The Book Thief


The wet drop sheet soaked onto her knee.

  “I hope so, Papa.”

  It felt like such a stupid thing to say, so obvious, but there seemed little alternative.

  To say at least something of value, and to distract them from thoughts of Max, she made herself crouch and placed a finger in a small pool of water on the floor. “Guten Morgen, Papa.”

  In response, Hans winked at her.

  But it was not the usual wink. It was heavier, clumsier. The post-Max version, the hangover version. He sat up and told her about the accordion of the previous night, and Frau Holtzapfel.

  THE KITCHEN: 1 P.M.

  Two hours till goodbye: “Don’t go, Papa. Please.”

  Her spoon-holding hand is shaking. “First we lost Max.

  I can’t lose you now, too.” In response, the hungover

  man digs his elbow into the table and covers his right eye.

  “You’re half a woman now, Liesel.” He wants to break down but

  wards it off. He rides through it. “Look after

  Mama, will you?” The girl can make only half a nod

  to agree. “Yes, Papa.”

  He left Himmel Street wearing his hangover and a suit.

  Alex Steiner was not leaving for another four days. He came over an hour before they left for the station and wished Hans all the best. The whole Steiner family had come. They all shook his hand. Barbara embraced him, kissing both cheeks. “Come back alive.”

  “Yes, Barbara,” and the way he’d said it was full of confidence. “Of course I will.” He even managed to laugh. “It’s just a war, you know. I’ve survived one before.”

  When they walked up Himmel Street, the wiry woman from next door came out and stood on the pavement.

  “Goodbye, Frau Holtzapfel. My apologies for last night.”

  “Goodbye, Hans, you drunken Saukerl,” but she offered him a note of friendship, too. “Come home soon.”

  “Yes, Frau Holtzapfel. Thank you.”

  She even played along a little. “You know what you can do with your thanks.”

  At the corner, Frau Diller watched defensively from her shop window and Liesel took Papa’s hand. She held it all the way along Munich Street, to the Bahnhof. The train was already there.

  They stood on the platform.

  Rosa embraced him first.

  No words.

  Her head was buried tightly into his chest, then gone.

  Then the girl.

  “Papa?”

  Nothing.

  Don’t go, Papa. Just don’t go. Let them come for you if you stay. But don’t go, please don’t go.

  “Papa?”

  THE TRAIN STATION, 3 P.M.

  No hours, no minutes till goodbye:

  He holds her. To say something, to say anything,

  he speaks over her shoulder. “Could you look after my

  accordion, Liesel? I decided not to take it.”

  Now he finds something he truly means. “And if

  there are more raids, keep reading in the shelter.”

  The girl feels the continued sign of her slightly

  growing chest. It hurts as it touches the bottom of his ribs.

  “Yes, Papa.” A millimeter from her eyes, she

  stares at the fabric of his suit. She speaks into

  him. “Will you play us something when you come home?”

  Hans Hubermann smiled at his daughter then and the train was ready to leave. He reached out and gently held her face in his hand. “I promise,” he said, and he made his way into the carriage.

  They watched each other as the train pulled away.

  Liesel and Rosa waved.

  Hans Hubermann grew smaller and smaller, and his hand held nothing now but empty air.

  On the platform, people disappeared around them until no one else was left. There was only the wardrobe-shaped woman and the thirteen-year-old girl.

  For the next few weeks, while Hans Hubermann and Alex Steiner were at their various fast-tracked training camps, Himmel Street was swollen. Rudy was not the same—he didn’t talk. Mama was not the same—she didn’t berate. Liesel, too, was feeling the effects. There was no desire to steal a book, no matter how much she tried to convince herself that it would cheer her up.

  After twelve days of Alex Steiner’s absence, Rudy decided he’d had enough. He hurried through the gate and knocked on Liesel’s door.

  “Kommst?”

  “Ja.”

  She didn’t care where he was going or what he was planning, but he would not be going without her. They walked up Himmel, along Munich Street and out of Molching altogether. It was after approximately an hour that Liesel asked the vital question. Up till then, she’d only glanced over at Rudy’s determined face, or examined his stiff arms and the fisted hands in his pockets.

  “Where are we going?”

  “Isn’t it obvious?”

  She struggled to keep up. “Well, to tell you the truth—not really.”

  “I’m going to find him.”

  “Your papa?”

  “Yes.” He thought about it. “Actually, no. I think I’ll find the Führer instead.”

  Faster footsteps. “Why?”

  Rudy stopped. “Because I want to kill him.” He even turned on the spot, to the rest of the world. “Did you hear that, you bastards?” he shouted. “I want to kill the Führer!”

  They resumed walking and made it another few miles or so. That was when Liesel felt the urge to turn around. “It’ll be dark soon, Rudy.”

  He walked on. “So what?”

  “I’m going back.”

  Rudy stopped and watched her now as if she were betraying him. “That’s right, book thief. Leave me now. I bet if there was a lousy book at the end of this road, you’d keep walking. Wouldn’t you?”

  For a while, neither of them spoke, but Liesel soon found the will. “You think you’re the only one, Saukerl?” She turned away. “And you only lost your father ….”

  “What does that mean?”

  Liesel took a moment to count.

  Her mother. Her brother. Max Vandenburg. Hans Hubermann. All of them gone. And she’d never even had a real father.

  “It means,” she said, “I’m going home.”

  For fifteen minutes she walked alone, and even when Rudy arrived at her side with jogging breath and sweaty cheeks, not another word was said for more than an hour. They only walked home together with aching feet and tired hearts.

  There was a chapter called “Tired Hearts” in A Song in the Dark. A romantic girl had promised herself to a young man, but it appeared that he had run away with her best friend. Liesel was sure it was chapter thirteen. “‘My heart is so tired,’” the girl had said. She was sitting in a chapel, writing in her diary.

  No, thought Liesel as she walked. It’s my heart that is tired. A thirteen-year-old heart shouldn’t feel like this.

  When they reached the perimeter of Molching, Liesel threw some words across. She could see Hubert Oval. “Remember when we raced there, Rudy?”

  “Of course. I was just thinking about that myself—how we both fell.”

  “You said you were covered in shit.”

  “It was only mud.” He couldn’t hold his amusement now. “I was covered in shit at Hitler Youth. You’re getting mixed up, Saumensch.”

  “I’m not mixed up at all. I’m only telling you what you said. What someone says and what happened are usually two different things, Rudy, especially when it comes to you.”

  This was better.

  When they walked down Munich Street again, Rudy stopped and looked into the window of his father’s shop. Before Alex left, he and Barbara had discussed whether she should keep it running in his absence. They decided against it, considering that work had been slow lately anyway, and there was at least a partial threat of party members making their presence felt. Business was never good for agitators. The army pay would have to do.

  Suits hung from the rails and the mannequins held their ridiculou
s poses. “I think that one likes you,” Liesel said after a while. It was her way of telling him it was time to keep going.

  On Himmel Street, Rosa Hubermann and Barbara Steiner stood together on the footpath.

  “Oh, Maria,” Liesel said. “Do they look worried?”

  “They look mad.”

  There were many questions when they arrived, mainly of the “Just where in the hell have you two been?” nature, but the anger quickly gave way to relief.

  It was Barbara who pursued the answers. “Well, Rudy?”

  Liesel answered for him. “He was killing the Führer,” she said, and Rudy looked genuinely happy for a long enough moment to please her.

  “Bye, Liesel.”

  Several hours later, there was a noise in the living room. It stretched toward Liesel in bed. She awoke and remained still, thinking ghosts and Papa and intruders and Max. There was the sound of opening and dragging, and then the fuzzy silence who followed. The silence was always the greatest temptation.

  Don’t move.

  She thought that thought many times, but she didn’t think it enough.

  Her feet scolded the floor.

  Air breathed up her pajama sleeves.

  She walked through the corridor darkness in the direction of silence that had once been noisy, toward the thread of moonlight standing in the living room. She stopped, feeling the bareness of her ankles and toes. She watched.

  It took longer than she expected for her eyes to adjust, and when they did, there was no denying the fact that Rosa Hubermann was sitting on the edge of the bed with her husband’s accordion tied to her chest. Her fingers hovered above the keys. She did not move. She didn’t even appear to be breathing.

  The sight of it propelled itself to the girl in the hallway.

  A PAINTED IMAGE

  Rosa with Accordion.

  Moonlight on Dark.

  5′1″ × Instrument × Silence.

  Liesel stayed and watched.

  Many minutes dripped past. The book thief’s desire to hear a note was exhausting, and still, it would not come. The keys were not struck. The bellows didn’t breathe. There was only the moonlight, like a long strand of hair in the curtain, and there was Rosa.

  The accordion remained strapped to her chest. When she bowed her head, it sank to her lap. Liesel watched. She knew that for the next few days, Mama would be walking around with the imprint of an accordion on her body. There was also an acknowledgment that there was great beauty in what she was currently witnessing, and she chose not to disturb it.

  She returned to bed and fell asleep to the vision of Mama and the silent music. Later, when she woke up from her usual dream and crept again to the hallway, Rosa was still there, as was the accordion.

  Like an anchor, it pulled her forward. Her body was sinking. She appeared dead.

  She can’t possibly be breathing in that position, Liesel thought, but when she made her way closer, she could hear it.

  Mama was snoring again.

  Who needs bellows, she thought, when you’ve got a pair of lungs like that?

  Eventually, when Liesel returned to bed, the image of Rosa Hubermann and the accordion would not leave her. The book thief’s eyes remained open. She waited for the suffocation of sleep.

  THE COLLECTOR

  Neither Hans Hubermann nor Alex Steiner was sent to fight. Alex was sent to Austria, to an army hospital outside Vienna. Given his expertise in tailoring, he was given a job that at least resembled his profession. Cartloads of uniforms and socks and shirts would come in every week and he would mend what needed mending, even if they could only be used as underclothes for the suffering soldiers in Russia.

  Hans was sent first, quite ironically, to Stuttgart, and later, to Essen. He was given one of the most undesirable positions on the home front. The LSE.

  A NECESSARY EXPLANATION

  LSE

  Luftwaffe Sondereinheit—

  Air Raid Special Unit

  The job of the LSE was to remain aboveground during air raids and put out fires, prop up the walls of buildings, and rescue anyone who had been trapped during the raid. As Hans soon discovered, there was also an alternative definition for the acronym. The men in the unit would explain to him on his first day that it really stood for Leichensammler Einheit—Dead Body Collectors.

  When he arrived, Hans could only guess what those men had done to deserve such a task, and in turn, they wondered the same of him. Their leader, Sergeant Boris Schipper, asked him straight out. When Hans explained the bread, the Jews, and the whip, the round-faced sergeant gave out a short spurt of laughter. “You’re lucky to be alive.” His eyes were also round and he was constantly wiping them. They were either tired or itchy or full of smoke and dust. “Just remember that the enemy here is not in front of you.”

  Hans was about to ask the obvious question when a voice arrived from behind. Attached to it was the slender face of a young man with a smile like a sneer. Reinhold Zucker. “With us,” he said, “the enemy isn’t over the hill or in any specific direction. It’s all around.” He returned his focus to the letter he was writing. “You’ll see.”

  In the messy space of a few months, Reinhold Zucker would be dead. He would be killed by Hans Hubermann’s seat.

  As the war flew into Germany with more intensity, Hans would learn that every one of his shifts started in the same fashion. The men would gather at the truck to be briefed on what had been hit during their break, what was most likely to be hit next, and who was working with whom.

  Even when no raids were in operation, there would still be a great deal of work to be done. They would drive through broken towns, cleaning up. In the truck, there were twelve slouched men, all rising and falling with the various inconsistencies in the road.

  From the beginning, it was clear that they all owned a seat.

  Reinhold Zucker’s was in the middle of the left row.

  Hans Hubermann’s was at the very back, where the daylight stretched itself out. He learned quickly to be on the lookout for any rubbish that might be thrown from anywhere in the truck’s interior. Hans reserved a special respect for cigarette butts, still burning as they whistled by.

  A COMPLETE LETTER HOME

  To my dear Rosa and Liesel,

  Everything is fine here.

  I hope you are both well.

  With love, Papa

  In late November, he had his first smoky taste of an actual raid. The truck was mobbed by rubble and there was much running and shouting. Fires were burning and the ruined cases of buildings were piled up in mounds. Framework leaned. The smoke bombs stood like matchsticks in the ground, filling the city’s lungs.

  Hans Hubermann was in a group of four. They formed a line. Sergeant Boris Schipper was at the front, his arms disappearing into the smoke. Behind him was Kessler, then Brunnenweg, then Hubermann. As the sergeant hosed the fire, the other two men hosed the sergeant, and just to make sure, Hubermann hosed all three of them.

  Behind him, a building groaned and tripped.

  It fell face-first, stopping a few meters from his heels. The concrete smelled brand-new, and the wall of powder rushed at them.

  “Gottverdammt, Hubermann!” The voice struggled out of the flames. It was followed immediately by three men. Their throats were filled with particles of ash. Even when they made it around the corner, away from the center of the wreckage, the haze of the collapsed building attempted to follow. It was white and warm, and it crept behind them.

  Slumped in temporary safety, there was much coughing and swearing. The sergeant repeated his earlier sentiments. “Goddamn it, Hubermann.” He scraped at his lips to loosen them. “What the hell was that?”

  “It just collapsed, right behind us.”

  “That much I know already. The question is, how big was it? It must have been ten stories high.”

  “No, sir, just two, I think.”

  “Jesus.” A coughing fit. “Mary and Joseph.” Now he yanked at the paste of sweat and powder in
his eye sockets. “Not much you could do about that.”

  One of the other men wiped his face and said, “Just once I want to be there when they hit a pub, for Christ’s sake. I’m dying for a beer.” Each man leaned back.

  They could all taste it, putting out the fires in their throats and softening the smoke. It was a nice dream, and an impossible one. They were all aware that any beer that flowed in these streets would not be beer at all, but a kind of milk shake or porridge.

  All four men were plastered with the gray-and-white conglomeration of dust. When they stood up fully, to resume work, only small cracks of their uniform could be seen.

  The sergeant walked to Brunnenweg. He brushed heavily at his chest. Several smacks. “That’s better. You had some dust on there, my friend.” As Brunnenweg laughed, the sergeant turned to his newest recruit. “You first this time, Hubermann.”

  They put the fires out for several hours, and they found anything they could to convince a building to remain standing. In some cases, where the sides were damaged, the remaining edges poked out like elbows. This was Hans Hubermann’s strong point. He almost came to enjoy finding a smoldering rafter or disheveled slab of concrete to prop those elbows up, to give them something to rest on.

  His hands were packed tightly with splinters, and his teeth were caked with residue from the fallout. Both lips were set with moist dust that had hardened, and there wasn’t a pocket, a thread, or a hidden crease in his uniform that wasn’t covered in a film left by the loaded air.

  The worst part of the job was the people.

  Once in a while there was a person roaming doggedly through the fog, mostly single-worded. They always shouted a name.

  Sometimes it was Wolfgang.

  “Have you seen my Wolfgang?”

  Their handprints would remain on his jacket.

  “Stephanie!”

  “Hansi!”

  “Gustel! Gustel Stoboi!”

  As the density subsided, the roll call of names limped through the ruptured streets, sometimes ending with an ash-filled embrace or a knelt-down howl of grief. They accumulated, hour by hour, like sweet and sour dreams, waiting to happen.

  The dangers merged into one. Powder and smoke and the gusty flames. The damaged people. Like the rest of the men in the unit, Hans would need to perfect the art of forgetting.