The Book Thief
In mid-February, a few days before Liesel was thirteen, he came to the fireplace on the verge of collapse. He nearly fell into the fire.
“Hans,” he whispered, and his face seemed to cramp. His legs gave way and his head hit the accordion case.
At once, a wooden spoon fell into some soup and Rosa Hubermann was at his side. She held Max’s head and barked across the room at Liesel, “Don’t just stand there, get the extra blankets. Take them to your bed. And you!” Papa was next. “Help me pick him up and carry him to Liesel’s room. Schnell!”
Papa’s face was stretched with concern. His gray eyes clanged and he picked him up on his own. Max was light as a child. “Can’t we put him here, in our bed?”
Rosa had already considered that. “No. We have to keep these curtains open in the day or else it looks suspicious.”
“Good point.” Hans carried him out.
Blankets in hand, Liesel watched.
Limp feet and hanging hair in the hallway. One shoe had fallen off him.
Mama marched in behind them, in her waddlesome way.
Once Max was in the bed, blankets were heaped on top and fastened around his body.
Liesel couldn’t bring herself to say anything else.
“What?” The bun of Rosa Hubermann’s hair was wound tight enough to frighten from behind. It seemed to tighten further when she repeated the question. “What, Liesel?”
She stepped closer, afraid of the answer. “Is he alive?”
The bun nodded.
Rosa turned then and said something with great assurance. “Now listen to me, Liesel. I didn’t take this man into my house to watch him die. Understand?”
In the hall, Papa hugged her.
She desperately needed it.
Later on, she heard Hans and Rosa speaking in the night. Rosa made her sleep in their room, and she lay next to their bed, on the floor, on the mattress they’d dragged up from the basement. (There was concern as to whether it was infected, but they came to the conclusion that such thoughts were unfounded. This was no virus Max was suffering from, so they carried it up and replaced the sheet.)
Imagining the girl to be asleep, Mama voiced her opinion.
“That damn snowman,” she whispered. “I bet it started with the snowman—fooling around with ice and snow in the cold down there.”
Papa was more philosophical. “Rosa, it started with Adolf.” He lifted himself. “We should check on him.”
In the course of the night, Max was visited seven times.
MAX VANDENBURG’S VISITOR
Hans Hubermann: 2
Rosa Hubermann: 2
Liesel Meminger: 3
• • •
In the morning, Liesel brought him his sketchbook from the basement and placed it on the bedside table. She felt awful for having looked at it the previous year, and this time, she kept it firmly closed, out of respect.
When Papa came in, she did not turn to face him but talked across Max Vandenburg, at the wall. “Why did I have to bring all that snow down?” she asked. “It started all of this, didn’t it, Papa?” She clenched her hands, as if to pray. “Why did I have to build that snowman?”
Papa, to his enduring credit, was adamant. “Liesel,” he said, “you had to.”
For hours, she sat with him as he shivered and slept.
“Don’t die,” she whispered. “Please, Max, just don’t die.”
He was the second snowman to be melting away before her eyes, only this one was different. It was a paradox.
The colder he became, the more he melted.
It was Max’s arrival, revisited.
Feathers turned to twigs again. Smooth face turned to rough. The proof she needed was there. He was alive.
The first few days, she sat and talked to him. On her birthday, she told him there was an enormous cake waiting in the kitchen, if only he’d wake up.
There was no waking.
There was no cake.
A LATE-NIGHT EXCERPT
I realized much later that I actually visited
33 Himmel Street in that period of time.
It must have been one of the few moments when the
girl was not there with him, for all I saw was a
man in bed. I knelt. I readied myself to insert
my hands through the blankets. Then there was a
resurgence—an immense struggle against my weight.
I withdrew, and with so much work ahead of me,
it was nice to be fought off in that dark little room.
I even managed a short, closed-eyed pause of
serenity before I made my way out.
On the fifth day, there was much excitement when Max opened his eyes, if only for a few moments. What he predominantly saw (and what a frightening version it must have been close-up) was Rosa Hubermann, practically slinging an armful of soup into his mouth. “Swallow,” she advised him. “Don’t think. Just swallow.” As soon as Mama handed back the bowl, Liesel tried to see his face again, but there was a soup-feeder’s backside in the way.
“Is he still awake?”
When she turned, Rosa did not have to answer.
After close to a week, Max woke up a second time, on this occasion with Liesel and Papa in the room. They were both watching the body in the bed when there was a small groan. If it’s possible, Papa fell upward, out of the chair.
“Look,” Liesel gasped. “Stay awake, Max, stay awake.”
He looked at her briefly, but there was no recognition. The eyes studied her as if she were a riddle. Then gone again.
“Papa, what happened?”
Hans dropped, back to the chair.
Later, he suggested that perhaps she should read to him. “Come on, Liesel, you’re such a good reader these days—even if it’s a mystery to all of us where that book came from.”
“I told you, Papa. One of the nuns at school gave it to me.”
Papa held his hands up in mock-protest. “I know, I know.” He sighed, from a height. “Just …” He chose his words gradually. “Don’t get caught.” This from a man who’d stolen a Jew.
From that day on, Liesel read The Whistler aloud to Max as he occupied her bed. The one frustration was that she kept having to skip whole chapters on account of many of the pages being stuck together. It had not dried well. Still, she struggled on, to the point where she was nearly three-quarters of the way through it. The book was 396 pages.
In the outside world, Liesel rushed from school each day in the hope that Max was feeling better. “Has he woken up? Has he eaten?”
“Go back out,” Mama begged her. “You’re chewing a hole in my stomach with all this talking. Go on. Get out there and play soccer, for God’s sake.”
“Yes, Mama.” She was about to open the door. “But you’ll come and get me if he wakes up, won’t you? Just make something up. Scream out like I’ve done something wrong. Start swearing at me. Everyone will believe it, don’t worry.”
Even Rosa had to smile at that. She placed her knuckles on her hips and explained that Liesel wasn’t too old yet to avoid a Watschen for talking in such a way. “And score a goal,” she threatened, “or don’t come home at all.”
“Make that two goals, Saumensch!”
“And stop answering back!”
Liesel considered, but she ran onto the street, to oppose Rudy on the mud-slippery road.
“About time, ass scratcher.” He welcomed her in the customary way as they fought for the ball. “Where have you been?”
Half an hour later, when the ball was squashed by the rare passage of a car on Himmel Street, Liesel had found her first present for Max Vandenburg. After judging it irreparable, all of the kids walked home in disgust, leaving the ball twitching on the cold, blist
ered road. Liesel and Rudy remained stooped over the carcass. There was a gaping hole on its side like a mouth.
“You want it?” Liesel asked.
Rudy shrugged. “What do I want with this squashed shit heap of a ball? There’s no chance of getting air into it now, is there?”
“Do you want it or not?”
“No thanks.” Rudy prodded it cautiously with his foot, as if it were a dead animal. Or an animal that might be dead.
As he walked home, Liesel picked the ball up and placed it under her arm. She could hear him call out, “Hey, Saumensch.” She waited. “Saumensch!”
She relented. “What?”
“I’ve got a bike without wheels here, too, if you want it.”
“Stick your bike.”
From her position on the street, the last thing she heard was the laughter of that Saukerl, Rudy Steiner.
Inside, she made her way to the bedroom. She took the ball in to Max and placed it at the end of the bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s not much. But when you wake up, I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll tell you it was the grayest afternoon you can imagine, and this car without its lights on ran straight over the ball. Then the man got out and yelled at us. And then he asked for directions. The nerve of him …”
Wake up! she wanted to scream.
Or shake him.
All Liesel could do was watch the ball and its trampled, flaking skin. It was the first gift of many.
One ribbon, one pinecone.
One button, one stone.
The soccer ball had given her an idea.
Whenever she walked to and from school now, Liesel was on the lookout for discarded items that might be valuable to a dying man. She wondered at first why it mattered so much. How could something so seemingly insignificant give comfort to someone? A ribbon in a gutter. A pinecone on the street. A button leaning casually against a classroom wall. Aflat round stone from the river. If nothing else, it showed that she cared, and it might give them something to talk about when Max woke up.
When she was alone, she would conduct those conversations.
“So what’s all this?” Max would say. “What’s all this junk?”
“Junk?” In her mind, she was sitting on the side of the bed. “This isn’t junk, Max. These are what made you wake up.”
One feather, two newspapers.
A candy wrapper. A cloud.
The feather was lovely and trapped, in the door hinges of the church on Munich Street. It poked itself crookedly out and Liesel hurried over to rescue it. The fibers were combed flat on the left, but the right side was made of delicate edges and sections of jagged triangles. There was no other way of describing it.
The newspapers came from the cold depths of a garbage can (enough said), and the candy wrapper was flat and faded. She found it near the school and held it up to the light. It contained a collage of shoe prints.
Then the cloud.
How do you give someone a piece of sky?
Late in February, she stood on Munich Street and watched a single giant cloud come over the hills like a white monster. It climbed the mountains. The sun was eclipsed, and in its place, a white beast with a gray heart watched the town.
“Would you look at that?” she said to Papa.
Hans cocked his head and stated what he felt was the obvious. “You should give it to Max, Liesel. See if you can leave it on the bedside table, like all the other things.”
Liesel watched him as if he’d gone insane. “How, though?”
Lightly, he tapped her skull with his knuckles. “Memorize it. Then write it down for him.”
“… It was like a great white beast,” she said at her next bedside vigil, “and it came from over the mountains.”
When the sentence was completed with several different adjustments and additions, Liesel felt like she’d done it. She imagined the vision of it passing from her hand to his, through the blankets, and she wrote it down on a scrap of paper, placing the stone on top of it.
One toy soldier. One miraculous leaf.
A finished whistler.
A slab of grief.
• • •
The soldier was buried in the dirt, not far from Tommy Müller’s place. It was scratched and trodden, which, to Liesel, was the whole point. Even with injury, it could still stand up.
The leaf was a maple and she found it in the school broom closet, among the buckets and feather dusters. The door was slightly ajar. The leaf was dry and hard, like toasted bread, and there were hills and valleys all over its skin. Somehow, the leaf had made its way into the school hallway and into that closet. Like half a star with a stem. Liesel reached in and twirled it in her fingers.
Unlike the other items, she did not place the leaf on the bedside table. She pinned it to the closed curtain, just before reading the final thirty-four pages of The Whistler.
She did not have dinner that afternoon or go to the toilet. She didn’t drink. All day at school, she had promised herself that she would finish reading the book today, and Max Vandenburg was going to listen. He was going to wake up.
Papa sat on the floor, in the corner, workless as usual. Luckily, he would soon be leaving for the Knoller with his accordion. His chin resting on his knees, he listened to the girl he’d struggled to teach the alphabet. Reading proudly, she unloaded the final frightening words of the book to Max Vandenburg.
THE LAST REMNANTS OF
The Viennese air was fogging up the windows of the train that morning, and as the people traveled obliviously to work, a murderer whistled his happy tune. He bought his ticket. There were polite greetings with fellow passengers and the conductor. He even gave up his seat for an elderly lady and made polite conversation with a gambler who spoke of American horses. After all, the whistler loved talking. He talked to people and fooled them into liking him, trusting him. He talked to them while he was killing them, torturing and turning the knife. It was only when there was no one to talk to that he whistled, which was why he did so after a murder ….
“So you think the track will suit number seven, do you?”
“Of course.” The gambler grinned. Trust was already there. “He’ll come from behind and kill the whole lot of them!” He shouted it above the noise of the train.
“If you insist.” The whistler smirked, and he wondered at length when they would find the inspector’s body in that brand-new BMW.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Hans couldn’t resist an incredulous tone. “A nun gave you that?” He stood up and made his way over, kissing her forehead. “Bye, Liesel, the Knoller awaits.”
She ignored it.
“Come and eat something!”
She answered now. “I’m coming, Mama.” She actually spoke those words to Max as she came closer and placed the finished book on the bedside table, with everything else. As she hovered above him, she couldn’t help herself. “Come on, Max,” she whispered, and even the sound of Mama’s arrival at her back did not stop her from silently crying. It didn’t stop her from pulling a lump of salt water from her eye and feeding it onto Max Vandenburg’s face.
Mama took her.
Her arms swallowed her.
“I know,” she said.
FRESH AIR, AN OLD NIGHTMARE, AND WHAT TO DO WITH A JEWISH CORPSE
They were by the Amper River and Liesel had just told Rudy that she was interested in attaining another book from the mayor’s house. In place of The Whistler, she’d read The Standover Man several times at Max’s bedside. That was only a few minutes per reading. She’d also tried The Shoulder Shrug, even The Grave Digger’s Handbook, but none of it seemed quite right. I want something new, she thought.
“Did you even read the last one?”
“Of course I did.
Rudy threw a stone into the water. “Was it any good?”
“Of course it was.”
“Of course I did, of course it was.” He tried to dig another rock out of the ground but cut his finger.
“That’ll teach you.”
When a person’s last response was Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch, you knew you had them beaten.
• • •
In terms of stealing, conditions were perfect. It was a gloomy afternoon early in March and only a few degrees above freezing—always more uncomfortable than ten degrees below. Very few people were out on the streets. Rain like gray pencil shavings.
“Are we going?”
“Bikes,” said Rudy. “You can use one of ours.”
On this occasion, Rudy was considerably more enthusiastic about being the enterer. “Today it’s my turn,” he said as their fingers froze to the bike handles.
Liesel thought fast. “Maybe you shouldn’t, Rudy. There’s stuff all over the place in there. And it’s dark. An idiot like you is bound to trip over or run into something.”
“Thanks very much.” In this mood, Rudy was hard to contain.
“There’s the drop, too. It’s deeper than you think.”
“Are you saying you don’t think I can do it?”
Liesel stood up on the pedals. “Not at all.”
They crossed the bridge and serpentined up the hill to Grande Strasse. The window was open.
Like last time, they surveyed the house. Vaguely, they could see inside, to where a light was on downstairs, in what was probably the kitchen. A shadow moved back and forth.
“We’ll just ride around the block a few times,” Rudy said. “Lucky we brought the bikes, huh?”
“Just make sure you remember to take yours home.”
“Very funny, Saumensch. It’s a bit bigger than your filthy shoes.”
They rode for perhaps fifteen minutes, and still, the mayor’s wife was downstairs, a little too close for comfort. How dare she occupy the kitchen with such vigilance! For Rudy, the kitchen was undoubtedly the actual goal. He’d have gone in, robbed as much food as was physically possible, then if (and only if) he had a last moment to spare, he would stuff a book down his pants on the way out. Any book would do.