The Book Thief
In panic, the mother opened the door.
She climbed down into the snow, holding the small body.
What could the girl do but follow?
As you’ve been informed, two guards also exited the train. They discussed and argued over what to do. The situation was unsavory to say the least. It was eventually decided that all three of them should be taken to the next township and left there to sort things out.
This time, the train limped through the snowed-in country.
It hobbled in and stopped.
They stepped onto the platform, the body in her mother’s arms.
The boy was getting heavy.
Liesel had no idea where she was. All was white, and as they remained at the station, she could only stare at the faded lettering of the sign in front of her. For Liesel, the town was nameless, and it was there that her brother, Werner, was buried two days later. Witnesses included a priest and two shivering grave diggers.
A pair of train guards.
A pair of grave diggers.
When it came down to it, one of them called the shots.
The other did what he was told.
The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?
Mistakes, mistakes, it’s all I seem capable of at times.
For two days, I went about my business. I traveled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity. I watched them trundle passively on. Several times, I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger’s brother. I did not heed my advice.
From miles away, as I approached, I could already see the small group of humans standing frigidly among the wasteland of snow. The cemetery welcomed me like a friend, and soon, I was with them. I bowed my head.
Standing to Liesel’s left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. “So hard getting through all the ice,” and so forth. One of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen. An apprentice. When he walked away, after a few dozen paces, a black book fell innocuously from his coat pocket without his knowledge.
A few minutes later, Liesel’s mother started leaving with the priest. She was thanking him for his performance of the ceremony.
The girl, however, stayed.
Her knees entered the ground. Her moment had arrived.
Still in disbelief, she started to dig. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t—
Within seconds, snow was carved into her skin.
Frozen blood was cracked across her hands.
Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white. She realized her mother had come back for her only when she felt the boniness of a hand on her shoulder. She was being dragged away. A warm scream filled her throat.
A SMALL IMAGE, PERHAPS
TWENTY METERS AWAY
When the dragging was done, the mother and the girl stood and breathed.
There was something black and rectangular lodged in the snow.
Only the girl saw it.
She bent down and picked it up and held it firmly in her fingers.
The book had silver writing on it.
They held hands.
A final, soaking farewell was let go of, and they turned and left the cemetery, looking back several times.
As for me, I remained a few moments longer.
No one waved back.
Mother and daughter vacated the cemetery and made their way toward the next train to Munich.
Both were skinny and pale.
Both had sores on their lips.
Liesel noticed it in the dirty, fogged-up window of the train when they boarded just before midday. In the written words of the book thief herself, the journey continued like everything had happened.
When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if from a torn package. There were people of every stature, but among them, the poor were the most easily recognized. The impoverished always try to keep moving, as if relocating might help. They ignore the reality that a new version of the same old problem will be waiting at the end of the trip—the relative you cringe to kiss.
I think her mother knew this quite well. She wasn’t delivering her children to the higher echelons of Munich, but a foster home had apparently been found, and if nothing else, the new family could at least feed the girl and the boy a little better, and educate them properly.
Liesel was sure her mother carried the memory of him, slung over her shoulder. She dropped him. She saw his feet and legs and body slap the platform.
How could that woman walk?
How could she move?
That’s the sort of thing I’ll never know, or comprehend—what humans are capable of.
She picked him up and continued walking, the girl clinging now to her side.
Authorities were met and questions of lateness and the boy raised their vulnerable heads. Liesel remained in the corner of the small, dusty office as her mother sat with clenched thoughts on a very hard chair.
There was the chaos of goodbye.
It was a goodbye that was wet, with the girl’s head buried into the woolly, worn shallows of her mother’s coat. There had been some more dragging.
Quite a way beyond the outskirts of Munich, there was a town called Molching, said best by the likes of you and me as “Molking.” That’s where they were taking her, to a street by the name of Himmel.
Himmel = Heaven
Whoever named Himmel Street certainly had a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn’t. But it sure as hell wasn’t heaven, either.
Regardless, Liesel’s foster parents were waiting.
They’d been expecting a girl and a boy and would be paid a small allowance for having them. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell Rosa Hubermann that the boy didn’t survive the trip. In fact, no one ever really wanted to tell her anything. As far as dispositions go, hers wasn’t really enviable, although she had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, she’d straightened a few out.
For Liesel, it was a ride in a car.
She’d never been in one before.
There was the constant rise and fall of her stomach, and the futile hopes that they’d lose their way or change their minds. Among it all, her thoughts couldn’t help turning toward her mother, back at the Bahnhof, waiting to leave again. Shivering. Bundled up in that useless coat. She’d be eating her nails, waiting for the train. The platform would be long and uncomfortable—a slice of cold cement. Would she keep an eye out for the approximate burial site of her son on the return trip? Or would sleep be too heavy?
The car moved on, with Liesel dreading the last, lethal turn.
The day was gray, the color of Europe.
Curtains of rain were drawn around the car.
“Nearly there.” The foster care lady, Frau Heinrich, turned around and smiled. “Dein neues Heim. Your new home.”
Liesel made a clear circle on the dribbled glass and looked out.
A PHOTO OF HIMMEL STREET
The buildings appear to be glued together, mostly small houses and apartment blocks that look nervous.
There is murky snow spread out like carpet.
There is concrete, empty hat-stand trees, and gray air.
A man was also in the car. He remained with the girl while Frau Heinrich disappeared inside. He never spoke. Liesel assumed he was there to make sure she wouldn’t run away or to force her inside if she gave them any trouble. Later, however, when the trouble did start, he simply sat there and watched. Perhaps he was only the last resort, the final solution.
After a few minutes, a very tall man came out. Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father. On one side of him was th
e medium-height Frau Heinrich. On the other was the squat shape of Rosa Hubermann, who looked like a small wardrobe with a coat thrown over it. There was a distinct waddle to her walk. Almost cute, if it wasn’t for her face, which was like creased-up cardboard and annoyed, as if she was merely tolerating all of it. Her husband walked straight, with a cigarette smoldering between his fingers. He rolled his own.
• • •
The fact was this:
Liesel would not get out of the car.
“Was ist los mit dem Kind?” Rosa Hubermann inquired. She said it again. “What’s wrong with this child?” She stuck her face inside the car and said, “Na, komm. Komm.”
The seat in front was flung forward. A corridor of cold light invited her out. She would not move.
Outside, through the circle she’d made, Liesel could see the tall man’s fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times until it hit the ground. It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it.
There was the gate next, which she clung to.
A gang of tears trudged from her eyes as she held on and refused to go inside. People started to gather on the street until Rosa Hubermann swore at them, after which they reversed back, whence they came.
A TRANSLATION OF
ROSA HUBERMANN’S ANNOUNCEMENT
“What are you assholes looking at?”
Eventually, Liesel Meminger walked gingerly inside. Hans Hubermann had her by one hand. Her small suitcase had her by the other. Buried beneath the folded layer of clothes in that suitcase was a small black book, which, for all we know, a fourteen-year-old grave digger in a nameless town had probably spent the last few hours looking for. “I promise you,” I imagine him saying to his boss, “I have no idea what happened to it. I’ve looked everywhere. Everywhere!” I’m sure he would never have suspected the girl, and yet, there it was—a black book with silver words written against the ceiling of her clothes:
THE GRAVE DIGGER’S HANDBOOK
A Twelve-Step Guide to
Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association
The book thief had struck for the first time—the beginning of an illustrious career.
GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH
Yes, an illustrious career.
I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.
When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything. Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them? Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Was it reading in the shelters? The last parade to Dachau? Was it The Word Shaker? Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred. In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street and the art of saumensching:
Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wirelike shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.
Her hair was a close enough brand of German blond, but she had dangerous eyes. Dark brown. You didn’t really want brown eyes in Germany around that time. Perhaps she received them from her father, but she had no way of knowing, as she couldn’t remember him. There was really only one thing she knew about her father. It was a label she did not understand.
A STRANGE WORD
She’d heard it several times in the past few years.
There were boardinghouses crammed with people, rooms filled with questions. And that word. That strange word was always there somewhere, standing in the corner, watching from the dark. It wore suits, uniforms. No matter where they went, there it was, each time her father was mentioned. She could smell it and taste it. She just couldn’t spell or understand it. When she asked her mother what it meant, she was told that it wasn’t important, that she shouldn’t worry about such things. At one boardinghouse, there was a healthier woman who tried to teach the children to write, using charcoal on the wall. Liesel was tempted to ask her the meaning, but it never eventuated. One day, that woman was taken away for questioning. She didn’t come back.
When Liesel arrived in Molching, she had at least some inkling that she was being saved, but that was not a comfort. If her mother loved her, why leave her on someone else’s doorstep? Why? Why?
The fact that she knew the answer—if only at the most basic level—seemed beside the point. Her mother was constantly sick and there was never any money to fix her. Liesel knew that. But that didn’t mean she had to accept it. No matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment. Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone.
The Hubermanns lived in one of the small, boxlike houses on Himmel Street. A few rooms, a kitchen, and a shared outhouse with neighbors. The roof was flat and there was a shallow basement for storage. It was supposedly not a basement of adequate depth. In 1939, this wasn’t a problem. Later, in ′42 and ′43, it was. When air raids started, they always needed to rush down the street to a better shelter.
In the beginning, it was the profanity that made an immediate impact. It was so vehement and prolific. Every second word was either Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch. For people who aren’t familiar with these words, I should explain. Sau, of course, refers to pigs. In the case of Saumensch, it serves to castigate, berate, or plain humiliate a female. Saukerl (pronounced “saukairl”) is for a male. Arschloch can be translated directly into “asshole.” That word, however, does not differentiate between the sexes. It simply is.
“Saumensch, du dreckiges!” Liesel’s foster mother shouted that first evening when she refused to have a bath. “You filthy pig! Why won’t you get undressed?” She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion.
Liesel, naturally, was bathed in anxiety. There was no way she was getting into any bath, or into bed for that matter. She was twisted into one corner of the closetlike washroom, clutching for the nonexistent arms of the wall for some level of support. There was nothing but dry paint, difficult breath, and the deluge of abuse from Rosa.
“Leave her alone.” Hans Hubermann entered the fray. His gentle voice made its way in, as if slipping through a crowd. “Leave her to me.”
He moved closer and sat on the floor, against the wall. The tiles were cold and unkind.
“You know how to roll a cigarette?” he asked her, and for the next hour or so, they sat in the rising pool of darkness, playing with the tobacco and the cigarette papers and Hans Hubermann smoking them.
When the hour was up, Liesel could roll a cigarette moderately well. She still didn’t have a bath.
SOME FACTS ABOUT
He loved to smoke.
The main thing he enjoyed about smoking was the rolling.
He was a painter by trade and played the piano accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter, when he could make a little money playing in the pubs of Molching, like the Knoller.
He had already cheat
ed me in one world war but would later be put into another (as a perverse kind of reward), where he would somehow manage to avoid me again.
To most people, Hans Hubermann was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly, his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I’m sure you’ve met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background, even if he was standing at the front of a line. He was always just there. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable.
The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadence, let’s say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger. (The human child—so much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.) She saw it immediately.
The quiet air around him.
When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.
SOME FACTS ABOUT
She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger.
Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.
It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.
When Liesel finally had a bath, after two weeks of living on Himmel Street, Rosa gave her an enormous, injury-inducing hug. Nearly choking her, she said, “Saumensch, du dreckiges—it’s about time!”
After a few months, they were no longer Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann. With a typical fistful of words, Rosa said, “Now listen, Liesel—from now on you call me Mama.” She thought a moment. “What did you call your real mother?”