The Book Thief



  “Rumors.” The arid voice, low and matter-of-fact, had an answer for everything. “Our school is one of the finest ever established. It’s better than world-class. We’re creating an elite group of German citizens in the name of the Führer. …”

  Rudy could listen no longer.

  He scraped the candle wax from his hand and drew back from the splice of light that came through the crack in the door. When he sat down, the flame went out. Too much movement. Darkness flowed in. The only light available was a white rectangular stencil, the shape of the kitchen door.

  He struck another match and reignited the candle. The sweet smell of fire and carbon.

  Rudy and his sisters each tapped a different domino and they watched them fall until the tower in the middle was brought to its knees. The girls cheered.

  Kurt, his older brother, arrived in the room.

  “They look like dead bodies,” he said.

  “What?”

  Rudy peered up at the dark face, but Kurt did not answer. He’d noticed the arguing from the kitchen. “What’s going on in there?”

  It was one of the girls who answered. The youngest, Bettina. She was five. “There are two monsters,” she said. “They’ve come for Rudy.”

  Again, the human child. So much cannier.

  Later, when the coat men left, the two boys, one seventeen, the other fourteen, found the courage to face the kitchen.

  They stood in the doorway. The light punished their eyes.

  It was Kurt who spoke. “Are they taking him?”

  Their mother’s forearms were flat on the table. Her palms were facing up.

  Alex Steiner raised his head.

  It was heavy.

  His expression was sharp and definite, freshly cut.

  A wooden hand wiped at the splinters of his fringe, and he made several attempts to speak.

  “Papa?”

  But Rudy did not walk toward his father.

  He sat at the kitchen table and took hold of his mother’s facing-up hand.

  Alex and Barbara Steiner would not disclose what was said while the dominoes were falling like dead bodies in the living room. If only Rudy had kept listening at the door, just for another few minutes …

  He told himself in the weeks to come—or in fact, pleaded with himself—that if he’d heard the rest of the conversation that night, he’d have entered the kitchen much earlier. “I’ll go,” he’d have said. “Please, take me, I’m ready now.”

  If he’d intervened, it might have changed everything.

  THREE POSSIBILITIES

  1. Alex Steiner wouldn’t have suffered the same punishment as Hans Hubermann.

  2. Rudy would have gone away to school.

  3. And just maybe, he would have lived.

  The cruelty of fate, however, did not allow Rudy Steiner to enter the kitchen at the opportune moment.

  He’d returned to his sisters and the dominoes.

  He sat down.

  Rudy Steiner wasn’t going anywhere.

  THE THOUGHT OF RUDY NAKED

  There had been a woman.

  Standing in the corner.

  She had the thickest braid he’d ever seen. It roped down her back, and occasionally, when she brought it over her shoulder, it lurked at her colossal breast like an overfed pet. In fact, everything about her was magnified. Her lips, her legs. Her paved teeth. She had a large, direct voice. No time to waste. “Komm,” she instructed them. “Come. Stand here.”

  The doctor, by comparison, was like a balding rodent. He was small and nimble, pacing the school office with his manic yet businesslike movements and mannerisms. And he had a cold.

  Out of the three boys, it was difficult to decide which was the more reluctant to take off his clothes when ordered to do so. The first one looked from person to person, from the aging teacher to the gargantuan nurse to the pint-sized doctor. The one in the middle looked only at his feet, and the one on the far left counted his blessings that he was in the school office and not a dark alley. The nurse, Rudy decided, was a frightener.

  “Who’s first?” she asked.

  It was the supervising teacher, Herr Heckenstaller, who answered. He was more a black suit than a man. His face was a mustache. Examining the boys, his choice came swiftly.

  “Schwarz.”

  The unfortunate Jürgen Schwarz undid his uniform with great discomfort. He was left standing only in his shoes and underwear. A luckless plea was marooned on his German face.

  “And?” Herr Heckenstaller asked. “The shoes?”

  He removed both shoes, both socks.

  “Und die Unterhosen,” said the nurse. “And the underpants.”

  Both Rudy and the other boy, Olaf Spiegel, had started undressing now as well, but they were nowhere near the perilous position of Jürgen Schwarz. The boy was shaking. He was a year younger than the other two, but taller. When his underpants came down, it was with abject humiliation that he stood in the small, cool office. His self-respect was around his ankles.

  The nurse watched him with intent, her arms folded across her devastating chest.

  Heckenstaller ordered the other two to get moving.

  The doctor scratched his scalp and coughed. His cold was killing him.

  The three naked boys were each examined on the cold flooring.

  They cupped their genitals in their hands and shivered like the future.

  Between the doctor’s coughing and wheezing, they were put through their paces.

  “Breathe in.” Sniffle.

  “Breathe out.” Second sniffle.

  “Arms out now.” A cough. “I said arms out.” A horrendous hail of coughing.

  As humans do, the boys looked constantly at each other for some sign of mutual sympathy. None was there. All three pried their hands from their penises and held out their arms. Rudy did not feel like he was part of a master race.

  “We are gradually succeeding,” the nurse was informing the teacher, “in creating a new future. It will be a new class of physically and mentally advanced Germans. An officer class.”

  Unfortunately, her sermon was cut short when the doctor creased in half and coughed with all his might over the abandoned clothes. Tears welled up in his eyes and Rudy couldn’t help but wonder.

  A new future? Like him?

  Wisely, he did not speak it.

  The examination was completed and he managed to perform his first nude “heil Hitler.” In a perverse kind of way, he conceded that it didn’t feel half bad.

  Stripped of their dignity, the boys were allowed to dress again, and as they were shown from the office, they could already hear the discussion held in their honor behind them.

  “They’re a little older than usual,” the doctor said, “but I’m thinking at least two of them.”

  The nurse agreed. “The first and the third.”

  Three boys stood outside.

  First and third.

  “First was you, Schwarz,” said Rudy. He then questioned Olaf Spiegel. “Who was third?”

  Spiegel made a few calculations. Did she mean third in line or third examined? It didn’t matter. He knew what he wanted to believe. “That was you, I think.”

  “Cow shit, Spiegel, it was you.”

  A SMALL GUARANTEE

  The coat men knew who was third.

  The day after they’d visited Himmel Street, Rudy sat on his front step with Liesel and related the whole saga, even the smallest details. He gave up and admitted what had happened that day at school when he was taken out of class. There was even some laughter about the tremendous nurse and the look on Jürgen Schwarz’s face. For the most part, though, it was a tale of anxiety, especially when it came to the voices in the kitchen and the dead-body dominoes.

  For days, Liesel could not shift one thought from her head.

  It was the examination of the three boys, or if she was honest, it was Rudy.

  She would lie in bed, missing Max, wondering where he was, praying that he was alive, but somewhere, sta
nding among all of it, was Rudy.

  He glowed in the dark, completely naked.

  There was great dread in that vision, especially the moment when he was forced to remove his hands. It was disconcerting to say the least, but for some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

  PUNISHMENT

  On the ration cards of Nazi Germany, there was no listing for punishment, but everyone had to take their turn. For some it was death in a foreign country during the war. For others it was poverty and guilt when the war was over, when six million discoveries were made throughout Europe. Many people must have seen their punishments coming, but only a small percentage welcomed it. One such person was Hans Hubermann.

  You do not help Jews on the street.

  Your basement should not be hiding one.

  At first, his punishment was conscience. His oblivious unearthing of Max Vandenburg plagued him. Liesel could see it sitting next to his plate as he ignored his dinner, or standing with him at the bridge over the Amper. He no longer played the accordion. His silver-eyed optimism was wounded and motionless. That was bad enough, but it was only the beginning.

  One Wednesday in early November, his true punishment arrived in the mailbox. On the surface, it appeared to be good news.

  PAPER IN THE KITCHEN

  We are delighted to inform you that your application to join the NSDAP has been approved ….

  “The Nazi Party?” Rosa asked. “I thought they didn’t want you.”

  “They didn’t.”

  Papa sat down and read the letter again.

  He was not being put on trial for treason or for helping Jews or anything of the sort. Hans Hubermann was being rewarded, at least as far as some people were concerned. How could this be possible?

  “There has to be more.”

  There was.

  On Friday, a statement arrived to say that Hans Hubermann was to be drafted into the German army. A member of the party would be happy to play a role in the war effort, it concluded. If he wasn’t, there would certainly be consequences.

  Liesel had just returned from reading with Frau Holtzapfel. The kitchen was heavy with soup steam and the vacant faces of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Papa was seated. Mama stood above him as the soup started to burn.

  “God, please don’t send me to Russia,” Papa said.

  “Mama, the soup’s burning.”

  “What?”

  Liesel hurried across and took it from the stove. “The soup.” When she’d successfully rescued it, she turned and viewed her foster parents. Faces like ghost towns. “Papa, what’s wrong?”

  He handed her the letter and her hands began to shake as she made her way through it. The words had been punched forcefully into the paper.

  THE CONTENTS OF

  LIESEL MEMINGER’S IMAGINATION

  In the shell-shocked kitchen, somewhere near the stove, there’s an image of a lonely, overworked typewriter. It sits in a distant, near-empty room. Its keys are faded and a blank sheet waits patiently upright in the assumed position. It wavers slightly in the breeze from the window. Coffee break is nearly over. A pile of paper the height of a human stands casually by the door. It could easily be smoking.

  In truth, Liesel only saw the typewriter later, when she wrote. She wondered how many letters like that were sent out as punishment to Germany’s Hans Hubermanns and Alex Steiners—to those who helped the helpless, and those who refused to let go of their children.

  It was a sign of the German army’s growing desperation.

  They were losing in Russia.

  Their cities were being bombed.

  More people were needed, as were ways of attaining them, and in most cases, the worst possible jobs would be given to the worst possible people.

  As her eyes scanned the paper, Liesel could see through the punched letter holes to the wooden table. Words like compulsory and duty were beaten into the page. Saliva was triggered. It was the urge to vomit. “What is this?”

  Papa’s answer was quiet. “I thought I taught you to read, my girl.” He did not speak with anger or sarcasm. It was a voice of vacancy, to match his face.

  Liesel looked now to Mama.

  Rosa had a small rip beneath her right eye, and within the minute, her cardboard face was broken. Not down the center, but to the right. It gnarled down her cheek in an arc, finishing at her chin.

  TWENTY MINUTES LATER:

  A GIRL ON HIMMEL STREET

  She looks up. She speaks in a whisper. “The sky is soft today, Max. The clouds are so soft and sad, and …” She looks away and crosses her arms. She thinks of her papa going to war and grabs her jacket at each side of her body. “And it’s cold, Max. It’s so cold ….”

  Five days later, when she continued her habit of looking at the weather, she did not get a chance to see the sky.

  Next door, Barbara Steiner was sitting on the front step with her neatly combed hair. She was smoking a cigarette and shivering. On her way over, Liesel was interrupted by the sight of Kurt. He came out and sat with his mother. When he saw the girl stop, he called out.

  “Come on, Liesel. Rudy will be out soon.”

  After a short pause, she continued walking toward the step.

  Barbara smoked.

  A wrinkle of ash was teetering at the end of the cigarette. Kurt took it, ashed it, inhaled, then gave it back.

  When the cigarette was done, Rudy’s mother looked up. She ran a hand through her tidy lines of hair.

  “Our papa’s going, too,” Kurt said.

  Quietness then.

  A group of kids was kicking a ball, up near Frau Diller’s.

  “When they come and ask you for one of your children,” Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, “you’re supposed to say yes.”

  THE PROMISE KEEPER’S WIFE

  THE BASEMENT, 9 A.M.

  Six hours till goodbye:

  “I played an accordion, Liesel. Someone else’s.” He closes his eyes: “It brought the house down.”

  Not counting the glass of champagne the previous summer, Hans Hubermann had not consumed a drop of alcohol for a decade. Then came the night before he left for training.

  He made his way to the Knoller with Alex Steiner in the afternoon and stayed well into the evening. Ignoring the warnings of their wives, both men drank themselves into oblivion. It didn’t help that the Knoller’s owner, Dieter Westheimer, gave them free drinks.

  Apparently, while he was still sober, Hans was invited to the stage to play the accordion. Appropriately, he played the infamous “Gloomy Sunday”—the anthem of suicide from Hungary—and although he aroused all the sadness for which the song was renowned, he brought the house down. Liesel imagined the scene of it, and the sound. Mouths were full. Empty beer glasses were streaked with foam. The bellows sighed and the song was over. People clapped. Their beer-filled mouths cheered him back to the bar.

  When they managed to find their way home, Hans couldn’t get his key to fit the door. So he knocked. Repeatedly.

  “Rosa!”

  It was the wrong door.

  Frau Holtzapfel was not thrilled.

  “Schwein! You’re at the wrong house.” She rammed the words through the keyhole. “Next door, you stupid Saukerl.”

  “Thanks, Frau Holtzapfel.”

  “You know what you can do with your thanks, you asshole.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “Just go home.”

  “Thanks, Frau Holtzapfel.”

  “Didn’t I just tell you what you can do with your thanks?”

  “Did you?”

  (It’s amazing what you can piece together from a basement conversation and a reading session in a nasty old woman’s kitchen.)

  “Just get lost, will you!”

  When at long last he came home, Papa made his way not to bed, but to Liesel’s room. He stood drunkenly in the doorway and watched her sleep. She awoke and thought immediately that it was Max.

  “Is it you?” she asked.

  “
No,” he said. He knew exactly what she was thinking. “It’s Papa.”

  He backed out of the room and she heard his footsteps making their way down to the basement.

  In the living room, Rosa was snoring with enthusiasm.

  Close to nine o’clock the next morning, in the kitchen, Liesel was given an order by Rosa. “Hand me that bucket there.”

  She filled it with cold water and walked with it down to the basement. Liesel followed, in a vain attempt to stop her. “Mama, you can’t!”

  “Can’t I?” She faced her briefly on the steps. “Did I miss something, Saumensch? Do you give the orders around here now?”

  Both of them were completely still.

  No answer from the girl.

  “I thought not.”

  They continued on and found him on his back, among a bed of drop sheets. He felt he didn’t deserve Max’s mattress.

  “Now, let’s see”—Rosa lifted the bucket—“if he’s alive.”

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”

  The watermark was oval-shaped, from halfway up his chest to his head. His hair was plastered to one side and even his eyelashes dripped. “What was that for?”

  “You old drunk!”

  “Jesus …”

  Steam was rising weirdly from his clothes. His hangover was visible. It heaved itself to his shoulders and sat there like a bag of wet cement.

  Rosa swapped the bucket from left hand to right. “It’s lucky you’re going to the war,” she said. She held her finger in the air and wasn’t afraid to wave it. “Otherwise I’d kill you myself, you know that, don’t you?”

  Papa wiped a stream of water from his throat. “Did you have to do that?”

  “Yes. I did.” She started up the steps. “If you’re not up there in five minutes, you get another bucketful.”

  Left in the basement with Papa, Liesel busied herself by mopping up the excess water with some drop sheets.

  Papa spoke. With his wet hand, he made the girl stop. He held her forearm. “Liesel?” His face clung to her. “Do you think he’s alive?”

  Liesel sat.

  She crossed her legs.