The Book Thief
“How are you, Hubermann?” the sergeant asked at one point. Fire was at his shoulder.
Hans nodded, uneasily, at the pair of them.
Midway through the shift, there was an old man who staggered defenselessly through the streets. As Hans finished stabilizing a building, he turned to find him at his back, waiting calmly for his turn. A bloodstain was signed across his face. It trailed off down his throat and neck. He was wearing a white shirt with a dark red collar and he held his leg as if it was next to him. “Could you prop me up now, young man?”
Hans picked him up and carried him out of the haze.
A SMALL, SAD NOTE
I visited that small city
street with the man still in
Hans Hubermann’s arms.
The sky was white-horse gray.
It wasn’t until he placed him down on a patch of concrete-coated grass that Hans noticed.
“What is it?” one of the other men asked.
Hans could only point.
“Oh.” A hand pulled him away. “Get used to it, Hubermann.”
For the rest of the shift, he threw himself into duty. He tried to ignore the distant echoes of calling people.
After perhaps two hours, he rushed from a building with the sergeant and two other men. He didn’t watch the ground and tripped. Only when he returned to his haunches and saw the others looking in distress at the obstacle did he realize.
The corpse was facedown.
It lay in a blanket of powder and dust, and it was holding its ears.
It was a boy.
Perhaps eleven or twelve years old.
Not far away, as they progressed along the street, they found a woman calling the name Rudolf. She was drawn to the four men and met them in the mist. Her body was frail and bent with worry.
“Have you seen my boy?”
“How old is he?” the sergeant asked.
Oh, Christ. Oh, crucified Christ.
They all thought it, but the sergeant could not bring himself to tell her or point the way.
As the woman tried to push past, Boris Schipper held her back. “We’ve just come from that street,” he assured her. “You won’t find him down there.”
The bent woman still clung to hope. She called over her shoulder as she half walked, half ran. “Rudy!”
Hans Hubermann thought of another Rudy then. The Himmel Street variety. Please, he asked into a sky he couldn’t see, let Rudy be safe. His thoughts naturally progressed to Liesel and Rosa and the Steiners, and Max.
When they made it to the rest of the men, he dropped down and lay on his back.
“How was it down there?” someone asked.
Papa’s lungs were full of sky.
A few hours later, when he’d washed and eaten and thrown up, he attempted to write a detailed letter home. His hands were uncontrollable, forcing him to make it short. If he could bring himself, the remainder would be told verbally, when and if he made it home.
To my dear Rosa and Liesel, he began.
It took many minutes to write those six words down.
THE BREAD EATERS
It had been a long and eventful year in Molching, and it was finally drawing to a close.
Liesel spent the last few months of 1942 consumed by thoughts of what she called three desperate men. She wondered where they were and what they were doing.
One afternoon, she lifted the accordion from its case and polished it with a rag. Only once, just before she put it away, did she take the step that Mama could not. She placed her finger on one of the keys and softly pumped the bellows. Rosa had been right. It only made the room feel emptier.
Whenever she met Rudy, she asked if there had been any word from his father. Sometimes he described to her in detail one of Alex Steiner’s letters. By comparison, the one letter her own papa had sent was somewhat of a disappointment.
Max, of course, was entirely up to her imagination.
It was with great optimism that she envisioned him walking alone on a deserted road. Once in a while she imagined him falling into a doorway of safety somewhere, his identity card enough to fool the right person.
The three men would turn up everywhere.
She saw her papa in the window at school. Max often sat with her by the fire. Alex Steiner arrived when she was with Rudy, staring back at them after they’d slammed the bikes down on Munich Street and looked into the shop.
“Look at those suits,” Rudy would say to her, his head and hands against the glass. “All going to waste.”
Strangely, one of Liesel’s favorite distractions was Frau Holtzapfel. The reading sessions included Wednesday now as well, and they’d finished the water-abridged version of The Whistler and were on to The Dream Carrier. The old woman sometimes made tea or gave Liesel some soup that was infinitely better than Mama’s. Less watery.
Between October and December, there had been one more parade of Jews, with one to follow. As on the previous occasion, Liesel had rushed to Munich Street, this time to see if Max Vandenburg was among them. She was torn between the obvious urge to see him—to know that he was still alive—and an absence that could mean any number of things, one of which being freedom.
In mid-December, a small collection of Jews and other miscreants was brought down Munich Street again, to Dachau. Parade number three.
Rudy walked purposefully down Himmel Street and returned from number thirty-five with a small bag and two bikes.
“You game, Saumensch?”
THE CONTENTS OF RUDY’S BAG
Six stale pieces of bread,
broken into quarters.
• • •
They pedaled ahead of the parade, toward Dachau, and stopped at an empty piece of road. Rudy passed Liesel the bag. “Take a handful.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
He slapped some bread onto her palm. “Your papa did.”
How could she argue? It was worth a whipping.
“If we’re fast, we won’t get caught.” He started distributing the bread. “So move it, Saumensch.”
Liesel couldn’t help herself. There was the trace of a grin on her face as she and Rudy Steiner, her best friend, handed out the pieces of bread on the road. When they were finished, they took their bikes and hid among the Christmas trees.
The road was cold and straight. It wasn’t long till the soldiers came with the Jews.
In the tree shadows, Liesel watched the boy. How things had changed, from fruit stealer to bread giver. His blond hair, although darkening, was like a candle. She heard his stomach growl—and he was giving people bread.
Was this Germany?
Was this Nazi Germany?
The first soldier did not see the bread—he was not hungry—but the first Jew saw it.
His ragged hand reached down and picked a piece up and shoved it deliriously to his mouth.
Is that Max? Liesel thought.
She could not see properly and moved to get a better view.
“Hey!” Rudy was livid. “Don’t move. If they find us here and match us to the bread, we’re history.”
More Jews were bending down and taking bread from the road, and from the edge of the trees, the book thief examined each and every one of them. Max Vandenburg was not there.
Relief was short-lived.
It stirred itself around her just as one of the soldiers noticed a prisoner drop a hand to the ground. Everyone was ordered to stop. The road was closely examined. The prisoners chewed as fast and silently as they could. Collectively, they gulped.
The soldier picked up a few pieces and studied each side of the road. The prisoners also looked.
One of the soldiers was striding over, to the girl by the closest trees. Next he saw the boy. Both began to run.
They chose different directions, under the rafters of branches and the tall ceiling of the trees.
“Don’t stop run
“What about the bikes?”
“Scheiss drauf! Shit on them, who cares!”
They ran, and after a hundred meters, the hunched breath of the soldier drew closer. It sidled up next to her and she waited for the accompanying hand.
She was lucky.
All she received was a boot up the ass and a fistful of words. “Keep running, little girl, you don’t belong here!” She ran and she did not stop for at least another mile. Branches sliced her arms, pinecones rolled at her feet, and the taste of Christmas needles chimed inside her lungs.
A good forty-five minutes had passed by the time she made it back, and Rudy was sitting by the rusty bikes. He’d collected what was left of the bread and was chewing on a stale, stiff portion.
“I told you not to get too close,” he said.
She showed him her backside. “Have I got a footprint?”
THE HIDDEN SKETCHBOOK
A few days before Christmas, there was another raid, although nothing dropped on the town of Molching. According to the radio news, most of the bombs fell in open country.
What was most important was the reaction in the Fiedlers’ shelter. Once the last few patrons had arrived, everyone settled down solemnly and waited. They looked at her, expectantly.
Papa’s voice arrived, loud in her ears.
“And if there are more raids, keep reading in the shelter.”
Liesel waited. She needed to be sure that they wanted it.
Rudy spoke for everyone. “Read, Saumensch.”
She opened the book, and again, the words found their way upon all those present in the shelter.
At home, once the sirens had given permission for everyone to return aboveground, Liesel sat in the kitchen with her mama. A preoccupation was at the forefront of Rosa Hubermann’s expression, and it was not long until she picked up a knife and left the room. “Come with me.”
She walked to the living room and took the sheet from the edge of her mattress. In the side, there was a sewn-up slit. If you didn’t know beforehand that it was there, there was almost no chance of finding it. Rosa cut it carefully open and inserted her hand, reaching in the length of her entire arm. When it came back out, she was holding Max Vandenburg’s sketchbook.
“He said to give this to you when you were ready,” she said. “I was thinking your birthday. Then I brought it back to Christmas.” Rosa Hubermann stood and there was a strange look on her face. It was not made up of pride. Perhaps it was the thickness, the heaviness of recollection. She said, “I think you’ve always been ready, Liesel. From the moment you arrived here, clinging to that gate, you were meant to have this.”
Rosa gave her the book.
The cover looked like this:
THE WORD SHAKER
A Small Collection
for Liesel Meminger
Liesel held it with soft hands. She stared. “Thanks, Mama.”
She embraced her.
There was also a great longing to tell Rosa Hubermann that she loved her. It’s a shame she didn’t say it.
She wanted to read the book in the basement, for old times’ sake, but Mama convinced her otherwise. “There’s a reason Max got sick down there,” she said, “and I can tell you one thing, girl, I’m not letting you get sick.”
She read in the kitchen.
Red and yellow gaps in the stove.
The Word Shaker.
• • •
She made her way through the countless sketches and stories, and the pictures with captions. Things like Rudy on a dais with three gold medals slung around his neck. Hair the color of lemons was written beneath it. The snowman made an appearance, as did a list of the thirteen presents, not to mention the records of countless nights in the basement or by the fire.
Of course, there were many thoughts, sketches, and dreams relating to Stuttgart and Germany and the Führer. Recollections of Max’s family were also there. In the end, he could not resist including them. He had to.
That was where The Word Shaker itself made its appearance.
It was a fable or a fairy tale. Liesel was not sure which. Even days later, when she looked up both terms in the Duden Dictionary, she couldn’t distinguish between the two.
On the previous page, there was a small note.
Liesel—I almost scribbled this story out. I thought you might be too old for such a tale, but maybe no one is. I thought of you and your books and words, and this strange story came into my head. I hope you can find some good in it.
She turned the page.
THERE WAS once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
He would one day rule the world.
The young man wandered around for quite some time, thinking, planning, and figuring out exactly how to make the world his. Then one day, out of nowhere, it struck him—the perfect plan. He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.
The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.
But there was no reply. He was already gone.
Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany …. It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
WHILE THE words were growing, our young Führer also planted seeds to create symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come. The Führer was ready.
He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.
They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now Knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized.
Next, they were fitted with their symbols, and everyone was happy.
Soon, the demand for the lovely ugly words and Symbols increased to such a point that as the forests grew, many people were needed to maintain them. Some were employed to climb the trees and throw the words down to those below. They were then fed directly into the remainder of the Führer’s people, not to mention those who came back for more.
The people who climbed the trees were called word shakers.
THE BEST word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.
That’s why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.
One day, however, she met a man who was despised by her homeland, even though he was born in it. They became good friends, and when the man was sick, the word shaker allowed a single teardrop to fall on his face. The tear was made of friendship—a single word—and it dried and became a seed, and when next the girl was in the forest, she planted that seed among the other trees. She watered it every day.
At first, there was nothing, but one afternoon, when she checked it after a day of word-shaking, a small sprout had shot up. She stared at it for a long time.
The tree grew every day, faster than everything else, till it was the tallest tree in the forest. Everyone
came to look at it. They all whispered about it, and they waited… for the Führer.
Incensed, he immediately ordered the tree to be cut down. That was when the word shaker made her way through the crowd. She fell to her hands and knees. “Please,” she cried, “you can’t cut it down”
The Führer, however, was unmoved. He could not afford to make exceptions. As the word shaker was dragged away, he turned to his right-hand man and made a request. “Ax, please”
AT THAT moment, the word shaker twisted free. She ran. She boarded the tree, and even as the Führer hammered at the trunk with his ax, she climbed until she reached the highest of the branches. The voices and ax beats continued faintly on. Clouds walked by—like white monsters with gray hearts. Afraid but stubborn, the word shaker remained. She waited for the tree to fall.
But the tree would not move.
Many hours passed, and still, the Führer’s ax could not take a single bite out of the trunk. In a state nearing collapse, he ordered another man to continue.
Weeks took over.
A hundred and ninety-six soldiers could not make any impact on the word shaker’s tree.
“But how does she eat?” the people asked. “How does she sleep?”
What they didn’t know was that other word shakers threw supplies across, and the girl climbed down to the lower branches to collect them.
IT SNOWED. It rained. Seasons came and went. The word shaker remained.
When the last axman gave up, he called up to her. “Word shaker! You can come down now! There is no one who can defeat this tree!”
The word shaker, who could only just make out the man’s sentences, replied with a whisper. She handed it down through the branches. “NO thank you,” she said, for she knew that it was only herself who was holding the tree upright.
NO ONE knew how long it had taken, but one afternoon, a new axman walked into town. His bag looked too heavy for him. His eyes dragged. His feet drooped with exhaustion. “The tree,” he asked the people. “Where is the tree?”