The Book Thief



  “Well?” Rudy asked.

  Liesel swiveled slowly and hurried off. “Not today,” she said. Rudy laughed.

  “I knew it.” He caught up. “I knew it, you filthy Saumensch. You couldn’t get in there even if you had the key.”

  “Do you mind?” She quickened even more and brushed aside Rudy’s commentary. “We just have to wait for the right opportunity.” Internally, she shrugged away from a kind of gladness that the window was closed. She berated herself. Why, Liesel? she asked. Why did you have to explode when they fired Mama? Why couldn’t you just keep your big mouth shut? For all you know, the mayor’s wife is now completely reformed after you yelled and screamed at her. Maybe she’s straightened herself out, picked herself up. Maybe she’ll never let herself shiver in that house again and the window will be shut forever …. You stupid Saumensch!

  A week later, however, on their fifth visit to the upper part of Molching, it was there.

  The open window breathed a slice of air in.

  That was all it would take.

  It was Rudy who stopped first. He tapped Liesel in the ribs, with the back of his hand. “Is that window,” he whispered, “open?” The eagerness in his voice leaned from his mouth, like a forearm onto Liesel’s shoulder.

  “Jawohl,” she answered. “It sure is.”

  And how her heart began to heat.

  • • •

  On each previous occasion, when they found the window clamped firmly shut, Liesel’s outer disappointment had masked a ferocious relief. Would she have had the neck to go in? And who and what, in fact, was she going in for? For Rudy? To locate some food?

  No, the repugnant truth was this:

  She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted. The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

  The light was changing in blocks of shade.

  The pair of them gravitated toward the immaculate, bulky house. They rustled their thoughts.

  “You hungry?” Rudy asked.

  Liesel replied. “Starving.” For a book.

  “Look—a light just came on upstairs.”

  “I see it.”

  “Still hungry, Saumensch?”

  They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.

  She said it. “It has to be me.”

  Liesel closed her eyes. Tightly.

  She compelled herself to remember, to see visions of the mayor and his wife. She watched her gathered friendship with Ilsa Hermann and made sure to see it kicked in the shins and left by the wayside. It worked. She detested them.

  They scouted the street and crossed the yard silently.

  Now they were crouched beneath the slit in the window on the ground floor. The sound of their breathing amplified.

  “Here,” Rudy said, “give me your shoes. You’ll be quieter.”

  Without complaint, Liesel undid the worn black laces and left the shoes on the ground. She rose up and Rudy gently opened the window just wide enough for Liesel to climb through. The noise of it passed overhead, like a low-flying plane.

  Liesel heaved herself onto the ledge and tussled her way inside. Taking off her shoes, she realized, was a brilliant idea, as she landed much heavier on the wooden floor than she’d anticipated. The soles of her feet expanded in that painful way, rising to the inside edges of her socks.

  The room itself was as it always was.

  Liesel, in the dusty dimness, shrugged off her feelings of nostalgia. She crept forward and allowed her eyes to adjust.

  “What’s going on?” Rudy whispered sharply from outside, but she waved him a backhander that meant Halt’s Maul. Keep quiet.

  “The food,” he reminded her. “Find the food. And cigarettes, if you can.”

  Both items, however, were the last things on her mind. She was home, among the mayor’s books of every color and description, with their silver and gold lettering. She could smell the pages. She could almost taste the words as they stacked up around her. Her feet took her to the right-hand wall. She knew the one she wanted—the exact position—but when she made it to The Whistler’s usual place on the shelf, it was not there. A slight gap was in its place.

  From above, she heard footsteps.

  “The light!” Rudy whispered. The words were shoved through the open window. “It’s out!”

  “Scheisse.”

  “They’re coming downstairs.”

  There was a giant length of a moment then, the eternity of split-second decision. Her eyes scanned the room and she could see The Whistler, sitting patiently on the mayor’s desk.

  “Hurry up,” Rudy warned her. But very calmly and cleanly, Liesel walked over, picked up the book, and made her way cautiously out. Headfirst, she climbed from the window, managing to land on her feet again, feeling the pang of pain once more, this time in her ankles.

  “Come on,” Rudy implored her. “Run, run. Schnell!”

  Once around the corner, on the road back down to the river and Munich Street, she stopped to bend over and recover. Her body was folded in the middle, the air half frozen in her mouth, her heart tolling in her ears.

  Rudy was the same.

  When he looked over, he saw the book under her arm. He struggled to speak. “What’s”—he grappled with the words—“with the book?”

  The darkness was filling up truly now. Liesel panted, the air in her throat defrosting. “It was all I could find.”

  Unfortunately, Rudy could smell it. The lie. He cocked his head and told her what he felt was a fact. “You didn’t go in for food, did you? You got what you wanted ….”

  Liesel straightened then and was overcome with the sickness of another realization.

  The shoes.

  She looked at Rudy’s feet, then at his hands, and at the ground all around him.

  “What?” he asked. “What is it?”

  “Saukerl,” she accused him. “Where are my shoes?” Rudy’s face whitened, which left her in no doubt. “They’re back at the house,” she suggested, “aren’t they?”

  Rudy searched desperately around himself, begging against all reality that he might have brought them with him. He imagined himself picking them up, wishing it true—but the shoes were not there. They sat uselessly, or actually, much worse, incriminatingly, by the wall at 8 Grande Strasse.

  “Dummkopf!” he admonished himself, smacking his ear. He looked down shamefully at the sullen sight of Liesel’s socks. “Idiot!” It didn’t take him long to decide on making it right. Earnestly, he said, “Just wait,” and he hurried back around the corner.

  “Don’t get caught,” Liesel called after him, but he didn’t hear.

  The minutes were heavy while he was gone.

  Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. “Hurry,” she murmured, but still Rudy didn’t appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.

  Still, nothing.

  Only when she walked back to the intersection of the two streets in her damp, dirty socks did she see him. Rudy’s triumphant face was held nicely up as he trotted steadily toward her. His teeth were gnashed into a grin, and the shoes dangled from his hand. “They nearly killed me,” he said, “but I made it.” Once they’d crossed the river, he handed Liesel the shoes, and she threw them down.

  Sitting on the ground, she looked up at her best friend. “Danke,” she said. “Thank you.”

  Rudy bowed. “My pleasure.” He tried for a little more.
€œNo point asking if I get a kiss for that, I guess?”

  “For bringing my shoes, which you left behind?”

  “Fair enough.” He held up his hands and continued speaking as they walked on, and Liesel made a concerted effort to ignore him. She only heard the last part. “Probably wouldn’t want to kiss you anyway—not if your breath’s anything like your shoes.”

  “You disgust me,” she informed him, and she hoped he couldn’t see the escaped beginnings of a smile that had fallen from her mouth.

  On Himmel Street, Rudy captured the book. Under a lamppost, he read out the title and wondered what it was about.

  Dreamily, Liesel answered. “Just a murderer.”

  “Is that all?”

  “There’s also a policeman trying to catch him.”

  Rudy handed it back. “Speaking of which, I think we’re both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.”

  “Why me?”

  “You know—your mama.”

  “What about her?” Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person who’s ever belonged to a family. It’s all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they won’t let anyone else do it. That’s when you get your back up and show loyalty. “Is there something wrong with her?”

  Rudy backed away. “Sorry, Saumensch. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

  Even in the night, Liesel could see that Rudy was growing. His face was lengthening. The blond shock of hair was darkening ever so slightly and his features seemed to be changing shape. But there was one thing that would never change. It was impossible to be angry at him for long.

  “Anything good to eat at your place tonight?” he asked.

  “I doubt it.”

  “Me neither. It’s a shame you can’t eat books. Arthur Berg said something like that once. Remember?”

  They recounted the good old days for the remainder of the walk, Liesel often glancing down at The Whistler, at the gray cover and the black imprinted title.

  Before they went into their respective homes, Rudy stopped a moment and said, “Goodbye, Saumensch.” He laughed. “Good night, book thief.”

  It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn’t hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

  THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER

  RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS

  1. He stole the biggest potato from Mamer’s, the local grocer.

  2. Taking on Franz Deutscher on Munich Street.

  3. Skipping the Hitler Youth meetings altogether.

  The problem with Rudy’s first act was greed. It was a typically dreary afternoon in mid-November 1941.

  Earlier, he’d woven through the women with their coupons quite brilliantly, almost, dare I say it, with a touch of criminal genius. He nearly went completely unnoticed.

  Inconspicuous as he was, however, he managed to take hold of the biggest potato of the lot—the very same one that several people in the line had been watching. They all looked on as a thirteen-year-old fist rose up and grabbed it. A choir of heavyset Helgas pointed him out, and Thomas Mamer came storming toward the dirty fruit.

  “Meine Erdäpfel,” he said. “My earth apples.”

  The potato was still in Rudy’s hands (he couldn’t hold it in just the one), and the women gathered around him like a troop of wrestlers. Some fast talking was required.

  “My family,” Rudy explained. A convenient stream of clear fluid began to trickle from his nose. He made a point of not wiping it away. “We’re all starving. My sister needed a new coat. The last one was stolen.”

  Mamer was no fool. Still holding Rudy by the collar, he said, “And you plan to dress her with a potato?”

  “No, sir.” He looked diagonally into the one eye he could see of his captor. Mamer was a barrel of a man, with two small bullet holes to look out of. His teeth were like a soccer crowd, crammed in. “We traded all our points for the coat three weeks ago and now we have nothing to eat.”

  The grocer held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other. He called out the dreaded word to his wife. “Polizei.”

  “No,” Rudy begged, “please.” He would tell Liesel later on that he was not the slightest bit afraid, but his heart was certainly bursting at that moment, I’m sure. “Not the police. Please, not the police.”

  “Polizei.” Mamer remained unmoved as the boy wriggled and fought with the air.

  Also in the line that afternoon was a teacher, Herr Link. He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns. Rudy found him and accosted him in the eyes.

  “Herr Link.” This was his last chance. “Herr Link, tell him, please. Tell him how poor I am.”

  The grocer looked at the teacher with inquiring eyes.

  Herr Link stepped forward and said, “Yes, Herr Mamer. This boy is poor. He’s from Himmel Street.” The crowd of predominantly women conferred at that point, knowing that Himmel Street was not exactly the epitome of idyllic Molching living. It was well known as a relatively poor neighborhood. “He has eight brothers and sisters.”

  Eight!

  Rudy had to hold back a smile, though he wasn’t in the clear yet. At least he had the teacher lying now. He’d somehow managed to add three more children to the Steiner family.

  “Often, he comes to school without breakfast,” and the crowd of women was conferring again. It was like a coat of paint on the situation, adding a little extra potency and atmosphere.

  “So that means he should be allowed to steal my potatoes?”

  “The biggest one!” one of the women ejaculated.

  “Keep quiet, Frau Metzing,” Mamer warned her, and she quickly settled down.

  At first, all attention was on Rudy and the scruff of his neck. It then moved back and forth, from the boy to the potato to Mamer—from best-looking to worst—and exactly what made the grocer decide in Rudy’s favor would forever be unanswered.

  Was it the pathetic nature of the boy?

  The dignity of Herr Link?

  The annoyance of Frau Metzing?

  Whatever it was, Mamer dropped the potato back on the pile and dragged Rudy from his premises. He gave him a good push with his right boot and said, “Don’t come back.”

  From outside, Rudy looked on as Mamer reached the counter to serve his next customer with food and sarcasm. “I wonder which potato you’re going to ask for,” he said, keeping one eye open for the boy.

  For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

  • • •

  The second act of stupidity was equally dangerous, but for different reasons.

  Rudy would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs, and a haircut.

  Again, at the Hitler Youth meetings, Tommy Müller was having his problems, and Franz Deutscher was just waiting for Rudy to step in. It didn’t take long.

  Rudy and Tommy were given another comprehensive drill session while the others went inside to learn tactics. As they ran in the cold, they could see the warm heads and shoulders through the windows. Even when they joined the rest of the group, the drills weren’t quite finished. As Rudy slumped into the corner and flicked mud from his sleeve at the window, Franz fired the Hitler Youth’s favorite question at him.

  “When was our Führer, Adolf Hitler, born?”

  Rudy looked up. “Sorry?”

  The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

  Franz smeared his hands together.

  A very bad sign.

  He walked over to Rudy and ordered him back outside for some more laps of the field.

  Rudy ran them alone, and after every lap, he was asked again the date of the Führer’s birthday. He did seve
n laps before he got it right.

  The major trouble occurred a few days after the meeting.

  On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him. You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

  The rock hit its mark on the spine, though not as hard as Rudy might have hoped. Franz Deutscher spun around and looked happy to find him standing there, with Liesel, Tommy, and Tommy’s little sister, Kristina.

  “Let’s run,” Liesel urged him, but Rudy didn’t move.

  “We’re not at Hitler Youth now,” he informed her. The older boys had already arrived. Liesel remained next to her friend, as did the twitching Tommy and the delicate Kristina.

  “Mr. Steiner,” Franz declared, before picking him up and throwing him to the pavement.

  When Rudy stood up, it served only to infuriate Deutscher even more. He brought him to the ground for a second time, following him down with a knee to the rib cage.

  Again, Rudy stood up, and the group of older boys laughed now at their friend. This was not the best news for Rudy. “Can’t you make him feel it?” the tallest of them said. His eyes were as blue and cold as the sky, and the words were all the incentive Franz needed. He was determined that Rudy would hit the ground and stay there.

  A larger crowd made its way around them as Rudy swung at Franz Deutscher’s stomach, missing him completely. Simultaneously, he felt the burning sensation of a fist on his left eye socket. It arrived with sparks, and he was on the ground before he even realized. He was punched again, in the same place, and he could feel the bruise turn yellow and blue and black all at once. Three layers of exhilarating pain.

  The developing crowd gathered and leered to see if Rudy might get up again. He didn’t. This time, he remained on the cold, wet ground, feeling it rise through his clothes and spread itself out.

  The sparks were still in his eyes, and he didn’t notice until it was too late that Franz now stood above him with a brand-new pocketknife, about to crouch down and cut him.