The Book Thief
When they returned to Himmel Street that day, Liesel was playing hopscotch with some of the younger kids, still in her BDM uniform. From the corner of her eye, she saw the two melancholic figures walking toward her. One of them called out.
They met on the front step of the Steiners’ concrete shoe box of a house, and Rudy told her all about the day’s episode.
After ten minutes, Liesel sat down.
After eleven minutes, Tommy, who was sitting next to her, said, “It’s all my fault,” but Rudy waved him away, somewhere between sentence and smile, chopping a mud streak in half with his finger. “It’s my—” Tommy tried again, but Rudy broke the sentence completely and pointed at him.
“Tommy, please.” There was a peculiar look of contentment on Rudy’s face. Liesel had never seen someone so miserable yet so wholeheartedly alive. “Just sit there and—twitch—or something,” and he continued with the story.
He wrestled his tie.
The words were flung at her, landing somewhere on the concrete step.
“That Deutscher,” he summed up buoyantly. “He got us, huh, Tommy?”
Tommy nodded, twitched, and spoke, not necessarily in that order. “It was because of me.”
“Tommy, what did I say?”
“Now! Just keep quiet.”
When Tommy walked forlornly home a short while later, Rudy tried what appeared to be a masterful new tactic.
On the step, he perused the mud that had dried as a crusty sheet on his uniform, then looked Liesel hopelessly in the face. “What about it, Saumensch?”
“What about what?”
“You know ….”
Liesel responded in the usual fashion.
“Saukerl,” she laughed, and she walked the short distance home. A disconcerting mixture of mud and pity was one thing, but kissing Rudy Steiner was something entirely different.
Smiling sadly on the step, he called out, rummaging a hand through his hair. “One day,” he warned her. “One day, Liesel!”
In the basement, just over two years later, Liesel ached sometimes to go next door and see him, even if she was writing in the early hours of morning. She also realized it was most likely those sodden days at the Hitler Youth that had fed his, and subsequently her own, desire for crime.
After all, despite the usual bouts of rain, summer was beginning to arrive properly. The Klar apples should have been ripening. There was more stealing to be done.
When it came to stealing, Liesel and Rudy first stuck with the idea that there was safety in numbers. Andy Schmeikl invited them to the river for a meeting. Among other things, a game plan for fruit stealing would be on the agenda.
“So are you the leader now?” Rudy had asked, but Andy shook his head, heavy with disappointment. He clearly wished that he had what it took.
“No.” His cool voice was unusually warm. Half-baked. “There’s someone else.”
THE NEW ARTHUR BERG
He had windy hair and cloudy eyes,
and he was the kind of delinquent
who had no other reason to
steal except that he enjoyed it.
His name was Viktor Chemmel.
Unlike most people engaged in the various arts of thievery, Viktor Chemmel had it all. He lived in the best part of Molching, high up in a villa that had been fumigated when the Jews were driven out. He had money. He had cigarettes. What he wanted, however, was more.
“No crime in wanting a little more,” he claimed, lying back in the grass with a collection of boys assembled around him. “Wanting more is our fundamental right as Germans. What does our Führer say?” He answered his own rhetoric. “We must take what is rightfully ours!”
At face value, Viktor Chemmel was clearly your typical teenage bullshit artist. Unfortunately, when he felt like revealing it, he also possessed a certain charisma, a kind of follow me.
When Liesel and Rudy approached the group by the river, she heard him ask another question. “So where are these two deviants you’ve been bragging about? It’s ten past four already.”
“Not by my watch,” said Rudy.
Viktor Chemmel propped himself up on an elbow. “You’re not wearing a watch.”
“Would I be here if I was rich enough to own a watch?”
The new leader sat up fully and smiled, with straight white teeth. He then turned his casual focus onto the girl. “Who’s the little whore?” Liesel, well accustomed to verbal abuse, simply watched the fog-ridden texture of his eyes.
“Last year,” she listed, “I stole at least three hundred apples and dozens of potatoes. I have little trouble with barbed wire fences and I can keep up with anyone here.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes.” She did not shrink or step away. “All I ask is a small part of anything we take. A dozen apples here or there. A few leftovers for me and my friend.”
“Well, I suppose that can be arranged.” Viktor lit a cigarette and raised it to his mouth. He made a concerted effort to blow his next mouthful in Liesel’s face.
Liesel did not cough.
It was the same group as the previous year, the only exception being the leader. Liesel wondered why none of the other boys had assumed the helm, but looking from face to face, she realized that none of them had it. They had no qualms about stealing, but they needed to be told. They liked to be told, and Viktor Chemmel liked to be the teller. It was a nice microcosm.
For a moment, Liesel longed for the reappearance of Arthur Berg. Or would he, too, have fallen under the leadership of Chemmel? It didn’t matter. Liesel only knew that Arthur Berg did not have a tyrannical bone in his body, whereas the new leader had hundreds of them. Last year, she knew that if she was stuck in a tree, Arthur would come back for her, despite claiming otherwise. This year, by comparison, she was instantly aware that Viktor Chemmel wouldn’t even bother to look back.
He stood, regarding the lanky boy and the malnourished-looking girl. “So you want to steal with me?”
What did they have to lose? They nodded.
He stepped closer and grabbed Rudy’s hair. “I want to hear it.”
“Definitely,” Rudy said, before being shoved back, fringe first.
“Of course.” Liesel was quick enough to avoid the same treatment.
Viktor smiled. He squashed his cigarette, breathed deeply in, and scratched his chest. “My gentlemen, my whore, it looks like it’s time to go shopping.”
As the group walked off, Liesel and Rudy were at the back, as they’d always been in the past.
“Do you like him?” Rudy whispered.
Rudy paused a moment. “I think he’s a complete bastard.”
The group was getting away from them.
“Come on,” Rudy said, “we’ve fallen behind.”
After a few miles, they reached the first farm. What greeted them was a shock. The trees they’d imagined to be swollen with fruit were frail and injured-looking, with only a small array of apples hanging miserly from each branch. The next farm was the same. Maybe it was a bad season, or their timing wasn’t quite right.
By the end of the afternoon, when the spoils were handed out, Liesel and Rudy were given one diminutive apple between them. In fairness, the takings were incredibly poor, but Viktor Chemmel also ran a tighter ship.
“What do you call this?” Rudy asked, the apple resting in his palm.
Viktor didn’t even turn around. “What does it look like?” The words were dropped over his shoulder.
“One lousy apple?”
“Here.” A half-eaten one was also tossed their way, landing chewed-side-down in the dirt. “You can have that one, too.”
Rudy was incensed. “To hell with this. We didn’t walk ten miles for one and a half scrawny apples, did we, Liesel?”
bsp; Liesel did not answer.
She did not have time, for Viktor Chemmel was on top of Rudy before she could utter a word. His knees had pinned Rudy’s arms and his hands were around his throat. The apples were scooped up by none other than Andy Schmeikl, at Viktor’s request.
“You’re hurting him,” Liesel said.
“Am I?” Viktor was smiling again. She hated that smile.
“He’s not hurting me.” Rudy’s words were rushed together and his face was red with strain. His nose began to bleed.
After an extended moment or two of increased pressure, Viktor let Rudy go and climbed off him, taking a few careless steps. He said, “Get up, boy,” and Rudy, choosing wisely, did as he was told.
Viktor came casually closer again and faced him. He gave him a gentle rub on the arm. A whisper. “Unless you want me to turn that blood into a fountain, I suggest you go away, little boy.” He looked at Liesel. “And take the little slut with you.”
No one moved.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Liesel took Rudy’s hand and they left, but not before Rudy turned one last time and spat some blood and saliva at Viktor Chemmel’s feet. It evoked one final remark.
A SMALL THREAT FROM
VIKTOR CHEMMEL TO RUDY STEINER
“You’ll pay for that at a later date, my friend.”
Say what you will about Viktor Chemmel, but he certainly had patience and a good memory. It took him approximately five months to turn his statement into a true one.
If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg. In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him. The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.
He had what he called just a small ration of tools:
A painted book.
A handful of pencils.
A mindful of thoughts.
Like a simple puzzle, he put them together.
Originally, Max had intended to write his own story.
The idea was to write about everything that had happened to him—all that had led him to a Himmel Street basement—but it was not what came out. Max’s exile produced something else entirely. It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another. Some took minutes. Others hours. He resolved that when the book was finished, he’d give it to Liesel, when she was old enough, and hopefully, when all this nonsense was over.
From the moment he tested the pencils on the first painted page, he kept the book close at all times. Often, it was next to him or still in his fingers as he slept.
One afternoon, after his push-ups and sit-ups, he fell asleep against the basement wall. When Liesel came down, she found the book sitting next to him, slanted against his thigh, and curiosity got the better of her. She leaned over and picked it up, waiting for him to stir. He didn’t. Max was sitting with his head and shoulder blades against the wall. She could barely make out the sound of his breath, coasting in and out of him, as she opened the book and glimpsed a few random pages ….
• • •
Frightened by what she saw, Liesel placed the book back down, exactly as she found it, against Max’s leg.
A voice startled her.
“Danke schön,” it said, and when she looked across, following the trail of sound to its owner, a small sign of satisfaction was present on his Jewish lips.
“Holy Christ,” Liesel gasped. “You scared me, Max.”
He returned to his sleep, and behind her, the girl dragged the same thought up the steps.
You scared me, Max.
THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES
The same pattern continued through the end of summer and well into autumn. Rudy did his best to survive the Hitler Youth. Max did his push-ups and made his sketches. Liesel found newspapers and wrote her words on the basement wall.
It’s also worthy of mention that every pattern has at least one small bias, and one day it will tip itself over, or fall from one page to another. In this case, the dominant factor was Rudy. Or at least, Rudy and a freshly fertilized sports field.
Late in October, all appeared to be usual. A filthy boy was walking down Himmel Street. Within a few minutes, his family would expect his arrival, and he would lie that everyone in his Hitler Youth division was given extra drills in the field. His parents would even expect some laughter. They didn’t get it.
Today Rudy was all out of laughter and lies.
On this particular Wednesday, when Liesel looked more closely, she could see that Rudy Steiner was shirtless. And he was furious.
“What happened?” she asked as he trudged past.
He reversed back and held out the shirt. “Smell it,” he said.
“Are you deaf? I said smell it.”
Reluctantly, Liesel leaned in and caught a ghastly whiff of the brown garment. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Is that—?”
The boy nodded. “It’s on my chin, too. My chin! I’m lucky I didn’t swallow it!”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
“The field at Hitler Youth just got fertilized.” He gave his shirt another halfhearted, disgusted appraisal. “It’s cow manure, I think.”
“Did what’s-his-name—Deutscher—know it was there?”
“He says he didn’t. But he was grinning.”
“Jesus, Mary, and—”
“Could you stop saying that?!”
What Rudy needed at this point in time was a victory. He had lost in his dealings with Viktor Chemmel. He’d endured problem after problem at the Hitler Youth. All he wanted was a small scrap of triumph, and he was determined to get it.
He continued home, but when he reached the concrete step, he changed his mind and came slowly, purposefully back to the girl.
Careful and quiet, he spoke. “You know what would cheer me up?”
Liesel cringed. “If you think I’m going to—in that state …”
He seemed disappointed in her. “No, not that.” He sighed and stepped closer. “Something else.” After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
They had to steal something.
They had to steal something back. It didn’t matter what. It needed only to be soon.
“Just you and me this time,” Rudy suggested. “No Chemmels, no Schmeikls. Just you and me.”
The girl couldn’t help it.
Her hands itched, her pulse split, and her mouth smiled all at the same time. “Sounds good.”
“It’s agreed, then,” and although he tried not to, Rudy could not hide the fertilized grin that grew on his face. “Tomorrow?”
Liesel nodded. “Tomorrow.”
Their plan was perfect but for one thing:
They had no idea where to start.
Fruit was out. Rudy snubbed his nose at onions and potatoes, and they drew the line at another attempt on Otto Sturm and his bikeful of farm produce. Once was immoral. Twice was complete bastardry.
“So where the hell do we go?” Rudy asked.
“How should I know? This was your idea, wasn’t it?”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think a little, too. I can’t think of everything.”
“You can barely think of anything. …”
They argued on as they walked through town. On the outskirts, they witn
essed the first of the farms and the trees standing like emaciated statues. The branches were gray and when they looked up at them, there was nothing but ragged limbs and empty sky.
They walked back through Molching, making suggestions.
“What about Frau Diller?”
“What about her?”
“Maybe if we say ‘heil Hitler’ and then steal something, we’ll be all right.”
After roaming Munich Street for an hour or so, the daylight was drawing to a close and they were on the verge of giving up. “It’s pointless,” Rudy said, “and I’m even hungrier now than I’ve ever been. I’m starving, for Christ’s sake.” He walked another dozen steps before he stopped and looked back. “What’s with you?” because now Liesel was standing completely still, and a moment of realization was strapped to her face.
Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
“What is it?” Rudy was becoming impatient. “Saumensch, what’s going on?”
At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?
She began walking in the opposite direction. When Rudy caught up, she slowed a little in the vain hope of achieving a little more clarity. After all, the guilt was already there. It was moist. The seed was already bursting into a dark-leafed flower. She weighed up whether she could really go through with this. At a crossroad, she stopped.
“I know a place.”
They went over the river and made their way up the hill.
On Grande Strasse, they took in the splendor of the houses. The front doors glowed with polish, and the roof tiles sat like toupees, combed to perfection. The walls and windows were manicured and the chimneys almost breathed out smoke rings.
Rudy planted his feet. “The mayor’s house?”
Liesel nodded, seriously. A pause. “They fired my mama.”
When they angled toward it, Rudy asked just how in God’s name they were going to get inside, but Liesel knew. “Local knowledge,” she answered. “Local—” But when they were able to see the window to the library at the far end of the house, she was greeted with a shock. The window was closed.