nothing now but a funeral of smoke, dead and dying, simultaneously. On this particular morning, there were also voices.
THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES
The girl: “Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?”
The Jew: “… I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.”
The girl: “I also have nightmares.”
The Jew: “What do you see?”
The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.”
The Jew: “Your brother?”
The girl: “He died when I moved here, on the way.”
The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja—yes.”
It would be nice to say that after this small breakthrough, neither Liesel nor Max dreamed their bad visions again. It would be nice but untrue. The nightmares arrived like they always did, much like the best player in the opposition when you’ve heard rumors that he might be injured or sick—but there he is, warming up with the rest of them, ready to take the field. Or like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform, pulling the memories behind it on a rope. A lot of dragging. A lot of awkward bounces.
The only thing that changed was that Liesel told her papa that she should be old enough now to cope on her own with the dreams. For a moment, he looked a little hurt, but as always with Papa, he gave the right thing to say his best shot.
“Well, thank God.” He halfway grinned. “At least now I can get some proper sleep. That chair was killing me.” He put his arm around the girl and they walked to the kitchen.
As time progressed, a clear distinction developed between two very different worlds—the world inside 33 Himmel Street, and the one that resided and turned outside it. The trick was to keep them apart.
In the outside world, Liesel was learning to find some more of its uses. One afternoon, when she was walking home with an empty washing bag, she noticed a newspaper poking out of a garbage can. The weekly edition of the Molching Express. She lifted it out and took it home, presenting it to Max. “I thought,” she told him, “you might like to do the crossword to pass the time.”
Max appreciated the gesture, and to justify her bringing it home, he read the paper from cover to cover and showed her the puzzle a few hours later, completed but for one word.
“Damn that seventeen down,” he said.
In February 1941, for her twelfth birthday, Liesel received another used book, and she was grateful. It was called The Mud Men and was about a very strange father and son. She hugged her mama and papa, while Max stood uncomfortably in the corner.
“Alles Gute zum Geburtstag.” He smiled weakly. “All the best for your birthday.” His hands were in his pockets. “I didn’t know, or else I could have given you something.” A blatant lie—he had nothing to give, except maybe Mein Kampf, and there was no way he’d give such propaganda to a young German girl. That would be like the lamb handing a knife to the butcher.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
She had embraced Mama and Papa.
Max looked so alone.
And she walked over and hugged him for the first time. “Thanks, Max.”
At first, he merely stood there, but as she held on to him, gradually his hands rose up and gently pressed into her shoulder blades.
Only later would she find out about the helpless expression on Max Vandenburg’s face. She would also discover that he resolved at that moment to give her something back. I often imagine him lying awake all that night, pondering what he could possibly offer.
As it turned out, the gift was delivered on paper, just over a week later.
He would bring it to her in the early hours of morning, before retreating down the concrete steps to what he now liked to call home.
PAGES FROM THE BASEMENT
For a week, Liesel was kept from the basement at all cost. It was Mama and Papa who made sure to take down Max’s food.
“No, Saumensch,” Mama told her each time she volunteered. There was always a new excuse. “How about you do something useful in here for a change, like finish the ironing? You think carrying it around town is so special? Try ironing it!” You can do all manner of underhanded nice things when you have a caustic reputation. It worked.
During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white. He then hung them up with pegs on some string, from one end of the basement to the other. When they were all dry, the hard part began. He was educated well enough to get by, but he was certainly no writer, and no artist. Despite this, he formulated the words in his head till he could recount them without error. Only then, on the paper that had bubbled and humped under the stress of drying paint, did he begin to write the story. It was done with a small black paintbrush.
The Standover Man.
He calculated that he needed thirteen pages, so he painted forty, expecting at least twice as many slipups as successes. There were practice versions on the pages of the Molching Express, improving his basic, clumsy artwork to a level he could accept. As he worked, he heard the whispered words of a girl. “His hair,” she told him, “is like feathers.”
When he was finished, he used a knife to pierce the pages and tie them with string. The result was a thirteen-page booklet that went like this:
In late February, when Liesel woke up in the early hours of morning, a figure made its way into her bedroom. Typical of Max, it was as close as possible to a noiseless shadow.
Liesel, searching through the dark, could only vaguely sense the man coming toward her.
There was no reply.
There was nothing but the near silence of his feet as he came closer to the bed and placed the pages on the floor, next to her socks. The pages crackled. Just slightly. One edge of them curled into the floor.
This time there was a response.
She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from. What mattered was that they reached her. They arrived and kneeled next to the bed.
“A late birthday gift. Look in the morning. Good night.”
For a while, she drifted in and out of sleep, not sure anymore whether she’d dreamed of Max coming in.
In the morning, when she woke and rolled over, she saw the pages sitting on the floor. She reached down and picked them up, listening to the paper as it rippled in her early-morning hands.
All my life, I’ve been scared of men standing over me ….
As she turned them, the pages were noisy, like static around the written story.
Three days, they told me … and what did I find when I woke up?
There were the erased pages of Mein Kampf, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned.
It makes me understand that the best standover man I’ve ever known …
Liesel read and viewed Max Vandenburg’s gift three times, noticing a different brush line or word with each one. When the third reading was finished, she climbed as quietly as she could from her bed and walked to Mama and Papa’s room. The allocated space next to the fire was vacant.
As she thought about it, she realized it was actually appropriat
e, or even better—perfect—to thank him where the pages were made.
She walked down the basement steps. She saw an imaginary framed photo seep into the wall—a quiet-smiled secret.
No more than a few meters, it was a long walk to the drop sheets and the assortment of paint cans that shielded Max Vandenburg. She removed the sheets closest to the wall until there was a small corridor to look through.
The first part of him she saw was his shoulder, and through the slender gap, she slowly, painfully, inched her hand in until it rested there. His clothing was cool. He did not wake.
She could feel his breathing and his shoulder moving up and down ever so slightly. For a while, she watched him. Then she sat and leaned back.
Sleepy air seemed to have followed her.
The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike and sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder.
German and Jewish lungs.
Next to the wall, The Standover Man sat, numb and gratified, like a beautiful itch at Liesel Meminger’s feet.
a floating book—the gamblers—a small ghost—
two haircuts—rudy’s youth—losers and sketches—
a whistler and some shoes—three acts of stupidity—
and a frightened boy with frozen legs
THE FLOATING BOOK (Part I)
A book floated down the Amper River.
A boy jumped in, caught up to it, and held it in his right hand. He grinned.
He stood waist-deep in the icy, Decemberish water.
“How about a kiss, Saumensch?” he said.
The surrounding air was a lovely, gorgeous, nauseating cold, not to mention the concrete ache of the water, thickening from his toes to his hips.
How about a kiss?
How about a kiss?
A SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT
ABOUT RUDY STEINER
He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.
In your visions, you see the sloppy edges of paper still stuck to his fingers. You see a shivering blond fringe. Preemptively, you conclude, as I would, that Rudy died that very same day, of hypothermia. He did not. Recollections like those merely remind me that he was not deserving of the fate that met him a little under two years later.
On many counts, taking a boy like Rudy was robbery—so much life, so much to live for—yet somehow, I’m certain he would have loved to see the frightening rubble and the swelling of the sky on the night he passed away. He’d have cried and turned and smiled if only he could have seen the book thief on her hands and knees, next to his decimated body. He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips.
Yes, I know it.
In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right.
Even death has a heart.
(A SEVEN-SIDED DIE)
Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.
There are many things to think of.
There is much story.
Certainly, there’s a book called The Whistler, which we really need to discuss, along with exactly how it came to be floating down the Amper River in the time leading up to Christmas 1941. We should deal with all of that first, don’t you think?
It’s settled, then.
It started with gambling. Roll a die by hiding a Jew and this is how you live. This is how it looks.
The Haircut: Mid-April 1941
Life was at least starting to mimic normality with more force:
Hans and Rosa Hubermann were arguing in the living room, even if it was much quieter than it used to be. Liesel, in typical fashion, was an onlooker.
The argument originated the previous night, in the basement, where Hans and Max were sitting with paint cans, words, and drop sheets. Max asked if Rosa might be able to cut his hair at some stage. “It’s getting me in the eyes,” he’d said, to which Hans had replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Now Rosa was riffling through the drawers. Her words were shoved back to Papa with the rest of the junk. “Where are those damn scissors?”
“Not in the one below?”
“I’ve been through that one already.”
“Maybe you missed them.”
“Do I look blind?” She raised her head and bellowed. “Liesel!”
“I’m right here.”
Hans cowered. “Goddamn it, woman, deafen me, why don’t you!”
“Quiet, Saukerl.” Rosa went on riffling and addressed the girl. “Liesel, where are the scissors?” But Liesel had no idea, either. “Saumensch, you’re useless, aren’t you?”
“Leave her out of it.”
More words were delivered back and forth, from elastic-haired woman to silver-eyed man, till Rosa slammed the drawer. “I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes on him anyway.”
“Mistakes?” Papa looked ready to tear his own hair out by that stage, but his voice became a barely audible whisper. “Who the hell’s going to see him?” He motioned to speak again but was distracted by the feathery appearance of Max Vandenburg, who stood politely, embarrassed, in the doorway. He carried his own scissors and came forward, handing them not to Hans or Rosa but to the twelve-year-old girl. She was the calmest option. His mouth quivered a moment before he said, “Would you?”
Liesel took the scissors and opened them. They were rusty and shiny in different areas. She turned to Papa, and when he nodded, she followed Max down to the basement.
The Jew sat on a paint can. A small drop sheet was wrapped around his shoulders. “As many mistakes as you want,” he told her.
Papa parked himself on the steps.
Liesel lifted the first tufts of Max Vandenburg’s hair.
As she cut the feathery strands, she wondered at the sound of scissors. Not the snipping noise, but the grinding of each metal arm as it cropped each group of fibers.
When the job was done, a little severe in places, a little crooked in others, she walked upstairs with the hair in her hands and fed it into the stove. She lit a match and watched as the clump shriveled and sank, orange and red.
Again, Max was in the doorway, this time at the top of the basement steps. “Thanks, Liesel.” His voice was tall and husky, with the sound in it of a hidden smile.
No sooner had he spoken than he disappeared again, back into the ground.
The Newspaper: Early May
“There’s a Jew in my basement.”
“There’s a Jew. In my basement.”
Sitting on the floor of the mayor’s roomful of books, Liesel Meminger heard those words. A bag of washing was at her side and the ghostly figure of the mayor’s wife was sitting hunch-drunk over at the desk. In front of her, Liesel read The Whistler, pages twenty-two and twenty-three. She looked up. She imagined herself walking over, gently tearing some fluffy hair to the side, and whispering in the woman’s ear:
“There’s a Jew in my basement.”
As the book quivered in her lap, the secret sat in her mouth. It made itself comfortable. It crossed its legs.
“I should be getting home.” This time, she actually spoke. Her hands were shaking. Despite a trace of sunshine in the distance, a gentle breeze rode through the open window, coupled with rain that came in like sawdust.
When Liesel placed the book back into position, the woman’s chair stubbed the floor and she made her way over. It was always like this at the end. The gentle rings of sorrowful wrinkles swelled a moment as she reached ac
ross and retrieved the book.
She offered it to the girl.
Liesel shied away.
“No,” she said, “thank you. I have enough books at home. Maybe another time. I’m rereading something else with my papa. You know, the one I stole from the fire that night.”
The mayor’s wife nodded. If there was one thing about Liesel Meminger, her thieving was not gratuitous. She only stole books on what she felt was a need-to-have basis. Currently, she had enough. She’d gone through The Mud Men four times now and was enjoying her reacquaintance with The Shoulder Shrug. Also, each night before bed, she would open a fail-safe guide to grave digging. Buried deep inside it, The Standover Man resided. She mouthed the words and touched the birds. She turned the noisy pages, slowly.
“Goodbye, Frau Hermann.”
She exited the library, walked down the floorboard hall and out the monstrous doorway. As was her habit, she stood for a while on the steps, looking at Molching beneath her. The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets and filled up the streets like a bath.
When she made it down to Munich Street, the book thief swerved in and out of the umbrellaed men and women—a rain-cloaked girl who made her way without shame from one garbage can to another. Like clockwork.
She laughed up at the coppery clouds, celebrating, before reaching in and taking the mangled newspaper. Although the front and back pages were streaked with black tears of print, she folded it neatly in half and tucked it under her arm. It had been like this each Thursday for the past few months.
Thursday was the only delivery day left for Liesel Meminger now, and it was usually able to provide some sort of dividend. She could never dampen the feeling of victory each time she found a Molching Express or any other publication. Finding a newspaper was a good day. If it was a paper in which the crossword wasn’t done, it was a great day. She would make her way home, shut the door behind her, and take it down to Max Vandenburg.