The Book Thief



  As she watched all of this, Liesel was certain that these were the poorest souls alive. That’s what she wrote about them. Their gaunt faces were stretched with torture. Hunger ate them as they continued forward, some of them watching the ground to avoid the people on the side of the road. Some looked appealingly at those who had come to observe their humiliation, this prelude to their deaths. Others pleaded for someone, anyone, to step forward and catch them in their arms.

  No one did.

  Whether they watched this parade with pride, temerity, or shame, nobody came forward to interrupt it. Not yet.

  Once in a while a man or woman—no, they were not men and women; they were Jews—would find Liesel’s face among the crowd. They would meet her with their defeat, and the book thief could do nothing but watch them back in a long, incurable moment before they were gone again. She could only hope they could read the depth of sorrow in her face, to recognize that it was true, and not fleeting.

  I have one of you in my basement! she wanted to say. We built a snowman together! I gave him thirteen presents when he was sick!

  Liesel said nothing at all.

  What good would it be?

  She understood that she was utterly worthless to these people. They could not be saved, and in a few minutes, she would see what would happen to those who might try to help them.

  In a small gap in the procession, there was a man, older than the others.

  He wore a beard and torn clothes.

  His eyes were the color of agony, and weightless as he was, he was too heavy for his legs to carry.

  Several times, he fell.

  The side of his face was flattened against the road.

  On each occasion, a soldier stood above him. “Steh’ auf,” he called down. “Stand up.”

  The man rose to his knees and fought his way up. He walked on.

  Every time he caught up sufficiently to the back of the line, he would soon lose momentum and stumble again to the ground. There were more behind him—a good truck’s worth—and they threatened to overtake and trample him.

  The ache in his arms was unbearable to watch as they shook, trying to lift his body. They gave way one more time before he stood and took another group of steps.

  He was dead.

  The man was dead.

  Just give him five more minutes and he would surely fall into the German gutter and die. They would all let him, and they would all watch.

  Then, one human.

  Hans Hubermann.

  • • •

  It happened so quickly.

  The hand that held firmly on to Liesel’s let it drop to her side as the man came struggling by. She felt her palm slap her hip.

  Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out. He made his way through the people, onto the road.

  The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.

  When it changed hands, the Jew slid down. He fell to his knees and held Papa’s shins. He buried his face between them and thanked him.

  Liesel watched.

  With tears in her eyes, she saw the man slide farther forward, pushing Papa back to cry into his ankles.

  Other Jews walked past, all of them watching this small, futile miracle. They streamed by, like human water. That day, a few would reach the ocean. They would be handed a white cap.

  Wading through, a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and he looked at the crowd. After another moment’s thought, he took the whip from his belt and began.

  The Jew was whipped six times. On his back, his head, and his legs. “You filth! You swine!” Blood dripped now from his ear.

  Then it was Papa’s turn.

  A new hand held Liesel’s now, and when she looked in horror next to her, Rudy Steiner swallowed as Hans Hubermann was whipped on the street. The sound sickened her and she expected cracks to appear on her papa’s body. He was struck four times before he, too, hit the ground.

  When the elderly Jew climbed to his feet for the last time and continued on, he looked briefly back. He took a last sad glance at the man who was kneeling now himself, whose back was burning with four lines of fire, whose knees were aching on the road. If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human.

  Me?

  I’m not so sure if that’s such a good thing.

  When Liesel and Rudy made it through and helped Hans to his feet, there were so many voices. Words and sunlight. That’s how she remembered it. The light sparkling on the road and the words like waves, breaking on her back. Only as they walked away did they notice the bread sitting rejected on the street.

  As Rudy attempted to pick it up, a passing Jew snatched it from his hand and another two fought him for it as they continued on their way to Dachau.

  Silver eyes were pelted then.

  A cart was turned over and paint flowed onto the street.

  They called him a Jew lover.

  Others were silent, helping him back to safety.

  Hans Hubermann leaned forward, arms outstretched against a house wall. He was suddenly overwhelmed by what had just happened.

  There was an image, fast and hot.

  33 Himmel Street—its basement.

  Thoughts of panic were caught between the in-and-out struggle of his breath.

  They’ll come now. They’ll come.

  Oh, Christ, oh, crucified Christ.

  He looked at the girl and closed his eyes.

  “Are you hurt, Papa?”

  She received questions rather than an answer.

  “What was I thinking?” His eyes closed tighter and opened again. His overalls creased. There was paint and blood on his hands. And bread crumbs. How different from the bread of summer. “Oh my God, Liesel, what have I done?”

  Yes.

  I must agree.

  What had Papa done?

  PEACE

  At just after 11 p.m. that same night, Max Vandenburg walked up Himmel Street with a suitcase full of food and warm clothes. German air was in his lungs. The yellow stars were on fire. When he made it to Frau Diller’s, he looked back one last time to number thirty-three. He could not see the figure in the kitchen window, but she could see him. She waved and he did not wave back.

  Liesel could still feel his mouth on her forehead. She could smell his breath of goodbye.

  “I have left something for you,” he’d said, “but you will not get it until you’re ready.”

  He left.

  “Max?”

  But he did not come back.

  He had walked from her room and silently shut the door.

  The hallway murmured.

  He was gone.

  When she made it to the kitchen, Mama and Papa stood with crooked bodies and preserved faces. They’d been standing like that for thirty seconds of forever.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #7

  Schweigen —Silence:

  The absence of sound or noise.

  Related words:

  quiet, calmness, peace.

  How perfect.

  Peace.

  Somewhere near Munich, a German Jew was making his way through the darkness. An arrangement had been made to meet Hans Hubermann in four days (that is, if he wasn’t taken away). It was at a place far down the Amper, where a broken bridge leaned among the river and trees.

  He would make it there, but he would not stay longer than a few minutes.

  The only thing to be found there when Papa arrived four days later was a note under a rock, at the base of a tree. It was addressed to nobody and contained only one sentence.

  THE LAST WORDS OF

  MAX VANDENBURG

  You’ve done enough.

  Now more than ever, 33 Himmel Street was a place of silence, and it did not go unnoticed that the Duden Dictionary was completely and utterly mistaken, especially w
ith its related words.

  Silence was not quiet or calm, and it was not peace.

  THE IDIOT AND THE COAT MEN

  On the night of the parade, the idiot sat in the kitchen, drinking bitter gulps of Holtzapfel’s coffee and hankering for a cigarette. He waited for the Gestapo, the soldiers, the police—for anyone—to take him away, as he felt he deserved. Rosa ordered him to come to bed. The girl loitered in the doorway. He sent them both away and spent the hours till morning with his head in his hands, waiting.

  Nothing came.

  Every unit of time carried with it the expected noise of knocking and threatening words.

  They did not come.

  The only sound was of himself.

  “What have I done?” he whispered again.

  “God, I’d love a cigarette,” he answered. He was all out.

  Liesel heard the repeated sentences several times, and it took a lot to stay by the door. She’d have loved to comfort him, but she had never seen a man so devastated. There were no consolations that night. Max was gone, and Hans Hubermann was to blame.

  The kitchen cupboards were the shape of guilt, and his palms were oily with the memory of what he’d done. They must be sweaty, Liesel thought, for her own hands were soaked to the wrists.

  In her room, she prayed.

  Hands and knees, forearms against the mattress.

  “Please, God, please let Max survive. Please, God, please …”

  Her suffering knees.

  Her painful feet.

  When first light appeared, she awoke and made her way back to the kitchen. Papa was asleep with his head parallel to the tabletop, and there was some saliva at the corner of his mouth. The smell of coffee was overpowering, and the image of Hans Hubermann’s stupid kindness was still in the air. It was like a number or an address. Repeat it enough times and it sticks.

  Her first attempt to wake him was unfelt, but her second nudge of the shoulder brought his head from the table in an upward shock.

  “Are they here?”

  “No, Papa, it’s me.”

  He finished the stale pool of coffee in his mug. His Adam’s apple lifted and sank. “They should have come by now. Why haven’t they come, Liesel?”

  It was an insult.

  They should have come by now and swept through the house, looking for any evidence of Jew loving or treason, but it appeared that Max had left for no reason at all. He could have been asleep in the basement or sketching in his book.

  “You can’t have known that they wouldn’t come, Papa.”

  “I should have known not to give the man some bread. I just didn’t think.”

  “Papa, you did nothing wrong.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  He stood and walked out the kitchen door, leaving it ajar. Lending even more insult to injury, it was going to be a lovely morning.

  When four days had elapsed, Papa walked a long length of the Amper River. He brought back a small note and placed it on the kitchen table.

  Another week passed, and still, Hans Hubermann waited for his punishment. The welts on his back were turning to scars, and he spent the majority of his time walking around Molching. Frau Diller spat at his feet. Frau Holtzapfel, true to her word, had ceased spitting at the Hubermanns’ door, but here was a handy replacement. “I knew it,” the shopkeeper damned him. “You dirty Jew lover.”

  He walked obliviously on, and Liesel would often catch him at the Amper River, on the bridge. His arms rested on the rail and he leaned his upper body over the edge. Kids on bikes rushed past him, or they ran with loud voices and the slaps of feet on wood. None of it moved him in the slightest.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #8

  Nachtrauern —Regret:

  Sorrow filled with longing,

  disappointment, or loss.

  Related words: rue, repent,

  mourn, grieve.

  “Do you see him?” he asked her one afternoon, when she leaned with him. “In the water there?”

  The river was not running very fast. In the slow ripples, Liesel could see the outline of Max Vandenburg’s face. She could see his feathery hair and the rest of him. “He used to fight the Führer in our basement.”

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Papa’s hands tightened on the splintery wood. “I’m an idiot.”

  No, Papa.

  You’re just a man.

  The words came to her more than a year later, when she wrote in the basement. She wished she’d thought of them at the time.

  “I am stupid,” Hans Hubermann told his foster daughter. “And kind. Which makes the biggest idiot in the world. The thing is, I want them to come for me. Anything’s better than this waiting.”

  Hans Hubermann needed vindication. He needed to know that Max Vandenburg had left his house for good reason.

  Finally, after nearly three weeks of waiting, he thought his moment had come.

  It was late.

  Liesel was returning from Frau Holtzapfel’s when she saw the two men in their long black coats, and she ran inside.

  “Papa, Papa!” She nearly wiped out the kitchen table. “Papa, they’re here!”

  Mama came first. “What’s all this shouting about, Saumensch? Who’s here?”

  “The Gestapo.”

  “Hansi!”

  He was already there, and he walked out of the house to greet them. Liesel wanted to join him, but Rosa held her back and they watched from the window.

  Papa was poised at the front gate. He fidgeted.

  Mama tightened her grip on Liesel’s arms.

  The men walked past.

  • • •

  Papa looked back at the window, alarmed, then made his way out of the gate. He called after them. “Hey! I’m right here. It’s me you want. I live in this one.”

  The coat men only stopped momentarily and checked their notebooks. “No, no,” they told him. Their voices were deep and bulky. “Unfortunately, you’re a little old for our purposes.”

  They continued walking, but they did not travel very far, stopping at number thirty-five and proceeding through the open gate.

  “Frau Steiner?” they asked when the door was opened.

  “Yes, that’s right.”

  “We’ve come to talk to you about something.”

  The coat men stood like jacketed columns on the threshold of the Steiners’ shoe-box house.

  For some reason, they’d come for the boy.

  The coat men wanted Rudy.

  PART EIGHT

  the word shaker

  featuring:

  dominoes and darkness—the thought of

  rudy naked—punishment—a promise keeper’s

  wife—a collector—the bread eaters—

  a candle in the trees—a hidden sketchbook—

  and the anarchist’s suit collection

  DOMINOES AND DARKNESS

  In the words of Rudy’s youngest sisters, there were two monsters sitting in the kitchen. Their voices kneaded methodically at the door as three of the Steiner children played dominoes on the other side. The remaining three listened to the radio in the bedroom, oblivious. Rudy hoped this had nothing to do with what had happened at school the previous week. It was something he had refused to tell Liesel and did not talk about at home.

  A GRAY AFTERNOON,

  A SMALL SCHOOL OFFICE

  Three boys stood in a line. Their records

  and bodies were thoroughly examined.

  When the fourth game of dominoes was completed, Rudy began to stand them up in lines, creating patterns that wound their way across the living room floor. As was his habit, he also left a few gaps, in case the rogue finger of a sibling interfered, which it usually did.

  “Can I knock them down, Rudy?”

  “No.”

  “What about me?”

  “No. We all will.”

  He made three separate formations that led to the same tower of dominoes in the middle. Together, they would watch everything that was so carefully pl
anned collapse, and they would all smile at the beauty of destruction.

  The kitchen voices were becoming louder now, each heaping itself upon the other to be heard. Different sentences fought for attention until one person, previously silent, came between them.

  “No,” she said. It was repeated. “No.” Even when the rest of them resumed their arguments, they were silenced again by the same voice, but now it gained momentum. “Please,” Barbara Steiner begged them. “Not my boy.”

  “Can we light a candle, Rudy?”

  It was something their father had often done with them. He would turn out the light and they’d watch the dominoes fall in the candlelight. It somehow made the event grander, a greater spectacle.

  His legs were aching anyway. “Let me find a match.”

  The light switch was at the door.

  Quietly, he walked toward it with the matchbox in one hand, the candle in the other.

  From the other side, the three men and one woman climbed to the hinges. “The best scores in the class,” said one of the monsters. Such depth and dryness. “Not to mention his athletic ability.” Damn it, why did he have to win all those races at the carnival?

  Deutscher.

  Damn that Franz Deutscher!

  But then he understood.

  This was not Franz Deutscher’s fault, but his own. He’d wanted to show his past tormentor what he was capable of, but he also wanted to prove himself to everyone. Now everyone was in the kitchen.

  He lit the candle and switched off the light.

  “Ready?”

  “But I’ve heard what happens there.” That was the unmistakable, oaky voice of his father.

  “Come on, Rudy, hurry up.”

  “Yes, but understand, Herr Steiner, this is all for a greater purpose. Think of the opportunities your son can have. This is really a privilege.”

  “Rudy, the candle’s dripping.”

  He waved them away, waiting again for Alex Steiner. He came.

  “Privileges? Like running barefoot through the snow? Like jumping from ten-meter platforms into three feet of water?”

  Rudy’s ear was pressed to the door now. Candle wax melted onto his hand.