The Book Thief
Liesel answered quietly. “Auch Mama—also Mama.”
“Well, I’m Mama Number Two, then.” She looked over at her husband. “And him over there.” She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table. “That Saukerl, that filthy pig—you call him Papa, verstehst? Understand?”
“Yes,” Liesel promptly agreed. Quick answers were appreciated in this household.
“Yes, Mama,” Mama corrected her. “Saumensch. Call me Mama when you talk to me.”
At that moment, Hans Hubermann had just completed rolling a cigarette, having licked the paper and joined it all up. He looked over at Liesel and winked. She would have no trouble calling him Papa.
THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST
Those first few months were definitely the hardest.
Every night, Liesel would nightmare.
Her brother’s face.
Staring at the floor.
She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boatlike in the darkness. Slowly, with the arrival of consciousness, it sank, seemingly into the floor. This vision didn’t help matters, and it would usually be quite a while before the screaming stopped.
Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Hubermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her.
He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed—a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, “Shhh, I’m here, it’s all right.” After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave.
A DEFINITION NOT FOUND
IN THE DICTIONARY
Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children
Hans Hubermann sat sleepy-eyed on the bed and Liesel would cry into his sleeves and breathe him in. Every morning, just after two o’clock, she fell asleep again to the smell of him. It was a mixture of dead cigarettes, decades of paint, and human skin. At first, she sucked it all in, then breathed it, until she drifted back down. Each morning, he was a few feet away from her, crumpled, almost halved, in the chair. He never used the other bed. Liesel would climb out and cautiously kiss his cheek and he would wake up and smile.
Some days Papa told her to get back into bed and wait a minute, and he would return with his accordion and play for her. Liesel would sit up and hum, her cold toes clenched with excitement. No one had ever given her music before. She would grin herself stupid, watching the lines drawing themselves down his face and the soft metal of his eyes—until the swearing arrived from the kitchen.
“STOP THAT NOISE, SAUKERL!”
Papa would play a little longer.
He would wink at the girl, and clumsily, she’d wink back.
A few times, purely to incense Mama a little further, he also brought the instrument to the kitchen and played through breakfast.
Papa’s bread and jam would be half eaten on his plate, curled into the shape of bite marks, and the music would look Liesel in the face. I know it sounds strange, but that’s how it felt to her. Papa’s right hand strolled the tooth-colored keys. His left hit the buttons. (She especially loved to see him hit the silver, sparkled button—the C major.) The accordion’s scratched yet shiny black exterior came back and forth as his arms squeezed the dusty bellows, making it suck in the air and throw it back out. In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.
How do you tell if something’s alive?
You check for breathing.
The sound of the accordion was, in fact, also the announcement of safety. Daylight. During the day, it was impossible to dream of her brother. She would miss him and frequently cry in the tiny washroom as quietly as possible, but she was still glad to be awake. On her first night with the Hubermanns, she had hidden her last link to him—The Grave Digger’s Handbook—under her mattress, and occasionally she would pull it out and hold it. Staring at the letters on the cover and touching the print inside, she had no idea what any of it was saying. The point is, it didn’t really matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was more important.
THE BOOK’S MEANING
1. The last time she saw her brother.
2. The last time she saw her mother.
Sometimes she would whisper the word Mama and see her mother’s face a hundred times in a single afternoon. But those were small miseries compared to the terror of her dreams. At those times, in the enormous mileage of sleep, she had never felt so completely alone.
As I’m sure you’ve already noticed, there were no other children in the house.
The Hubermanns had two of their own, but they were older and had moved out. Hans Junior worked in the center of Munich, and Trudy held a job as a housemaid and child minder. Soon, they would both be in the war. One would be making bullets. The other would be shooting them.
School, as you might imagine, was a terrific failure.
Although it was state-run, there was a heavy Catholic influence, and Liesel was Lutheran. Not the most auspicious start. Then they discovered she couldn’t read or write.
Humiliatingly, she was cast down with the younger kids, who were only just learning the alphabet. Even though she was thin-boned and pale, she felt gigantic among the midget children, and she often wished she was pale enough to disappear altogether.
Even at home, there wasn’t much room for guidance.
“Don’t ask him for help,” Mama pointed out. “That Saukerl.” Papa was staring out the window, as was often his habit. “He left school in fourth grade.”
Without turning around, Papa answered calmly, but with venom, “Well, don’t ask her, either.” He dropped some ash outside. “She left school in third grade.”
There were no books in the house (apart from the one she had secreted under her mattress), and the best Liesel could do was speak the alphabet under her breath before she was told in no uncertain terms to keep quiet. All that mumbling. It wasn’t until later, when there was a bed-wetting incident midnightmare, that an extra reading education began. Unofficially, it was called the midnight class, even though it usually commenced at around two in the morning. More of that soon.
• • •
In mid-February, when she turned ten, Liesel was given a used doll that had a missing leg and yellow hair.
“It was the best we could do,” Papa apologized.
“What are you talking about? She’s lucky to have that much,” Mama corrected him.
Hans continued his examination of the remaining leg while Liesel tried on her new uniform. Ten years old meant Hitler Youth. Hitler Youth meant a small brown uniform. Being female, Liesel was enrolled into what was called the BDM.
EXPLANATION OF THE
It stood for Bund Deutscher Mädchen—
Band of German Girls.
The first thing they did there was make sure your “heil Hitler” was working properly. Then you were taught to march straight, roll bandages, and sew up clothes. You were also taken hiking and on other such activities. Wednesday and Saturday were the designated meeting days, from three in the afternoon until five.
Each Wednesday and Saturday, Papa would walk Liesel there and pick her up two hours later. They never spoke about it much. They just held hands and listened to their feet, and Papa had a cigarette or two.
The only anxiety Papa brought her was the fact that he was constantly leaving. Many evenings, he would walk into the living room (which doubled as the Hubermanns’ bedroom), pull the accordion from the old cupboard, and squeeze past in the kitchen to the front door.
As he walked up Himmel Street, Mama would open the window and cry out, “Don’t be
home too late!”
“Not so loud,” he would turn and call back.
“Saukerl! Lick my ass! I’ll speak as loud as I want!”
The echo of her swearing followed him up the street. He never looked back, or at least, not until he was sure his wife was gone. On those evenings, at the end of the street, accordion case in hand, he would turn around, just before Frau Diller’s corner shop, and see the figure who had replaced his wife in the window. Briefly, his long, ghostly hand would rise before he turned again and walked slowly on. The next time Liesel saw him would be at two in the morning, when he dragged her gently from her nightmare.
Evenings in the small kitchen were raucous, without fail. Rosa Hubermann was always talking, and when she was talking, it took the form of schimpfen. She was constantly arguing and complaining. There was no one to really argue with, but Mama managed it expertly every chance she had. She could argue with the entire world in that kitchen, and almost every evening, she did. Once they had eaten and Papa was gone, Liesel and Rosa would usually remain there, and Rosa would do the ironing.
A few times a week, Liesel would come home from school and walk the streets of Molching with her mama, picking up and delivering washing and ironing from the wealthier parts of town. Knaupt Strasse, Heide Strasse. A few others. Mama would deliver the ironing or pick up the washing with a dutiful smile, but as soon as the door was shut and she walked away, she would curse these rich people, with all their money and laziness.
“Too g’schtinkerdt to wash their own clothes,” she would say, despite her dependence on them.
“Him,” she accused Herr Vogel from Heide Strasse. “Made all his money from his father. He throws it away on women and drink. And washing and ironing, of course.”
It was like a roll call of scorn.
Herr Vogel, Herr and Frau Pfaffelhürver, Helena Schmidt, the Weingartners. They were all guilty of something.
Apart from his drunkenness and expensive lechery, Ernst Vogel, according to Rosa, was constantly scratching his louse-ridden hair, licking his fingers, and then handing over the money. “I should wash it before I come home,” was her summation.
The Pfaffelhürvers scrutinized the results. “‘Not one crease in these shirts, please,’” Rosa imitated them. “‘Not one wrinkle in this suit.’ And then they stand there and inspect it all, right in front of me. Right under my nose! What a G’sindel—what trash.”
The Weingartners were apparently stupid people with a constantly molting Saumensch of a cat. “Do you know how long it takes me to get rid of all that fur? It’s everywhere!”
Helena Schmidt was a rich widow. “That old cripple—sitting there just wasting away. She’s never had to do a day’s work in all her life.”
Rosa’s greatest disdain, however, was reserved for 8 Grande Strasse. A large house, high on a hill, in the upper part of Molching.
“This one,” she’d pointed out to Liesel the first time they went there, “is the mayor’s house. That crook. His wife sits at home all day, too mean to light a fire—it’s always freezing in there. She’s crazy.” She punctuated the words. “Absolutely. Crazy.” At the gate, she motioned to the girl. “You go.”
Liesel was horrified. A giant brown door with a brass knocker stood atop a small flight of steps. “What?”
Mama shoved her. “Don’t you ‘what’ me, Saumensch. Move it.”
Liesel moved it. She walked the path, climbed the steps, hesitated, and knocked.
A bathrobe answered the door.
Inside it, a woman with startled eyes, hair like fluff, and the posture of defeat stood in front of her. She saw Mama at the gate and handed the girl a bag of washing. “Thank you,” Liesel said, but there was no reply. Only the door. It closed.
“You see?” said Mama when she returned to the gate. “This is what I have to put up with. These rich bastards, these lazy swine …”
Holding the washing as they walked away, Liesel looked back. The brass knocker eyed her from the door.
When she finished berating the people she worked for, Rosa Hubermann would usually move on to her other favorite theme of abuse. Her husband. Looking at the bag of washing and the hunched houses, she would talk, and talk, and talk. “If your papa was any good,” she informed Liesel every time they walked through Molching, “I wouldn’t have to do this.” She sniffed with derision. “A painter! Why marry that Arschloch? That’s what they told me—my family, that is.” Their footsteps crunched along the path. “And here I am, walking the streets and slaving in my kitchen because that Saukerl never has any work. No real work, anyway. Just that pathetic accordion in those dirt holes every night.”
“Is that all you’ve got to say?” Mama’s eyes were like pale blue cutouts, pasted to her face.
They’d walk on.
With Liesel carrying the sack.
At home, it was washed in a boiler next to the stove, hung up by the fireplace in the living room, and then ironed in the kitchen. The kitchen was where the action was.
“Did you hear that?” Mama asked her nearly every night. The iron was in her fist, heated from the stove. Light was dull all through the house, and Liesel, sitting at the kitchen table, would be staring at the gaps of fire in front of her.
“What?” she’d reply. “What is it?”
“That was that Holtzapfel.” Mama was already out of her seat. “That Saumensch just spat on our door again.”
It was a tradition for Frau Holtzapfel, one of their neighbors, to spit on the Hubermanns’ door every time she walked past. The front door was only meters from the gate, and let’s just say that Frau Holtzapfel had the distance—and the accuracy.
The spitting was due to the fact that she and Rosa Hubermann were engaged in some kind of decade-long verbal war. No one knew the origin of this hostility. They’d probably forgotten it themselves.
Frau Holtzapfel was a wiry woman and quite obviously spiteful. She’d never married but had two sons, a few years older than the Hubermann offspring. Both were in the army and both will make cameo appearances by the time we’re finished here, I assure you.
In the spiteful stakes, I should also say that Frau Holtzapfel was thorough with her spitting, too. She never neglected to spuck on the door of number thirty-three and say, “Schweine!” each time she walked past. One thing I’ve noticed about the Germans:
They seem very fond of pigs.
A SMALL QUESTION AND
And who do you think was made to clean the spit off the door each night?
Yes—you got it.
When a woman with an iron fist tells you to get out there and clean spit off the door, you do it. Especially when the iron’s hot.
It was all just part of the routine, really.
Each night, Liesel would step outside, wipe the door, and watch the sky. Usually it was like spillage—cold and heavy, slippery and gray—but once in a while some stars had the nerve to rise and float, if only for a few minutes. On those nights, she would stay a little longer and wait.
For the voice from the kitchen.
Or till the stars were dragged down again, into the waters of the German sky.
(A Childhood Decision Maker)
As with most small towns, Molching was filled with characters. A handful of them lived on Himmel Street. Frau Holtzapfel was only one cast member.
The others included the likes of these:
* Rudy Steiner—the boy next door who was obsessed with the black American athlete Jesse Owens.
* Frau Diller—the staunch Aryan corner-shop owner.
* Tommy Müller—a kid whose chronic ear infections had resulted in several operations, a pink river of skin painted across his face, and a tendency to twitch.
* A man known primarily as “Pfiffikus”—whose vulgarity made Rosa Hubermann look like a wordsmith and a saint.
On the whole, it was a street
filled with relatively poor people, despite the apparent rise of Germany’s economy under Hitler. Poor sides of town still existed.
As mentioned already, the house next door to the Hubermanns was rented by a family called Steiner. The Steiners had six children. One of them, the infamous Rudy, would soon become Liesel’s best friend, and later, her partner and sometime catalyst in crime. She met him on the street.
A few days after Liesel’s first bath, Mama allowed her out, to play with the other kids. On Himmel Street, friendships were made outside, no matter the weather. The children rarely visited each other’s homes, for they were small and there was usually very little in them. Also, they conducted their favorite pastime, like professionals, on the street. Soccer. Teams were well set. Garbage cans were used to mark out the goals.
Being the new kid in town, Liesel was immediately shoved between one pair of those cans. (Tommy Müller was finally set free, despite being the most useless soccer player Himmel Street had ever seen.)
It all went nicely for a while, until the fateful moment when Rudy Steiner was upended in the snow by a Tommy Müller foul of frustration.
“What?!” Tommy shouted. His face twitched in desperation. “What did I do?!”
A penalty was awarded by everyone on Rudy’s team, and now it was Rudy Steiner against the new kid, Liesel Meminger.
He placed the ball on a grubby mound of snow, confident of the usual outcome. After all, Rudy hadn’t missed a penalty in eighteen shots, even when the opposition made a point of booting Tommy Müller out of goal. No matter whom they replaced him with, Rudy would score.
On this occasion, they tried to force Liesel out. As you might imagine, she protested, and Rudy agreed.
“No, no.” He smiled. “Let her stay.” He was rubbing his hands together.
Snow had stopped falling on the filthy street now, and the muddy footprints were gathered between them. Rudy shuffled in, fired the shot, and Liesel dived and somehow deflected it with her elbow. She stood up grinning, but the first thing she saw was a snowball smashing into her face. Half of it was mud. It stung like crazy.