The Book Thief



  “No!” Liesel protested, but the tall one held her back. In her ear, his words were deep and old.

  “Don’t worry,” he assured her. “He won’t do it. He doesn’t have the guts.”

  He was wrong.

  Franz merged into a kneeling position as he leaned closer to Rudy and whispered:

  “When was our Führer born?” Each word was carefully created and fed into his ear. “Come on, Rudy, when was he born? You can tell me, everything’s fine, don’t be afraid.”

  And Rudy?

  How did he reply?

  Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?

  He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, “Easter Monday.”

  Within a few seconds, the knife was applied to his hair. It was haircut number two in this section of Liesel’s life. The hair of a Jew was cut with rusty scissors. Her best friend was taken to with a gleaming knife. She knew nobody who actually paid for a haircut.

  As for Rudy, so far this year he’d swallowed mud, bathed himself in fertilizer, been half-strangled by a developing criminal, and was now receiving something at least nearing the icing on the cake—public humiliation on Munich Street.

  For the most part, his fringe was sliced away freely, but with each stroke, there were always a few hairs that held on for dear life and were pulled out completely. As each one was plucked, Rudy winced, his black eye throbbing in the process and his ribs flashing in pain.

  “April twentieth, eighteen eighty-nine!” Franz lectured him, and when he led his cohorts away, the audience dispersed, leaving only Liesel, Tommy, and Kristina with their friend.

  Rudy lay quietly on the ground, in the rising damp.

  Which leaves us only with stupid act number three—skipping the Hitler Youth meetings.

  He didn’t stop going right away, purely to show Deutscher that he wasn’t afraid of him, but after another few weeks, Rudy ceased his involvement altogether.

  Dressed proudly in his uniform, he exited Himmel Street and kept walking, his loyal subject, Tommy, by his side.

  Instead of attending the Hitler Youth, they walked out of town and along the Amper, skipping stones, heaving enormous rocks into the water, and generally getting up to no good. He made sure to get the uniform dirty enough to fool his mother, at least until the first letter arrived. That was when he heard the dreaded call from the kitchen.

  First, his parents threatened him. He didn’t attend.

  They begged him to go. He refused.

  Eventually, it was the opportunity to join a different division that swayed Rudy in the right direction. This was fortunate, because if he didn’t show his face soon, the Steiners would be fined for his non-attendance. His older brother, Kurt, inquired as to whether Rudy might join the Flieger Division, which specialized in the teaching of aircraft and flying. Mostly, they built model airplanes, and there was no Franz Deutscher. Rudy accepted, and Tommy also joined. It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.

  In his new division, whenever he was asked the famous Führer question, Rudy would smile and answer, “April 20, 1889,” and then to Tommy, he’d whisper a different date, like Beethoven’s birthday, or Mozart’s, or Strauss’s. They’d been learning about composers in school, where despite his obvious stupidity, Rudy excelled.

  THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)

  At the beginning of December, victory finally came to Rudy Steiner, though not in a typical fashion.

  It was a cold day, but very still. It had come close to snowing.

  After school, Rudy and Liesel stopped in at Alex Steiner’s shop, and as they walked home, they saw Rudy’s old friend Franz Deutscher coming around the corner. Liesel, as was her habit these days, was carrying The Whistler. She liked to feel it in her hand. Either the smooth spine or the rough edges of paper. It was she who saw him first.

  “Look.” She pointed. Deutscher was loping toward them with another Hitler Youth leader.

  Rudy shrank into himself. He felt at his mending eye. “Not this time.” He searched the streets. “If we go past the church, we can follow the river and cut back that way.”

  With no further words, Liesel followed him, and they successfully avoided Rudy’s tormentor—straight into the path of another.

  At first, they thought nothing of it.

  The group crossing the bridge and smoking cigarettes could have been anybody, and it was too late to turn around when the two parties recognized each other.

  “Oh, no, they’ve seen us.”

  Viktor Chemmel smiled.

  He spoke very amiably. This could only mean that he was at his most dangerous. “Well, well, if it isn’t Rudy Steiner and his little whore.” Very smoothly, he met them and snatched The Whistler from Liesel’s grip. “What are we reading?”

  “This is between us.” Rudy tried to reason with him. “It has nothing to do with her. Come on, give it back.”

  “The Whistler.” He addressed Liesel now. “Any good?”

  She cleared her throat. “Not bad.” Unfortunately, she gave herself away. In the eyes. They were agitated. She knew the exact moment when Viktor Chemmel established that the book was a prize possession.

  “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “For fifty marks, you can have it back.”

  “Fifty marks!” That was Andy Schmeikl. “Come on, Viktor, you could buy a thousand books for that.”

  “Did I ask you to speak?”

  Andy kept quiet. His mouth seemed to swing shut.

  Liesel tried a poker face. “You can keep it, then. I’ve already read it.”

  “What happens at the end?”

  Damn it!

  She hadn’t gotten that far yet.

  She hesitated, and Viktor Chemmel deciphered it instantly.

  Rudy rushed at him now. “Come on, Viktor, don’t do this to her. It’s me you’re after. I’ll do anything you want.”

  The older boy only swatted him away, the book held aloft. And he corrected him.

  “No,” he said. “I’ll do anything I want,” and he proceeded to the river. Everyone followed, at catch-up speed. Half walk, half run. Some protested. Some urged him on.

  It was so quick, and relaxed. There was a question, and a mocking, friendly voice.

  “Tell me,” Viktor said. “Who was the last Olympic discus champion, in Berlin?” He turned to face them. He warmed up his arm. “Who was it? Goddamn it, it’s on the tip of my tongue. It was that American, wasn’t it? Carpenter or something …”

  “Please!”—Rudy.

  The water toppled.

  Viktor Chemmel did the spin.

  The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked toward the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream.

  Viktor shook his head. “Not enough height. A poor throw.” He smiled again. “But still good enough to win, huh?”

  Liesel and Rudy didn’t stick around to hear the laughter.

  Rudy in particular had taken off down the riverbank, attempting to locate the book.

  “Can you see it?” Liesel called out.

  Rudy ran.

  He continued down the water’s edge, showing her the book’s location. “Over there!” He stopped and pointed and ran farther down to overtake it. Soon, he peeled off his coat and jumped in, wading to the middle of the river.

  Liesel, slowing to a walk, could see the ache of each step. The painful cold.

  When she was close enough, she saw it move past him, but he soon caught up. His hand reached in and collared what was now a soggy block of cardboard and paper. “The Whistler!” the boy called out. It was the only book floating down the Amper River that day, but he still felt the need to announce it.

  Another note of interest is that Rudy did not attempt to leave the devastatingly cold water as so
on as he held the book in his hand. For a good minute or so, he stayed. He never did explain it to Liesel, but I think she knew very well that the reasons were twofold.

  THE FROZEN MOTIVES

  OF RUDY STEINER

  1. After months of failure, this moment was his only chance to revel in some victory.

  2. Such a position of selflessness was a good place to ask Liesel for the usual favor.

  How could she possibly turn him down?

  “How about a kiss, Saumensch?”

  He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

  PART SIX

  the dream carrier

  featuring:

  death’s diary—the snowman—thirteen

  presents—the next book—the nightmare of

  a jewish corpse—a newspaper sky—a visitor—

  a schmunzeler—and a final kiss on poisoned cheeks

  DEATH’S DIARY: 1942

  It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.

  A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH

  I do not carry a sickle or scythe.

  I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold.

  And I don’t have those skull-like

  facial features you seem to enjoy

  pinning on me from a distance. You

  want to know what I truly look like?

  I’ll help you out. Find yourself

  a mirror while I continue.

  I actually feel quite self-indulgent at the moment, telling you all about me, me, me. My travels, what I saw in ′42. On the other hand, you’re a human—you should understand self-obsession. The point is, there’s a reason for me explaining what I saw in that time. Much of it would have repercussions for Liesel Meminger. It brought the war closer to Himmel Street, and it dragged me along for the ride.

  There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it at least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I’m too busy as it is. “Your time will come,” I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times, I wish I could say something like, “Don’t you see I’ve already got enough on my plate?” but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years, the souls and bodies don’t add up; they multiply.

  AN ABRIDGED ROLL CALL FOR 1942

  1. The desperate Jews—their spirits in my lap as we sat on the roof, next to the steaming chimneys.

  2. The Russian soldiers—taking only small amounts of ammunition, relying on the fallen for the rest of it.

  3. The soaked bodies of a French coast—beached on the shingle and sand.

  • • •

  I could go on, but I’ve decided for now that three examples will suffice. Three examples, if nothing else, will give you the ashen taste in your mouth that defined my existence during that year.

  So many humans.

  So many colors.

  They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-colored clouds, beating like black hearts.

  And then.

  There is death.

  Making his way through all of it.

  On the surface: unflappable, unwavering.

  Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.

  In all honesty (and I know I’m complaining excessively now), I was still getting over Stalin, in Russia. The so-called second revolution—the murder of his own people.

  Then came Hitler.

  They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.

  Often, I try to remember the strewn pieces of beauty I saw in that time as well. I plow through my library of stories.

  In fact, I reach for one now.

  I believe you know half of it already, and if you come with me, I’ll show you the rest. I’ll show you the second half of a book thief.

  Unknowingly, she awaits a great many things that I alluded to just a minute ago, but she also waits for you.

  She’s carrying some snow down to a basement, of all places.

  Handfuls of frosty water can make almost anyone smile, but it cannot make them forget.

  Here she comes.

  THE SNOWMAN

  For Liesel Meminger, the early stages of 1942 could be summed up like this:

  She became thirteen years of age. Her chest was still flat. She had not yet bled. The young man from her basement was now in her bed.

  Q&A

  How did Max

  Vandenburg end up

  in Liesel’s bed?

  He fell.

  Opinions varied, but Rosa Hubermann claimed that the seeds were sown at Christmas the previous year.

  December 24 had been hungry and cold, but there was a major bonus—no lengthy visitations. Hans Junior was simultaneously shooting at Russians and maintaining his strike on family interaction. Trudy could only stop by on the weekend before Christmas, for a few hours. She was going away with her family of employment. A holiday for a very different class of Germany.

  On Christmas Eve, Liesel brought down a double handful of snow as a present for Max. “Close your eyes,” she’d said. “Hold out your hands.” As soon as the snow was transferred, Max shivered and laughed, but he still didn’t open his eyes. He only gave the snow a quick taste, allowing it to sink into his lips.

  “Is this today’s weather report?”

  Liesel stood next to him.

  Gently, she touched his arm.

  He raised it again to his mouth. “Thanks, Liesel.”

  It was the beginning of the greatest Christmas ever. Little food. No presents. But there was a snowman in their basement.

  After delivering the first handfuls of snow, Liesel checked that no one else was outside, then proceeded to take as many buckets and pots out as she could. She filled them with the mounds of snow and ice that blanketed the small strip of world that was Himmel Street. Once they were full, she brought them in and carried them down to the basement.

  All things being fair, she first threw a snowball at Max and collected a reply in the stomach. Max even threw one at Hans Hubermann as he made his way down the basement steps.

  “Arschloch!” Papa yelped. “Liesel, give me some of that snow. A whole bucket!” For a few minutes, they all forgot. There was no more yelling or calling out, but they could not contain the small snatches of laughter. They were only humans, playing in the snow, in a house.

  Papa looked at the snow-filled pots. “What do we do with the rest of it?”

  “A snowman,” Liesel replied. “We have to make a snowman.”

  Papa called out to Rosa.

  The usual distant voice was hurled back. “What is it now, Saukerl?”

  “Come down here, will you!”

  When his wife appeared, Hans Hubermann risked his life by throw
ing a most excellent snowball at her. Just missing, it disintegrated when it hit the wall, and Mama had an excuse to swear for a long time without taking a breath. Once she recovered, she came down and helped them. She even brought the buttons for the eyes and nose and some string for a snowman smile. Even a scarf and hat were provided for what was really only a two-foot man of snow.

  “A midget,” Max had said.

  “What do we do when it melts?” Liesel asked.

  Rosa had the answer. “You mop it up, Saumensch, in a hurry.”

  Papa disagreed. “It won’t melt.” He rubbed his hands and blew into them. “It’s freezing down here.”

  Melt it did, though, but somewhere in each of them, that snowman was still upright. It must have been the last thing they saw that Christmas Eve when they finally fell asleep. There was an accordion in their ears, a snowman in their eyes, and for Liesel, there was the thought of Max’s last words before she left him by the fire.

  CHRISTMAS GREETINGS FROM

  MAX VANDENBURG

  “Often I wish this would all be over, Liesel, but then somehow you do something like walk down the basement steps with a snowman in your hands.”

  Unfortunately, that night signaled a severe downslide in Max’s health. The early signs were innocent enough, and typical. Constant coldness. Swimming hands. Increased visions of boxing with the Führer. It was only when he couldn’t warm up after his push-ups and sit-ups that it truly began to worry him. As close to the fire as he sat, he could not raise himself to any degree of approximate health. Day by day, his weight began to stumble off him. His exercise regimen faltered and fell apart, with his cheek against the surly basement floor.

  All through January, he managed to hold himself together, but by early February, Max was in worrisome shape. He would struggle to wake up next to the fire, sleeping well into the morning instead, his mouth distorted and his cheekbones starting to swell. When asked, he said he was fine.