The Book Thief



  It was the pleasure and satisfaction.

  Of good stealing.

  A week later, the trilogy of happiness was completed.

  In the last days of August, a gift arrived, or in fact, was noticed.

  It was late afternoon. Liesel was watching Kristina Müller jumping rope on Himmel Street. Rudy Steiner skidded to a stop in front of her on his brother’s bike. “Do you have some time?” he asked.

  She shrugged. “For what?”

  “I think you’d better come.” He dumped the bike and went to collect the other one from home. In front of her, Liesel watched the pedal spin.

  They rode up to Grande Strasse, where Rudy stopped and waited.

  “Well,” Liesel asked, “what is it?”

  Rudy pointed. “Look closer.”

  Gradually, they rode to a better position, behind a blue spruce tree. Through the prickly branches, Liesel noticed the closed window, and then the object leaning on the glass.

  “Is that …?”

  Rudy nodded.

  They debated the issue for many minutes before they agreed it needed to be done. It had obviously been placed there intentionally, and if it was a trap, it was worth it.

  Among the powdery blue branches, Liesel said, “A book thief would do it.”

  She dropped the bike, observed the street, and crossed the yard. The shadows of clouds were buried among the dusky grass. Were they holes for falling into, or patches of extra darkness for hiding in? Her imagination sent her sliding down one of those holes into the evil clutches of the mayor himself. If nothing else, those thoughts distracted her and she was at the window even quicker than she’d hoped.

  It was like The Whistler all over again.

  Her nerves licked her palms.

  Small streams of sweat rippled under her arms.

  When she raised her head, she could read the title. The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus. Briefly, she turned to Rudy and mouthed the words, It’s a dictionary. He shrugged and held out his arms.

  She worked methodically, sliding the window upward, wondering how all of this would look from inside the house. She envisioned the sight of her thieving hand reaching up, making the window rise until the book was felled. It seemed to surrender slowly, like a falling tree.

  Got it.

  There was barely a disturbance or sound.

  The book simply tilted toward her and she took it with her free hand. She even closed the window, nice and smooth, then turned and walked back across the potholes of clouds.

  “Nice,” Rudy said as he gave her the bike.

  “Thank you.”

  They rode toward the corner, where the day’s importance reached them. Liesel knew. It was that feeling again, of being watched. A voice pedaled inside her. Two laps.

  Look at the window. Look at the window.

  She was compelled.

  Like an itch that demands a fingernail, she felt an intense desire to stop.

  She placed her feet on the ground and turned to face the mayor’s house and the library window, and she saw. Certainly, she should have known this might happen, but she could not hide the shock that loitered inside when she witnessed the mayor’s wife, standing behind the glass. She was transparent, but she was there. Her fluffy hair was as it always was, and her wounded eyes and mouth and expression held themselves up, for viewing.

  Very slowly, she lifted her hand to the book thief on the street. A motionless wave.

  In her state of shock, Liesel said nothing, to Rudy or herself. She only steadied herself and raised her hand to acknowledge the mayor’s wife, in the window.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #2

  Verzeihung—Forgiveness:

  To stop feeling anger,

  animosity, or resentment.

  Related words: absolution,

  acquittal, mercy.

  On the way home, they stopped at the bridge and inspected the heavy black book. As Rudy flipped through the pages, he arrived at a letter. He picked it up and looked slowly toward the book thief. “It’s got your name on it.”

  The river ran.

  Liesel took hold of the paper.

  THE LETTER

  Dear Liesel,

  I know you find me pathetic and loathsome (look that word up if you don’t know it), but I must tell you that I am not so stupid as to not see your footprints in the library. When I noticed the first book missing, I thought I had simply misplaced it, but then I saw the outlines of some feet on the floor in certain patches of the light.

  It made me smile.

  I was glad that you took what was rightfully yours. I then made the mistake of thinking that would be the end of it.

  When you came back, I should have been angry, but I wasn’t. I could hear you the last time, but I decided to leave you alone. You only ever take one book, and it will take a thousand visits till all of them are gone. My only hope is that one day you will knock on the front door and enter the library in the more civilized manner.

  Again, I am sorry we could no longer keep your foster mother employed.

  Lastly, I hope you find this dictionary and thesaurus useful as you read your stolen books.

  Yours sincerely,

  Ilsa Hermann

  “We’d better head home,” Rudy suggested, but Liesel did not go.

  “Can you wait here for ten minutes?”

  “Of course.”

  • • •

  Liesel struggled back up to 8 Grande Strasse and sat on the familiar territory of the front entrance. The book was with Rudy, but she held the letter and rubbed her fingers on the folded paper as the steps grew heavier around her. She tried four times to knock on the daunting flesh of the door, but she could not bring herself to do it. The most she could accomplish was to place her knuckles gently on the warmness of the wood.

  Again, her brother found her.

  From the bottom of the steps, his knee healing nicely, he said, “Come on, Liesel, knock.”

  As she made her second getaway, she could soon see the distant figure of Rudy at the bridge. The wind showered through her hair. Her feet swam with the pedals.

  Liesel Meminger was a criminal.

  But not because she’d stolen a handful of books through an open window.

  You should have knocked, she thought, and although there was a good portion of guilt, there was also the juvenile trace of laughter.

  As she rode, she tried to tell herself something.

  You don’t deserve to be this happy, Liesel. You really don’t.

  Can a person steal happiness? Or is it just another internal, infernal human trick?

  Liesel shrugged away from her thoughts. She crossed the bridge and told Rudy to hurry up and not to forget the book.

  They rode home on rusty bikes.

  They rode home a couple of miles, from summer to autumn, and from a quiet night to the noisy breath of the bombing of Munich.

  THE SOUND OF SIRENS

  With the small collection of money Hans had earned in the summer, he brought home a secondhand radio. “This way,” he said, “we can hear when the raids are coming even before the sirens start. They make a cuckoo sound and then announce the regions at risk.”

  He placed it on the kitchen table and switched it on. They also tried to make it work in the basement, for Max, but there was nothing but static and severed voices in the speakers.

  In September, they did not hear it as they slept.

  Either the radio was already half broken, or it was swallowed immediately by the crying sound of sirens.

  A hand was shoved gently at Liesel’s shoulder as she slept.

  Papa’s voice followed it in, afraid.

  “Liesel, wake up. We have to go.”

  There was the disorientation of interrupted sleep, and Liesel could barely decipher the outline of Papa’s face. The only thing truly visible was his voice.

  • • •

  In the hallway, they stopped.

  “Wait,” said Rosa.

  Through the d
ark, they rushed to the basement.

  The lamp was lit.

  Max edged out from behind the paint cans and drop sheets. His face was tired and he hitched his thumbs nervously into his pants. “Time to go, huh?”

  Hans walked to him. “Yes, time to go.” He shook his hand and slapped his arm. “We’ll see you when we get back, right?”

  “Of course.”

  Rosa hugged him, as did Liesel.

  “Goodbye, Max.”

  Weeks earlier, they’d discussed whether they should all stay together in their own basement or if the three of them should go down the road, to a family by the name of Fiedler. It was Max who convinced them. “They said it’s not deep enough here. I’ve already put you in enough danger.”

  Hans had nodded. “It’s a shame we can’t take you with us. It’s a disgrace.”

  “It’s how it is.”

  Outside, the sirens howled at the houses, and the people came running, hobbling, and recoiling as they exited their homes. Night watched. Some people watched it back, trying to find the tin-can planes as they drove across the sky.

  Himmel Street was a procession of tangled people, all wrestling with their most precious possessions. In some cases, it was a baby. In others, a stack of photo albums or a wooden box. Liesel carried her books, between her arm and her ribs. Frau Holtzapfel was heaving a suitcase, laboring on the footpath with bulbous eyes and small-stepped feet.

  Papa, who’d forgotten everything—even his accordion—rushed back to her and rescued the suitcase from her grip. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what have you got in here?” he asked. “An anvil?”

  Frau Holtzapfel advanced alongside him. “The necessities.”

  The Fiedlers lived six houses down. They were a family of four, all with wheat-colored hair and good German eyes. More important, they had a nice, deep basement. Twenty-two people crammed themselves into it, including the Steiner family, Frau Holtzapfel, Pfiffikus, a young man, and a family named Jenson. In the interest of a civil environment, Rosa Hubermann and Frau Holtzapfel were kept separated, though some things were above petty arguments.

  One light globe dangled from the ceiling and the room was dank and cold. Jagged walls jutted out and poked people in the back as they stood and spoke. The muffled sound of sirens leaked in from somewhere. They could hear a distorted version of them that somehow found a way inside. Although creating considerable apprehension about the quality of the shelter, at least they could hear the three sirens that would signal the end of the raid and safety. They didn’t need a Luftschutzwart—an air-raid supervisor.

  It wasn’t long before Rudy found Liesel and was standing next to her. His hair was pointing at something on the ceiling. “Isn’t this great?”

  She couldn’t resist some sarcasm. “It’s lovely.”

  “Ah, come on, Liesel, don’t be like that. What’s the worst that can happen, apart from all of us being flattened or fried or whatever bombs do?”

  Liesel looked around, gauging the faces. She started compiling a list of who was most afraid.

  THE HIT LIST

  1. Frau Holtzapfel

  2. Mr. Fiedler

  3. The young man

  4. Rosa Hubermann

  Frau Holtzapfel’s eyes were trapped open. Her wiry frame was stooped forward, and her mouth was a circle. Herr Fiedler busied himself by asking people, sometimes repeatedly, how they were feeling. The young man, Rolf Schultz, kept to himself in the corner, speaking silently at the air around him, castigating it. His hands were cemented into his pockets. Rosa rocked back and forth, ever so gently. “Liesel,” she whispered, “come here.” She held the girl from behind, tightening her grip. She sang a song, but it was so quiet that Liesel could not make it out. The notes were born on her breath, and they died at her lips. Next to them, Papa remained quiet and motionless. At one point, he placed his warm hand on Liesel’s cool skull. You’ll live, it said, and it was right.

  To their left, Alex and Barbara Steiner stood with the younger of their children, Emma and Bettina. The two girls were attached to their mother’s right leg. The oldest boy, Kurt, stared ahead in a perfect Hitler Youth stance, holding the hand of Karin, who was tiny, even for her seven years. The ten-year-old, Anna-Marie, played with the pulpy surface of the cement wall.

  On the other side of the Steiners were Pfiffikus and the Jenson family.

  Pfiffikus kept himself from whistling.

  The bearded Mr. Jenson held his wife tightly, and their two kids drifted in and out of silence. Occasionally they pestered each other, but they held back when it came to the beginning of true argument.

  After ten minutes or so, what was most prominent in the cellar was a kind of nonmovement. Their bodies were welded together and only their feet changed position or pressure. Stillness was shackled to their faces. They watched each other and waited.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #3

  Angst—Fear:

  An unpleasant, often strong

  emotion caused by anticipation

  or awareness of danger.

  Related words: terror, horror,

  panic, fright, alarm.

  From other shelters, there were stories of singing “Deutschland über Alles” or of people arguing amid the staleness of their own breath. No such things happened in the Fiedler shelter. In that place, there was only fear and apprehension, and the dead song at Rosa Hubermann’s cardboard lips.

  Not long before the sirens signaled the end, Alex Steiner—the man with the immovable, wooden face—coaxed the kids from his wife’s legs. He was able to reach out and grapple for his son’s free hand. Kurt, still stoic and full of stare, took it up and tightened his grip gently on the hand of his sister. Soon, everyone in the cellar was holding the hand of another, and the group of Germans stood in a lumpy circle. The cold hands melted into the warm ones, and in some cases, the feeling of another human pulse was transported. It came through the layers of pale, stiffened skin. Some of them closed their eyes, waiting for their final demise, or hoping for a sign that the raid was finally over.

  Did they deserve any better, these people?

  How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?

  The answer to each of these questions interests me very much, though I cannot allow them to seduce me. I only know that all of those people would have sensed me that night, excluding the youngest of the children. I was the suggestion. I was the advice, my imagined feet walking into the kitchen and down the corridor.

  As is often the case with humans, when I read about them in the book thief’s words, I pitied them, though not as much as I felt for the ones I scooped up from various camps in that time. The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. That basement was not a washroom. They were not sent there for a shower. For those people, life was still achievable.

  In the uneven circle, the minutes soaked by.

  Liesel held Rudy’s hand, and her mama’s.

  Only one thought saddened her.

  Max.

  How would Max survive if the bombs arrived on Himmel Street?

  Around her, she examined the Fiedlers’ basement. It was much sturdier and considerably deeper than the one at 33 Himmel Street.

  Silently, she asked her papa.

  Are you thinking about him, too?

  Whether the silent question registered or not, he gave the girl a quick nod. It was followed a few minutes later by the three sirens of temporary peace.

  The people at 45 Himmel Street sank with relief.

  Some clenched their eyes and opened them again.

  A cigarette was passed around.

  Just as it made its way to Rudy Steiner’s lips, it was snatched away by his father. “Not you, Jesse Owens.”

  The children hugged their parents, and it took many minutes for all of them to fully realize that they
were alive, and that they were going to be alive. Only then did their feet climb the stairs, to Herbert Fiedler’s kitchen.

  Outside, a procession of people made its way silently along the street. Many of them looked up and thanked God for their lives.

  When the Hubermanns made it home, they headed directly to the basement, but it seemed that Max was not there. The lamp was small and orange and they could not see him or hear an answer.

  “Max?”

  “He’s disappeared.”

  “Max, are you there?”

  “I’m here.”

  They originally thought the words had come from behind the drop sheets and paint cans, but Liesel was first to see him, in front of them. His jaded face was camouflaged among the painting materials and fabric. He was sitting there with stunned eyes and lips.

  When they walked across, he spoke again.

  “I couldn’t help it,” he said.

  It was Rosa who replied. She crouched down to face him. “What are you talking about, Max?”

  “I …” He struggled to answer. “When everything was quiet, I went up to the corridor and the curtain in the living room was open just a crack …. I could see outside. I watched, only for a few seconds.” He had not seen the outside world for twenty-two months.

  There was no anger or reproach.

  It was Papa who spoke.

  “How did it look?”

  Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. “There were stars,” he said. “They burned my eyes.”

  Four of them.

  Two people on their feet. The other two remained seated.

  All had seen a thing or two that night.

  This place was the real basement. This was the real fear. Max gathered himself and stood to move back behind the sheets. He wished them good night, but he didn’t make it beneath the stairs. With Mama’s permission, Liesel stayed with him till morning, reading A Song in the Dark as he sketched and wrote in his book.

  From a Himmel Street window, he wrote, the stars set fire to my eyes.