The Book Thief



  Instant dryness seized the interior of Liesel’s mouth. “For what?”

  “Don’t you know anything? Tell her, Tommy.”

  Tommy was perplexed. “Well, I don’t know.”

  “You’re hopeless, the pair of you. They need more air-raid shelters.”

  “What—basements?”

  “No, attics. Of course basements. Jesus, Liesel, you really are thick, aren’t you?”

  The ball was back.

  “Rudy!”

  He played onto it and Liesel was still standing. How could she get back inside without looking too suspicious? The smoke up at Frau Diller’s was disappearing and the small crowd of men was starting to disperse. Panic generated in that awful way. Throat and mouth. Air became sand. Think, she thought. Come on, Liesel, think, think.

  Rudy scored.

  Faraway voices congratulated him.

  Think, Liesel—

  She had it.

  That’s it, she decided, but I have to make it real.

  As the Nazis progressed down the street, painting the letters LSR on some of the doors, the ball was passed through the air to one of the bigger kids, Klaus Behrig.

  LSR

  Luft Schutz Raum:

  Air-Raid Shelter

  The boy turned with the ball just as Liesel arrived, and they collided with such force that the game stopped automatically. As the ball rolled off, players ran in. Liesel held her grazed knee with one hand and her head with the other. Klaus Behrig only held his right shin, grimacing and cursing. “Where is she?” he spat. “I’m going to kill her!”

  There would be no killing.

  It was worse.

  A kindly party member had seen the incident and jogged dutifully down to the group. “What happened here?” he asked.

  “Well, she’s a maniac.” Klaus pointed at Liesel, prompting the man to help her up. His tobacco breath formed a smoky sandhill in front of her face.

  “I don’t think you’re in any state to keep playing, my girl,” he said. “Where do you live?”

  “I’m fine,” she answered, “really. I can make it myself.”Just get off me, get off me!

  That was when Rudy stepped in, the eternal stepper-inner. “I’ll help you home,” he said. Why couldn’t he just mind his own business for a change?

  “Really,” Liesel said. “Just keep playing, Rudy. I can make it.”

  “No, no.” He wouldn’t be shifted. The stubbornness of him! “It’ll only take a minute or two.”

  Again, she had to think, and again, she was able. With Rudy holding her up, she made herself drop once more to the ground, on her back. “My papa,” she said. The sky, she noticed, was utterly blue. Not even the suggestion of a cloud. “Could you get him, Rudy?”

  “Stay there.” To his right, he called out, “Tommy, watch her, will you? Don’t let her move.”

  Tommy snapped into action. “I’ll watch her, Rudy.” He stood above her, twitching and trying not to smile, as Liesel kept an eye on the party man.

  A minute later, Hans Hubermann was standing calmly above her.

  “Hey, Papa.”

  A disappointed smile mingled with his lips. “I was wondering when this would happen.”

  He picked her up and helped her home. The game went on, and the Nazi was already at the door of a lodging a few doors up. No one answered. Rudy was calling out again.

  “Do you need help, Herr Hubermann?”

  “No, no, you keep playing, Herr Steiner.” Herr Steiner. You had to love Liesel’s papa.

  Once inside, Liesel gave him the information. She attempted to find the middle ground between silence and despair. “Papa.”

  “Don’t talk.”

  “The party,” she whispered. Papa stopped. He fought off the urge to open the door and look up the street. “They’re checking basements to make shelters.”

  He set her down. “Smart girl,” he said, then called for Rosa.

  They had a minute to come up with a plan. A shemozzle of thoughts.

  “We’ll just put him in Liesel’s room,” was Mama’s suggestion. “Under the bed.”

  “That’s it? What if they decide to search our rooms as well?”

  “Do you have a better plan?”

  Correction: they did not have a minute.

  A seven-punch knock was hammered into the door of 33 Himmel Street, and it was too late to move anyone anywhere.

  The voice.

  “Open up!”

  Their heartbeats fought each other, a mess of rhythm. Liesel tried to eat hers down. The taste of heart was not too cheerful.

  Rosa whispered, “Jesus, Mary—”

  On this day, it was Papa who rose to the occasion. He rushed to the basement door and threw a warning down the steps. When he returned, he spoke fast and fluent. “Look, there is no time for tricks. We could distract him a hundred different ways, but there is only one solution.” He eyed the door and summed up. “Nothing.”

  That was not the answer Rosa wanted. Her eyes widened. “Nothing? Are you crazy?”

  The knocking resumed.

  Papa was strict. “Nothing. We don’t even go down there—not a care in the world.”

  Everything slowed.

  Rosa accepted it.

  Clenched with distress, she shook her head and proceeded to answer the door.

  “Liesel.” Papa’s voice sliced her up. “Just stay calm, verstehst?”

  “Yes, Papa.”

  She tried to concentrate on her bleeding leg.

  “Aha!”

  At the door, Rosa was still asking the meaning of this interruption when the kindly party man noticed Liesel.

  “The maniacal soccer player!” He grinned. “How’s the knee?” You don’t usually imagine the Nazis being too chirpy, but this man certainly was. He came in and made as if to crouch and view the injury.

  Does he know? Liesel thought. Can he smell we’re hiding a Jew?

  Papa came from the sink with a wet cloth and soaked it onto Liesel’s knee. “Does it sting?” His silver eyes were caring and calm. The scare in them could easily be mistaken as concern for the injury.

  Rosa called across the kitchen, “It can’t sting enough. Maybe it will teach her a lesson.”

  The party man stood and laughed. “I don’t think this girl is learning any lessons out there, Frau …?”

  “Hubermann.” The cardboard contorted.

  “… Frau Hubermann—I think she teaches lessons.” He handed Liesel a smile. “To all those boys. Am I right, young girl?”

  Papa shoved the cloth into the graze and Liesel winced rather than answered. It was Hans who spoke. A quiet “sorry,” to the girl.

  There was the discomfort of silence then, and the party man remembered his purpose. “If you don’t mind,” he explained, “I need to inspect your basement, just for a minute or two, to see if it’s suitable for a shelter.”

  Papa gave Liesel’s knee a final dab. “You’ll have a nice bruise there, too, Liesel.” Casually, he acknowledged the man above them. “Certainly. First door on the right. Please excuse the mess.”

  “I wouldn’t worry—it can’t be worse than some of the others I’ve seen today …. This one?”

  “That’s it.”

  THE LONGEST THREE MINUTES

  IN HUBERMANN HISTORY

  Papa sat at the table. Rosa prayed in the corner,

  mouthing the words. Liesel was cooked: her knee,

  her chest, the muscles in her arms. I doubt any

  of them had the audacity to consider what they’d

  do if the basement was appointed as a shelter.

  They had to survive the inspection first.

  They listened to Nazi footsteps in the basement. There was the sound of measuring tape. Liesel could not ward off the thought of Max sitting beneath the steps, huddled around his sketchbook, hugging it to his chest.

  Papa stood. Another idea.

  He walked to the hall and called out, “Everything good down there?”

  The a
nswer ascended the steps, on top of Max Vandenburg. “Another minute, perhaps!”

  “Would you like some coffee, some tea?”

  “No thank you!”

  When Papa returned, he ordered Liesel to fetch a book and for Rosa to start cooking. He decided the last thing they should do was sit around looking worried. “Well, come on,” he said loudly, “move it, Liesel. I don’t care if your knee hurts. You have to finish that book, like you said.”

  Liesel tried not to break. “Yes, Papa.”

  “What are you waiting for?” It took great effort to wink at her, she could tell.

  In the corridor, she nearly collided with the party man.

  “In trouble with your papa, huh? Never mind. I’m the same with my own children.”

  They walked their separate ways, and when Liesel made it to her room, she closed the door and fell to her knees, despite the added pain. She listened first to the judgment that the basement was too shallow, then the goodbyes, one of which was sent down the corridor. “Goodbye, maniacal soccer player!”

  She remembered herself. “Auf Wiedersehen! Goodbye!”

  The Dream Carrier simmered in her hands.

  According to Papa, Rosa melted next to the stove the moment the party man was gone. They collected Liesel and made their way to the basement, removing the well-placed drop sheets and paint cans. Max Vandenburg sat beneath the steps, holding his rusty scissors like a knife. His armpits were soggy and the words fell like injuries from his mouth.

  “I wouldn’t have used them,” he quietly said. “I’m …” He held the rusty arms flat against his forehead. “I’m so sorry I put you through that.”

  Papa lit a cigarette. Rosa took the scissors.

  “You’re alive,” she said. “We all are.”

  It was too late now for apologies.

  THE SCHMUNZELER

  Minutes later, a second knocker was at the door.

  “Good Lord, another one!”

  Worry resumed immediately.

  Max was covered up.

  Rosa trudged up the basement steps, but when she opened the door this time, it was not the Nazis. It was none other than Rudy Steiner. He stood there, yellow-haired and good-intentioned. “I just came to see how Liesel is.”

  When she heard his voice, Liesel started making her way up the steps. “I can deal with this one.”

  “Her boyfriend,” Papa mentioned to the paint cans. He blew another mouthful of smoke.

  “He is not my boyfriend,” Liesel countered, but she was not irritated. It was impossible after such a close call. “I’m only going up because Mama will be yelling out any second.”

  “Liesel!”

  She was on the fifth step. “See?”

  • • •

  When she reached the door, Rudy moved from foot to foot. “I just came to see—” He stopped. “What’s that smell?” He sniffed. “Have you been smoking in there?”

  “Oh. I was sitting with Papa.”

  “Do you have any cigarettes? Maybe we can sell some.”

  Liesel wasn’t in the mood for this. She spoke quietly enough so that Mama wouldn’t hear. “I don’t steal from my papa.”

  “But you steal from certain other places.”

  “Talk a bit louder, why don’t you.”

  Rudy schmunzeled. “See what stealing does? You’re all worried.”

  “Like you’ve never stolen anything.”

  “Yes, but you reek of it.” Rudy was really warming up now. “Maybe that’s not cigarette smoke after all.” He leaned closer and smiled. “It’s a criminal I can smell. You should have a bath.” He shouted back to Tommy Müller. “Hey, Tommy, you should come and have a smell of this!”

  “What did you say?” Trust Tommy. “I can’t hear you!”

  Rudy shook his head in Liesel’s direction. “Useless.”

  She started shutting the door. “Get lost, Saukerl, you’re the last thing I need right now.”

  Very pleased with himself, Rudy made his way back to the street. At the mailbox, he seemed to remember what he’d wanted to verify all along. He came back a few steps. “Alles gut, Saumensch? The injury, I mean.”

  It was June. It was Germany.

  Things were on the verge of decay.

  Liesel was unaware of this. For her, the Jew in her basement had not been revealed. Her foster parents were not taken away, and she herself had contributed greatly to both of these accomplishments.

  “Everything’s good,” she said, and she was not talking about a soccer injury of any description.

  She was fine.

  DEATH’S DIARY: THE PARISIANS

  Summer came.

  For the book thief, everything was going nicely.

  For me, the sky was the color of Jews.

  When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.

  I’ll never forget the first day in Auschwitz, the first time in Mauthausen. At that second place, as time wore on, I also picked them up from the bottom of the great cliff, when their escapes fell awfully awry. There were broken bodies and dead, sweet hearts. Still, it was better than the gas. Some of them I caught when they were only halfway down. Saved you, I’d think, holding their souls in midair as the rest of their being—their physical shells—plummeted to the earth. All of them were light, like the cases of empty walnuts. Smoky sky in those places. The smell like a stove, but still so cold.

  I shiver when I remember—as I try to de-realize it.

  I blow warm air into my hands, to heat them up.

  But it’s hard to keep them warm when the souls still shiver.

  God.

  I always say that name when I think of it.

  God.

  Twice, I speak it.

  I say His name in a futile attempt to understand. “But it’s not your job to understand.” That’s me who answers. God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers? “Your job is to …” And I stop listening to me, because to put it bluntly, I tire me. When I start thinking like that, I become so exhausted, and I don’t have the luxury of indulging fatigue. I’m compelled to continue on, because although it’s not true for every person on earth, it’s true for the vast majority—that death waits for no man—and if he does, he doesn’t usually wait very long.

  On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil. The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down ….

  Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.

  I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it. In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.

  Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

  They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

  PART SEVEN

  the complete duden dictionary and thesaurus

  featuring:

  champagne and accordions—

  a trilogy—some sirens—a sky

  stealer—an offer—the long

  walk to dachau—peace—

  an idiot and some coat men

  CHAMPAGNE AND ACCORDIONS

  In the summer of 1942, the town of Molching was preparing for the inevitable. There were still people who refused to bel
ieve that this small town on Munich’s outskirts could be a target, but the majority of the population was well aware that it was not a question of if, but when. Shelters were more clearly marked, windows were in the process of being blackened for the nights, and everyone knew where the closest basement or cellar was.

  For Hans Hubermann, this uneasy development was actually a slight reprieve. At an unfortunate time, good luck had somehow found its way into his painting business. People with blinds were desperate enough to enlist his services to paint them. His problem was that black paint was normally used more as a mixer, to darken other colors, and it was soon depleted and hard to find. What he did have was the knack of being a good tradesman, and a good tradesman has many tricks. He took coal dust and stirred it through, and he worked cheap. There were many houses in all parts of Molching in which he confiscated the window light from enemy eyes.

  On some of his workdays, Liesel went with him.

  They carted his paint through town, smelling the hunger on some of the streets and shaking their heads at the wealth on others. Many times, on the way home, women with nothing but kids and poverty would come running out and plead with him to paint their blinds.

  “Frau Hallah, I’m sorry, I have no black paint left,” he would say, but a little farther down the road, he would always break. There was tall man and long street. “Tomorrow,” he’d promise, “first thing,” and when the next morning dawned, there he was, painting those blinds for nothing, or for a cookie or a warm cup of tea. The previous evening, he’d have found another way to turn blue or green or beige to black. Never did he tell them to cover their windows with spare blankets, for he knew they’d need them when winter came. He was even known to paint people’s blinds for half a cigarette, sitting on the front step of a house, sharing a smoke with the occupant. Laughter and smoke rose out of the conversation before they moved on to the next job.

  When the time came to write, I remember clearly what Liesel Meminger had to say about that summer. A lot of the words have faded over the decades. The paper has suffered from the friction of movement in my pocket, but still, many of her sentences have been impossible to forget.