The Book Thief
Rudy’s weakness, however, was impatience. “It’s getting late,” he said, and began to ride off. “You coming?”
Liesel didn’t come.
There was no decision to be made. She’d lugged that rusty bike all the way up there and she wasn’t leaving without a book. She placed the handlebars in the gutter, looked out for any neighbors, and walked to the window. There was good speed but no hurry. She took her shoes off using her feet, treading on the heels with her toes.
Her fingers tightened on the wood and she made her way inside.
This time, if only slightly, she felt more at ease. In a few precious moments, she circled the room, looking for a title that grabbed her. On three or four occasions, she nearly reached out. She even considered taking more than one, but again, she didn’t want to abuse what was a kind of system. For now, only one book was necessary. She studied the shelves and waited.
An extra darkness climbed through the window behind her. The smell of dust and theft loitered in the background, and she saw it.
The book was red, with black writing on the spine. Der Traumträger. The Dream Carrier. She thought of Max Vandenburg and his dreams. Of guilt. Surviving. Leaving his family. Fighting the Führer. She also thought of her own dream—her brother, dead on the train, and his appearance on the steps just around the corner from this very room. The book thief watched his bloodied knee from the shove of her own hand.
She slid the book from the shelf, tucked it under her arm, climbed to the window ledge, and jumped out, all in one motion.
Rudy had her shoes. He had her bike ready. Once the shoes were on, they rode.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Meminger.” He’d never called her Meminger before. “You’re an absolute lunatic. Do you know that?”
Liesel agreed as she pedaled like hell. “I know it.”
At the bridge, Rudy summed up the afternoon’s proceedings. “Those people are either completely crazy,” he said, “or they just like their fresh air.”
A SMALL SUGGESTION
Or maybe there was a woman on
Grande Strasse who now kept her
library window open for another
reason—but that’s just me being
cynical, or hopeful. Or both.
Liesel placed The Dream Carrier beneath her jacket and began reading it the minute she returned home. In the wooden chair next to her bed, she opened the book and whispered, “It’s a new one, Max. Just for you.” She started reading. “‘Chapter one: It was quite fitting that the entire town was sleeping when the dream carrier was born ….’”
Every day, Liesel read two chapters of the book. One in the morning before school and one as soon as she came home. On certain nights, when she was not able to sleep, she read half of a third chapter as well. Sometimes she would fall asleep slumped forward onto the side of the bed.
It became her mission.
She gave The Dream Carrier to Max as if the words alone could nourish him. On a Tuesday, she thought there was movement. She could have sworn his eyes had opened. If they had, it was only momentarily, and it was more likely just her imagination and wishful thinking.
By mid-March, the cracks began to appear.
Rosa Hubermann—the good woman for a crisis—was at breaking point one afternoon in the kitchen. She raised her voice, then brought it quickly down. Liesel stopped reading and made her way quietly to the hall. As close as she stood, she could still barely make out her mama’s words. When she was able to hear them, she wished she hadn’t, for what she heard was horrific. It was reality.
THE CONTENTS OF MAMA’S VOICE
“What if he doesn’t wake up?
What if he dies here, Hansi?
Tell me. What in God’s name will
we do with the body? We can’t
leave him here, the smell will
kill us … and we can’t carry
him out the door and drag him up
the street, either. We can’t just
say, ‘You’ll never guess what we
found in our basement this morning ….’
They’ll put us away for good.”
She was absolutely right.
A Jewish corpse was a major problem. The Hubermanns needed to revive Max Vandenburg not only for his sake, but for their own. Even Papa, who was always the ultimate calming influence, was feeling the pressure.
“Look.” His voice was quiet but heavy. “If it happens—if he dies—we’ll simply need to find a way.” Liesel could have sworn she heard him swallow. A gulp like a blow to the windpipe. “My paint cart, some drop sheets …”
Liesel entered the kitchen.
“Not now, Liesel.” It was Papa who spoke, though he did not look at her. He was watching his warped face in a turned-over spoon. His elbows were buried into the table.
The book thief did not retreat. She took a few extra steps and sat down. Her cold hands felt for her sleeves and a sentence dropped from her mouth. “He’s not dead yet.” The words landed on the table and positioned themselves in the middle. All three people looked at them. Half hopes didn’t dare rise any higher. He isn’t dead yet. He isn’t dead yet. It was Rosa who spoke next.
Possibly the only time that Max’s illness didn’t hurt was at dinner. There was no denying it as the three of them sat at the kitchen table with their extra bread and extra soup or potatoes. They all thought it, but no one spoke.
In the night, just a few hours later, Liesel awoke and wondered at the height of her heart. (She had learned that expression from The Dream Carrier, which was essentially the complete antithesis of The Whistler—a book about an abandoned child who wanted to be a priest.) She sat up and sucked deeply at the nighttime air.
“Liesel?” Papa rolled over. “What is it?”
“Nothing, Papa, everything’s good.” But the very moment she’d finished the sentence, she saw exactly what had happened in her dream.
ONE SMALL IMAGE
For the most part, all is identical.
The train moves at the same speed.
Copiously, her brother coughs. This
time, however, Liesel cannot see his
face watching the floor. Slowly,
she leans over. Her hand lifts him
gently, from his chin, and there
in front of her is the wide-eyed face
of Max Vandenburg. He stares at her.
A feather drops to the floor. The
body is bigger now, matching the
size of the face. The train screams.
“I said everything’s good.”
Shivering, she climbed from the mattress. Stupid with fear, she walked through the hallway to Max. After many minutes at his side, when everything slowed, she attempted to interpret the dream. Was it a premonition of Max’s death? Or was it merely a reaction to the afternoon conversation in the kitchen? Had Max now replaced her brother? And if so, how could she discard her own flesh and blood in such a way? Perhaps it was even a deep-seated wish for Max to die. After all, if it was good enough for Werner, her brother, it was good enough for this Jew.
“Is that what you think?” she whispered, standing above the bed. “No.” She could not believe it. Her answer was sustained as the numbness of the dark waned and outlined the various shapes, big and small, on the bedside table. The presents.
“Wake up,” she said.
Max did not wake up.
For eight more days.
At school, there was a rapping of knuckles on the door.
“Come in,” called Frau Olendrich.
The door opened and the entire classroom of children looked on in surprise as Rosa Hubermann stood in the doorway. One or two gasped at the sight—a small wardrobe of a woman with a lipstick sneer and chlorine eyes. This. Was the legend. She was wearing her best clothes, but her hair was a mess, and it was a towel of elastic gray strands.
The teacher was obviously afraid. “Frau Hubermann …”
Her movements were cluttered. She searched through the class. “Liesel?”
Liesel looked at Rudy, stood, and walked quickly toward the door to end the embarrassment as fast as possible. It shut behind her, and now she was alone, in the corridor, with Rosa.
Rosa faced the other way.
She turned. “Don’t you ‘what Mama’ me, you little Saumensch!” Liesel was gored by the speed of it. “My hairbrush!” A trickle of laughter rolled from under the door, but it was drawn instantly back.
Her face was severe, but it was smiling. “What the hell did you do with my hairbrush, you stupid Saumensch, you little thief? I’ve told you a hundred times to leave that thing alone, but do you listen? Of course not!”
The tirade went on for perhaps another minute, with Liesel making a desperate suggestion or two about the possible location of the said brush. It ended abruptly, with Rosa pulling Liesel close, just for a few seconds. Her whisper was almost impossible to hear, even at such close proximity. “You told me to yell at you. You said they’d all believe it.” She looked left and right, her voice like needle and thread. “He woke up, Liesel. He’s awake.” From her pocket, she pulled out the toy soldier with the scratched exterior. “He said to give you this. It was his favorite.” She handed it over, held her arms tightly, and smiled. Before Liesel had a chance to answer, she finished it off. “Well? Answer me! Do you have any other idea where you might have left it?”
He’s alive, Liesel thought. “… No, Mama. I’m sorry, Mama, I—”
“Well, what good are you, then?” She let go, nodded, and walked away.
For a few moments, Liesel stood. The corridor was huge. She examined the soldier in her palm. Instinct told her to run home immediately, but common sense did not allow it. Instead, she placed the ragged soldier in her pocket and returned to the classroom.
“Stupid cow,” she whispered under her breath.
Again, kids laughed. Frau Olendrich did not.
“What was that?”
Liesel was on such a high that she felt indestructible. “I said,” she beamed, “stupid cow,” and she didn’t have to wait a single moment for the teacher’s hand to slap her.
“Don’t speak about your mother like that,” she said, but it had little effect. The girl merely stood there and attempted to hold off the grin. After all, she could take a Watschen with the best of them. “Now get to your seat.”
“Yes, Frau Olendrich.”
Next to her, Rudy dared to speak.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he whispered, “I can see her hand on your face. A big red hand. Five fingers!”
“Good,” said Liesel, because Max was alive.
When she made it home that afternoon, he was sitting up in bed with the deflated soccer ball on his lap. His beard itched him and his swampy eyes fought to stay open. An empty bowl of soup was next to the gifts.
They did not say hello.
It was more like edges.
The door creaked, the girl came in, and she stood before him, looking at the bowl. “Is Mama forcing it down your throat?”
He nodded, content, fatigued. “It was very good, though.”
“Mama’s soup? Really?”
It was not a smile he gave her. “Thank you for the presents.” More just a slight tear of the mouth. “Thank you for the cloud. Your papa explained that one a little further.”
After an hour, Liesel also made an attempt on the truth. “We didn’t know what we’d do if you’d died, Max. We—”
It didn’t take him long. “You mean, how to get rid of me?”
“No.” He was not offended. “You were right.” He played weakly with the ball. “You were right to think that way. In your situation, a dead Jew is just as dangerous as a live one, if not worse.”
“I also dreamed.” In detail, she explained it, with the soldier in her grip. She was on the verge of apologizing again when Max intervened.
“Liesel.” He made her look at him. “Don’t ever apologize to me. It should be me who apologizes to you.” He looked at everything she’d brought him. “Look at all this. These gifts.” He held the button in his hand. “And Rosa said you read to me twice every day, sometimes three times.” Now he looked at the curtains as if he could see out of them. He sat up a little higher and paused for a dozen silent sentences. Trepidation found its way onto his face and he made a confession to the girl. “Liesel?” He moved slightly to the right. “I’m afraid,” he said, “of falling asleep again.”
Liesel was resolute. “Then I’ll read to you. And I’ll slap your face if you start dozing off. I’ll close the book and shake you till you wake up.”
That afternoon, and well into the night, Liesel read to Max Vandenburg. He sat in bed and absorbed the words, awake this time, until just after ten o’clock. When Liesel took a quick rest from The Dream Carrier, she looked over the book and Max was asleep. Nervously, she nudged him with it. He awoke.
Another three times, he fell asleep. Twice more, she woke him.
For the next four days, he woke up every morning in Liesel’s bed, then next to the fireplace, and eventually, by mid-April, in the basement. His health had improved, the beard was gone, and small scraps of weight had returned.
In Liesel’s inside world, there was great relief in that time. Outside, things were starting to look shaky. Late in March, a place called Lübeck was hailed with bombs. Next in line would be Cologne, and soon enough, many more German cities, including Munich.
Yes, the boss was at my shoulder.
“Get it done, get it done.”
The bombs were coming—and so was I.
DEATH’S DIARY: COLOGNE
The fallen hours of May 30.
I’m sure Liesel Meminger was fast asleep when more than a thousand bomber planes flew toward a place known as Köln. For me, the result was five hundred people or thereabouts. Fifty thousand others ambled homelessly around the ghostly piles of rubble, trying to work out which way was which, and which slabs of broken home belonged to whom.
Five hundred souls.
I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.
By the time I was finished, the sky was yellow, like burning newspaper. If I looked closely, I could see the words, reporting headlines, commentating on the progress of the war and so forth. How I’d have loved to pull it all down, to screw up the newspaper sky and toss it away. My arms ached and I couldn’t afford to burn my fingers. There was still so much work to be done.
As you might expect, many people died instantly. Others took a while longer. There were several more places to go, skies to meet and souls to collect, and when I came back to Cologne later on, not long after the final planes, I managed to notice a most unique thing.
I was carrying the charred soul of a teenager when I looked gravely up at what was now a sulfuric sky. A group of ten-year-old girls was close by. One of them called out.
Her arm extended and her finger pointed out the black, slow object, falling from above. It began as a black feather, lilting, floating. Or a piece of ash. Then it grew larger. The same girl—a redhead with period freckles—spoke once again, this time more emphatically. “What is that?”
“It’s a body,” another girl suggested. Black hair, pigtails, and a crooked part down the center.
“It’s another bomb!”
It was too slow to be a bomb.
With the adolescent spirit still burning lightly in my arms, I walked a few hundred meters with the rest of them. Like the girls, I remained focused on the sky. The last thing I wanted was to look down at the stranded face of my teenager. A pretty girl. Her whole death was now ahead of her.
Like the rest of them, I was taken aback when a voice lunged out. It was a disgruntled father, ordering his kids inside. The redhead reacted.
Her freckles lengthened into commas. “But, Papa, look.”
The man took several small steps and soon figured out what it was. “It’s the fuel,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“The fuel,” he repeated. “The tank.” He was a bald man in disrupted bedclothes. “They used up all their fuel in that one and got rid of the empty container. Look, there’s another one over there.”
Kids being kids, they all searched frantically at that point, trying to find an empty fuel container floating to the ground.
The first one landed with a hollow thud.
“Can we keep it, Papa?”
“No.” He was bombed and shocked, this papa, and clearly not in the mood. “We cannot keep it.”
“I’m going to ask my papa if I can have it,” said another of the girls.
Just past the rubble of Cologne, a group of kids collected empty fuel containers, dropped by their enemies. As usual, I collected humans. I was tired. And the year wasn’t even halfway over yet.
A new ball had been found for Himmel Street soccer. That was the good news. The somewhat unsettling news was that a division of the NSDAP was heading toward them.
They’d progressed all the way through Molching, street by street, house by house, and now they stood at Frau Diller’s shop, having a quick smoke before they continued with their business.
There was already a smattering of air-raid shelters in Molching, but it was decided soon after the bombing of Cologne that a few more certainly wouldn’t hurt. The NSDAP was inspecting each and every house in order to see if its basement was a good enough candidate.
From afar, the children watched.
They could see the smoke rising out of the pack.
Liesel had only just come out and she’d walked over to Rudy and Tommy. Harald Mollenhauer was retrieving the ball. “What’s going on up there?”
Rudy put his hands in his pockets. “The party.” He inspected his friend’s progress with the ball in Frau Holtzapfel’s front hedge. “They’re checking all the houses and apartment blocks.”