The Book Thief



  “Crossword?” he would ask.

  “Empty.”

  “Excellent.”

  The Jew would smile as he accepted the package of paper and started reading in the rationed light of the basement. Often, Liesel would watch him as he focused on reading the paper, completed the crossword, and then started to reread it, front to back.

  With the weather warming, Max remained downstairs all the time. During the day, the basement door was left open to allow the small bay of daylight to reach him from the corridor. The hall itself was not exactly bathed in sunshine, but in certain situations, you take what you can get. Dour light was better than none, and they needed to be frugal. The kerosene had not yet approached a dangerously low level, but it was best to keep its usage to a minimum.

  Liesel would usually sit on some drop sheets. She would read while Max completed those crosswords. They sat a few meters apart, speaking very rarely, and there was really only the noise of turning pages. Often, she also left her books for Max to read while she was at school. Where Hans Hubermann and Erik Vandenburg were ultimately united by music, Max and Liesel were held together by the quiet gathering of words.

  “Hi, Max.”

  “Hi, Liesel.”

  They would sit and read.

  At times, she would watch him. She decided that he could best be summed up as a picture of pale concentration. Beige-colored skin. A swamp in each eye. And he breathed like a fugitive. Desperate yet soundless. It was only his chest that gave him away for something alive.

  Increasingly, Liesel would close her eyes and ask Max to quiz her on the words she was continually getting wrong, and she would swear if they still escaped her. She would then stand and paint those words to the wall, anywhere up to a dozen times. Together, Max Vandenburg and Liesel Meminger would take in the odor of paint fumes and cement.

  “Bye, Max.”

  “Bye, Liesel.”

  In bed, she would lie awake, imagining him below, in the basement. In her bedtime visions, he always slept fully clothed, shoes included, just in case he needed to flee again. He slept with one eye open.

  The Weatherman: Mid-May

  Liesel opened the door and her mouth simultaneously.

  On Himmel Street, her team had trounced Rudy’s 6-1, and triumphant, she burst into the kitchen, telling Mama and Papa all about the goal she’d scored. She then rushed down to the basement to describe it blow by blow to Max, who put down his newspaper and intently listened and laughed with the girl.

  When the story of the goal was complete, there was silence for a good few minutes, until Max looked slowly up. “Would you do something for me, Liesel?”

  Still excited by her Himmel Street goal, the girl jumped from the drop sheets. She did not say it, but her movement clearly showed her intent to provide exactly what he wanted.

  “You told me all about the goal,” he said, “but I don’t know what sort of day it is up there. I don’t know if you scored it in the sun, or if the clouds have covered everything.” His hand prodded at his short-cropped hair, and his swampy eyes pleaded for the simplest of simple things. “Could you go up and tell me how the weather looks?”

  Naturally, Liesel hurried up the stairs. She stood a few feet from the spit-stained door and turned on the spot, observing the sky.

  When she returned to the basement, she told him.

  “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole ….”

  Max, at that moment, knew that only a child could have given him a weather report like that. On the wall, he painted a long, tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun at the end of it, as if you could dive right into it. On the ropy cloud, he drew two figures—a thin girl and a withering Jew—and they were walking, arms balanced, toward that dripping sun. Beneath the picture, he wrote the following sentence.

  THE WALL-WRITTEN WORDS

  OF MAX VANDENBURG

  It was a Monday, and they walked

  on a tightrope to the sun.

  The Boxer: End of May

  For Max Vandenburg, there was cool cement and plenty of time to spend with it.

  The minutes were cruel.

  Hours were punishing.

  Standing above him at all moments of awakeness was the hand of time, and it didn’t hesitate to wring him out. It smiled and squeezed and let him live. What great malice there could be in allowing something to live.

  At least once a day, Hans Hubermann would descend the basement steps and share a conversation. Rosa would occasionally bring a spare crust of bread. It was when Liesel came down, however, that Max found himself most interested in life again. Initially, he tried to resist, but it was harder every day that the girl appeared, each time with a new weather report, either of pure blue sky, cardboard clouds, or a sun that had broken through like God sitting down after he’d eaten too much for his dinner.

  When he was alone, his most distinct feeling was of disappearance. All of his clothes were gray—whether they’d started out that way or not—from his pants to his woolen sweater to the jacket that dripped from him now like water. He often checked if his skin was flaking, for it was as if he were dissolving.

  What he needed was a series of new projects. The first was exercise. He started with push-ups, lying stomach-down on the cool basement floor, then hoisting himself up. It felt like his arms snapped at each elbow, and he envisaged his heart seeping out of him and dropping pathetically to the ground. As a teenager in Stuttgart, he could reach fifty push-ups at a time. Now, at the age of twenty-four, perhaps fifteen pounds lighter than his usual weight, he could barely make it to ten. After a week, he was completing three sets each of sixteen push-ups and twenty-two sit-ups. When he was finished, he would sit against the basement wall with his paint-can friends, feeling his pulse in his teeth. His muscles felt like cake.

  He wondered at times if pushing himself like this was even worth it. Sometimes, though, when his heartbeat neutralized and his body became functional again, he would turn off the lamp and stand in the darkness of the basement.

  He was twenty-four, but he could still fantasize.

  “In the blue corner,” he quietly commentated, “we have the champion of the world, the Aryan masterpiece—the Führer.” He breathed and turned. “And in the red corner, we have the Jewish, rat-faced challenger—Max Vandenburg.”

  Around him, it all materialized.

  White light lowered itself into a boxing ring and a crowd stood and murmured—that magical sound of many people talking all at once. How could every person there have so much to say at the same time? The ring itself was perfect. Perfect canvas, lovely ropes. Even the stray hairs of each thickened string were flawless, gleaming in the tight white light. The room smelled like cigarettes and beer.

  Diagonally across, Adolf Hitler stood in the corner with his entourage. His legs poked out from a red-and-white robe with a black swastika burned into its back. His mustache was knitted to his face. Words were whispered to him from his trainer, Goebbels. He bounced foot to foot, and he smiled. He smiled loudest when the ring announcer listed his many achievements, which were all vociferously applauded by the adoring crowd. “Undefeated!” the ringmaster proclaimed. “Over many a Jew, and over any other threat to the German ideal! Herr Führer,” he concluded, “we salute you!” The crowd: mayhem.

  Next, when everyone had settled down, came the challenger.

  The ringmaster swung over toward Max, who stood alone in the challenger’s corner. No robe. No entourage. Just a lonely young Jew with dirty breath, a naked chest, and tired hands and feet. Naturally, his shorts were gray. He too moved from foot to foot, but it was kept at a minimum to conserve energy. He’d done a lot of sweating in the gym to make the weight.

  “The challenger!” sang the ringmaster. “Of,” and he paused for effect, “Jewish blood.” The crowd oohed, like human ghouls. “Weighing in at …”

  The rest of the speech was not heard. It was o
verrun with the abuse from the bleachers, and Max watched as his opponent was de-robed and came to the middle to hear the rules and shake hands.

  “Guten Tag, Herr Hitler.” Max nodded, but the Führer only showed him his yellow teeth, then covered them up again with his lips.

  “Gentlemen,” a stout referee in black pants and a blue shirt began. A bow tie was fixed to his throat. “First and foremost, we want a good clean fight.” He addressed only the Führer now. “Unless, of course, Herr Hitler, you begin to lose. Should this occur, I will be quite willing to turn a blind eye to any unconscionable tactics you might employ to grind this piece of Jewish stench and filth into the canvas.” He nodded, with great courtesy. “Is that clear?”

  The Führer spoke his first word then. “Crystal.”

  To Max, the referee extended a warning. “As for you, my Jewish chum, I’d watch my step very closely if I were you. Very closely indeed,” and they were sent back to their respective corners.

  A brief quiet ensued.

  The bell.

  First out was the Führer, awkward-legged and bony, running at Max and jabbing him firmly in the face. The crowd vibrated, the bell still in their ears, and their satisfied smiles hurdled the ropes. The smoky breath of Hitler steamed from his mouth as his hands bucked at Max’s face, collecting him several times, on the lips, the nose, the chin—and Max had still not ventured out of his corner. To absorb the punishment, he held up his hands, but the Führer then aimed at his ribs, his kidneys, his lungs. Oh, the eyes, the Führer‘s eyes. They were so deliciously brown—like Jews’ eyes—and they were so determined that even Max stood transfixed for a moment as he caught sight of them between the healthy blur of punching gloves.

  There was only one round, and it lasted hours, and for the most part, nothing changed.

  The Führer pounded away at the punching-bag Jew.

  Jewish blood was everywhere.

  Like red rain clouds on the white-sky canvas at their feet.

  Eventually, Max’s knees began to buckle, his cheekbones silently moaned, and the Führer‘s delighted face still chipped away, chipped away, until depleted, beaten, and broken, the Jew flopped to the floor.

  First, a roar.

  Then silence.

  The referee counted. He had a gold tooth and a plethora of nostril hair.

  Slowly, Max Vandenburg, the Jew, rose to his feet and made himself upright. His voice wobbled. An invitation. “Come on, Führer,” he said, and this time, when Adolf Hitler set upon his Jewish counterpart, Max stepped aside and plunged him into the corner. He punched him seven times, aiming on each occasion for only one thing.

  The mustache.

  With the seventh punch, he missed. It was the Führer’s chin that sustained the blow. All at once, Hitler hit the ropes and creased forward, landing on his knees. This time, there was no count. The referee flinched in the corner. The audience sank down, back to their beer. On his knees, the Führer tested himself for blood and straightened his hair, right to left. When he returned to his feet, much to the approval of the thousand-strong crowd, he edged forward and did something quite strange. He turned his back on the Jew and took the gloves from his fists.

  The crowd was stunned.

  “He’s given up,” someone whispered, but within moments, Adolf Hitler was standing on the ropes, and he was addressing the arena.

  “My fellow Germans,” he called, “you can see something here tonight, can’t you?” Bare-chested, victory-eyed, he pointed over at Max. “You can see that what we face is something far more sinister and powerful than we ever imagined. Can you see that?”

  They answered. “Yes, Führer.”

  “Can you see that this enemy has found its ways—its despicable ways—through our armor, and that clearly, I cannot stand up here alone and fight him?” The words were visible. They dropped from his mouth like jewels. “Look at him! Take a good look.” They looked. At the bloodied Max Vandenburg. “As we speak, he is plotting his way into your neighborhood. He’s moving in next door. He’s infesting you with his family and he’s about to take you over. He—” Hitler glanced at him a moment, with disgust. “He will soon own you, until it is he who stands not at the counter of your grocery shop, but sits in the back, smoking his pipe. Before you know it, you’ll be working for him at minimum wage while he can hardly walk from the weight in his pockets. Will you simply stand there and let him do this? Will you stand by as your leaders did in the past, when they gave your land to everybody else, when they sold your country for the price of a few signatures? Will you stand out there, powerless? Or”—and now he stepped one rung higher—“will you climb up into this ring with me?”

  Max shook. Horror stuttered in his stomach.

  Adolf finished him. “Will you climb in here so that we can defeat this enemy together?”

  In the basement of 33 Himmel Street, Max Vandenburg could feel the fists of an entire nation. One by one they climbed into the ring and beat him down. They made him bleed. They let him suffer. Millions of them—until one last time, when he gathered himself to his feet …

  He watched the next person climb through the ropes. It was a girl, and as she slowly crossed the canvas, he noticed a tear torn down her left cheek. In her right hand was a newspaper.

  “The crossword,” she gently said, “is empty,” and she held it out to him.

  Dark.

  Nothing but dark now.

  Just basement. Just Jew.

  The New Dream: A Few Nights Later

  It was afternoon. Liesel came down the basement steps. Max was halfway through his push-ups.

  She watched awhile, without his knowledge, and when she came and sat with him, he stood up and leaned back against the wall. “Did I tell you,” he asked her, “that I’ve been having a new dream lately?”

  Liesel shifted a little, to see his face.

  “But I dream this when I’m awake.” He motioned to the glowless kerosene lamp. “Sometimes I turn out the light. Then I stand here and wait.”

  “For what?”

  Max corrected her. “Not for what. For whom.”

  For a few moments, Liesel said nothing. It was one of those conversations that require some time to elapse between exchanges. “Who do you wait for?”

  Max did not move. “The Führer.” He was very matter-of-fact about this. “That’s why I’m in training.”

  “The push-ups?”

  “That’s right.” He walked to the concrete stairway. “Every night, I wait in the dark and the Führer comes down these steps. He walks down and he and I, we fight for hours.”

  Liesel was standing now. “Who wins?”

  At first, he was going to answer that no one did, but then he noticed the paint cans, the drop sheets, and the growing pile of newspapers in the periphery of his vision. He watched the words, the long cloud, and the figures on the wall.

  “I do,” he said.

  It was as though he’d opened her palm, given her the words, and closed it up again.

  Under the ground, in Molching, Germany, two people stood and spoke in a basement. It sounds like the beginning of a joke:

  “There’s a Jew and a German standing in a basement, right? …”

  This, however, was no joke.

  The Painters: Early June

  Another of Max’s projects was the remainder of Mein Kampf. Each page was gently stripped from the book and laid out on the floor to receive a coat of paint. It was then hung up to dry and replaced between the front and back covers. When Liesel came down one day after school, she found Max, Rosa, and her papa all painting the various pages. Many of them were already hanging from a drawn-out string with pegs, just as they must have done for The Standover Man.

  All three people looked up and spoke.

  “Hi, Liesel.”

  “Here’s a brush, Liesel.”

  “About time, Saumensch. Where have you been so long?”

  As she started painting, Liesel thought about Max Vandenburg fighting the Führer, exactly as h
e’d explained it.

  BASEMENTVISIONS, JUNE 1941

  Punches are thrown, the crowd climbs out of

  the walls. Max and the Führer fight for their

  lives, each rebounding off the stairway.

  There’s blood in the Führer’s mustache, as

  well as in his part line, on the right side

  of his head. “Come on, Führer,” says the

  Jew. He waves him forward. “Come on, Führer.”

  When the visions dissipated and she finished her first page, Papa winked at her. Mama castigated her for hogging the paint. Max examined each and every page, perhaps watching what he planned to produce on them. Many months later, he would also paint over the cover of that book and give it a new title, after one of the stories he would write and illustrate inside it.

  That afternoon, in the secret ground below 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermanns, Liesel Meminger, and Max Vandenburg prepared the pages of The Word Shaker.

  It felt good to be a painter.

  The Showdown: June 24

  Then came the seventh side of the die. Two days after Germany invaded Russia. Three days before Britain and the Soviets joined forces.

  Seven.

  You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die. You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come. You brought it into the room. The table could smell it on your breath. The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset. He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven—the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you. It lands. It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

  Just bad luck.

  That’s what you say.

  Of no consequence.

  That’s what you make yourself believe—because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come. You hide a Jew. You pay. Somehow or other, you must.

  In hindsight, Liesel told herself that it was not such a big deal. Perhaps it was because so much more had happened by the time she wrote her story in the basement. In the great scheme of things, she reasoned that Rosa being fired by the mayor and his wife was not bad luck at all. It had nothing whatsoever to do with hiding Jews. It had everything to do with the greater context of the war. At the time, though, there was most definitely a feeling of punishment.