The Book Thief
“Sorry?” He had looked into the wind when he spoke. “I couldn’t hear you.”
He answered again, only louder, and now, he answered the question fully. “Stalingrad happened to my hand. I was shot in the ribs and I had three of my fingers blown off. Does that answer your question?” He placed his uninjured hand in his pocket and shivered with contempt for the German wind. “You think it’s cold here?”
Liesel touched the wall at her side. She couldn’t lie. “Yes, of course.”
The man laughed. “This isn’t cold.” He pulled out a cigarette and placed it in his mouth. One-handed, he tried to light a match. In the dismal weather, it would have been difficult with both hands, but with just the one, it was impossible. He dropped the matchbook and swore.
Liesel picked it up.
She took his cigarette and put it in her mouth. She, too, could not light it.
“You have to suck on it,” the man explained. “In this weather, it only lights when you suck. Verstehst?”
She gave it another go, trying to remember how Papa did it. This time, her mouth filled with smoke. It climbed her teeth and scratched her throat, but she restrained herself from coughing.
“Well done.” When he took the cigarette and breathed it in, he reached out his uninjured hand, his left. “Michael Holtzapfel.”
“You’re coming to read to my mother?”
Rosa arrived behind her at that point, and Liesel could feel the shock at her back. “Michael?” she asked. “Is that you?”
Michael Holtzapfel nodded. “Guten Tag, Frau Hubermann. It’s been a long time.”
“You look so …”
Rosa was still in shock, but she composed herself. “Would you like to come in? I see you met my foster daughter ….” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the bloodied hand.
“My brother’s dead,” said Michael Holtzapfel, and he could not have delivered the punch any better with his one usable fist. For Rosa staggered. Certainly, war meant dying, but it always shifted the ground beneath a person’s feet when it was someone who had once lived and breathed in close proximity. Rosa had watched both of the Holtzapfel boys grow up.
The oldened young man somehow found a way to list what happened without losing his nerve. “I was in one of the buildings we used for a hospital when they brought him in. It was a week before I was coming home. I spent three days of that week sitting with him before he died ….”
“I’m sorry.” The words didn’t seem to come from Rosa’s mouth. It was someone else standing behind Liesel Meminger that evening, but she did not dare to look.
“Please.” Michael stopped her. “Don’t say anything else. Can I take the girl to read? I doubt my mother will hear it, but she said for her to come.”
“Yes, take her.”
They were halfway down the path when Michael Holtzapfel remembered himself and returned. “Rosa?” There was a moment of waiting while Mama rewidened the door. “I heard your son was there. In Russia. I ran into someone else from Molching and they told me. But I’m sure you knew that already.”
Rosa tried to prevent his exit. She rushed out and held his sleeve. “No. He left here one day and never came back. We tried to find him, but then so much happened, there was …”
Michael Holtzapfel was determined to escape. The last thing he wanted to hear was yet another sob story. Pulling himself away, he said, “As far as I know, he’s alive.” He joined Liesel at the gate, but the girl did not walk next door. She watched Rosa’s face. It lifted and dropped in the same moment.
Rosa raised her hand. “Go.”
“I said go.”
When she caught up to him, the returned soldier tried to make conversation. He must have regretted his verbal mistake with Rosa, and he tried to bury it beneath some other words. Holding up the bandaged hand, he said, “I still can’t get it to stop bleeding.” Liesel was actually glad to enter the Holtzapfels’ kitchen. The sooner she started reading, the better.
Frau Holtzapfel sat with wet streams of wire on her face.
Her son was dead.
But that was only the half of it.
She would never really know how it occurred, but I can tell you without question that one of us here knows. I always seem to know what happened when there was snow and guns and the various confusions of human language.
When I imagine Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen from the book thief’s words, I don’t see the stove or the wooden spoons or the water pump, or anything of the sort. Not to begin with, anyway. What I see is the Russian winter and the snow falling from the ceiling, and the fate of Frau Holtzapfel’s second son.
His name was Robert, and what happened to him was this.
A SMALL WAR STORY
His legs were blown off at the
shins and he died with his
brother watching in a cold,
It was Russia, January 5, 1943, and just another icy day. Out among the city and snow, there were dead Russians and Germans everywhere. Those who remained were firing into the blank pages in front of them. Three languages interwove. The Russian, the bullets, the German.
As I made my way through the fallen souls, one of the men was saying, “My stomach is itchy.” He said it many times over. Despite his shock, he crawled up ahead, to a dark, disfigured figure who sat streaming on the ground. When the soldier with the wounded stomach arrived, he could see that it was Robert Holtzapfel. His hands were caked in blood and he was heaping snow onto the area just above his shins, where his legs had been chopped off by the last explosion. There were hot hands and a red scream.
Steam rose from the ground. The sight and smell of rotting snow.
“It’s me,” the soldier said to him. “It’s Pieter.” He dragged himself a few inches closer.
“Pieter?” Robert asked, a vanishing voice. He must have felt me nearby.
A second time. “Pieter?”
For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.
The voices suddenly all sounded the same.
Robert Holtzapfel collapsed to his right, onto the cold and steamy ground.
I’m sure he expected to meet me there and then.
Unfortunately for the young German, I did not take him that afternoon. I stepped over him with the other poor souls in my arms and made my way back to the Russians.
Back and forth, I traveled.
It was no ski trip, I can tell you.
As Michael told his mother, it was three very long days later that I finally came for the soldier who left his feet behind in Stalingrad. I showed up very much invited at the temporary hospital and flinched at the smell.
A man with a bandaged hand was telling the mute, shock-faced soldier that he would survive. “You’ll soon be going home,” he assured him.
Yes, home, I thought. For good.
“I’ll wait for you,” he continued. “I was going back at the end of the week, but I’ll wait.”
In the middle of his brother’s next sentence, I gathered up the soul of Robert Holtzapfel.
Usually I need to exert myself, to look through the ceiling when I’m inside, but I was lucky in that particular building. A small section of the roof had been destroyed and I could see straight up. A meter away, Michael Holtzapfel was still talking. I tried to ignore him by watching the hole above me. The sky was white but deteriorating fast. As always, it was becoming an enormous drop sheet. Blood was bleeding through, and in patches, the clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow.
Footprints? you ask.
Well, I wonder whose those could be.
In Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen, Liesel read. The pages waded by unheard, and for me, when the Russian scenery fades in my eyes, the snow refuses to stop falling from the
ceiling. The kettle is covered, as is the table. The humans, too, are wearing patches of snow on their heads and shoulders.
The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
And the girl goes on reading, for that’s why she’s there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.
THE AGELESS BROTHER
Liesel Meminger was a few weeks short of fourteen.
Her papa was still away.
She’d completed three more reading sessions with a devastated woman. On many nights, she’d watched Rosa sit with the accordion and pray with her chin on top of the bellows.
Now, she thought, it’s time. Usually it was stealing that cheered her up, but on this day, it was giving something back.
She reached under her bed and removed the plate. As quickly as she could, she cleaned it in the kitchen and made her way out. It felt nice to be walking up through Molching. The air was sharp and flat, like the Watschen of a sadistic teacher or nun. Her shoes were the only sound on Munich Street.
As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds.
At 8 Grande Strasse, she walked up the steps, left the plate by the front door, and knocked, and by the time the door was opened, the girl was around the corner. Liesel did not look back, but she knew that if she did, she’d have found her brother at the bottom of the steps again, his knee completely healed. She could even hear his voice.
“That’s better, Liesel.”
It was with great sadness that she realized that her brother would be six forever, but when she held that thought, she also made an effort to smile.
She remained at the Amper River, at the bridge, where Papa used to stand and lean.
She smiled and smiled, and when it all came out, she walked home and her brother never climbed into her sleep again. In many ways, she would miss him, but she could never miss his deadly eyes on the floor of the train or the sound of a cough that killed.
The book thief lay in bed that night, and the boy only came before she closed her eyes. He was one member of a cast, for Liesel was always visited in that room. Her papa stood and called her half a woman. Max was writing The Word Shaker in the corner. Rudy was naked by the door. Occasionally her mother stood on a bedside train platform. And far away, in the room that stretched like a bridge to a nameless town, her brother, Werner, played in the cemetery snow.
From down the hall, like a metronome for the visions, Rosa snored, and Liesel lay awake surrounded, but also remembering a quote from her most recent book.
THE LAST HUMAN STRANGER, PAGE 38
There were people everywhere on the city
street, but the stranger could not have
been more alone if it were empty.
• • •
When morning came, the visions were gone and she could hear the quiet recital of words in the living room. Rosa was sitting with the accordion, praying.
“Make them come back alive,” she repeated. “Please, Lord, please. All of them.” Even the wrinkles around her eyes were joining hands.
The accordion must have ached her, but she remained.
Rosa would never tell Hans about these moments, but Liesel believed that it must have been those prayers that helped Papa survive the LSE’s accident in Essen. If they didn’t help, they certainly can’t have hurt.
It was a surprisingly clear afternoon and the men were climbing into the truck. Hans Hubermann had just sat down in his appointed seat. Reinhold Zucker was standing above him.
“Move it,” he said.
“Bitte? Excuse me?”
Zucker was hunched beneath the vehicle’s ceiling. “I said move it, Arschloch.” The greasy jungle of his fringe fell in clumps onto his forehead. “I’m swapping seats with you.”
Hans was confused. The backseat was probably the most uncomfortable of the lot. It was the draftiest, the coldest. “Why?”
“Does it matter?” Zucker was losing patience. “Maybe I want to get off first to use the shit house.”
Hans was quickly aware that the rest of the unit was already watching this pitiful struggle between two supposed grown men. He didn’t want to lose, but he didn’t want to be petty, either. Also, they’d just finished a tiring shift and he didn’t have the energy to go on with it. Bent-backed, he made his way forward to the vacant seat in the middle of the truck.
“Why did you give in to that Scheisskopf?” the man next to him asked.
Hans lit a match and offered a share of the cigarette. “The draft back there goes straight through my ears.”
The olive green truck was on its way toward the camp, maybe ten miles away. Brunnenweg was telling a joke about a French waitress when the left front wheel was punctured and the driver lost control. The vehicle rolled many times and the men swore as they tumbled with the air, the light, the trash, and the tobacco. Outside, the blue sky changed from ceiling to floor as they clambered for something to hold.
When it stopped, they were all crowded onto the right-hand wall of the truck, their faces wedged against the filthy uniform next to them. Questions of health were passed around until one of the men, Eddie Alma, started shouting, “Get this bastard off me!” He said it three times, fast. He was staring into Reinhold Zucker’s blinkless eyes.
THE DAMAGE, ESSEN
Six men burned by cigarettes.
Two broken hands.
Several broken fingers.
A broken leg for Hans Hubermann.
A broken neck for Reinhold
Zucker, snapped almost in line
with his earlobes.
They dragged each other out until only the corpse was left in the truck.
The driver, Helmut Brohmann, was sitting on the ground, scratching his head. “The tire,” he explained, “it just blew.” Some of the men sat with him and echoed that it wasn’t his fault. Others walked around smoking, asking each other if they thought their injuries were bad enough to be relieved of duty. Another small group gathered at the back of the truck and viewed the body.
Over by a tree, a thin strip of intense pain was still opening in Hans Hubermann’s leg. “It should have been me,” he said.
“What?” the sergeant called over from the truck.
“He was sitting in my seat.”
Helmut Brohmann regained his senses and climbed back into the driver’s compartment. Sideways, he tried to start the engine, but there was no kicking it over. Another truck was sent for, as was an ambulance. The ambulance didn’t come.
“You know what that means, don’t you?” said Boris Schipper. They did.
When they resumed the trip back to camp, each man tried not to look down at Reinhold Zucker’s openmouthed sneer. “I told you we should have turned him facedown,” someone mentioned. A few times, some of them simply forgot and rested their feet on the body. Once they arrived, they all tried to avoid the task of pulling him out. When the job was done, Hans Hubermann took a few abbreviated steps before the pain fractured in his leg and brought him down.
An hour later, when the doctor examined him, he was told it was definitely broken. The sergeant was on hand and stood with half a grin.
“Well, Hubermann. Looks like you’ve got away with it, doesn’t it?” He was shaking his round face, smoking, and he provided a list of what would happen next. “You’ll rest up. They’ll ask me what we should do with you. I’ll tell them you did a great job.” He blew some more smoke. “And I think I’ll tell them you’re not fit for the LSE anymore and you should be sent back to Munich to work in an office or do whatever cleaning up needs doing there. How does that sound?”
Unable to resist a laugh within the grimace of pain, Hans replied, “It sounds good, Sergeant.”
Boris Schipper finished his cigarette. “Damn right it sounds good. You’re lucky I like you, Hubermann. You’re lucky you’re a good man, and generous with the cigarettes.”
In the next room, they were making up the plaster.
THE BITTER TASTE OF QUESTIONS
Just over a week after Liesel’s birthday in mid-February, she and Rosa finally received a detailed letter from Hans Hubermann. She ran inside from the mailbox and showed it to Mama. Rosa made her read it aloud, and they could not contain their excitement when Liesel read about his broken leg. She was stunned to the extent that she mouthed the next sentence only to herself.
“What is it?” Rosa pushed. “Saumensch?”
Liesel looked up from the letter and was close to shouting. The sergeant had been true to his word. “He’s coming home, Mama. Papa’s coming home!”
They embraced in the kitchen and the letter was crushed between their bodies. A broken leg was certainly something to celebrate.
When Liesel took the news next door, Barbara Steiner was ecstatic. She rubbed the girl’s arms and called out to the rest of her family. In their kitchen, the household of Steiners seemed buoyed by the news that Hans Hubermann was returning home. Rudy smiled and laughed, and Liesel could see that he was at least trying. However, she could also sense the bitter taste of questions in his mouth.
Why Hans Hubermann and not Alex Steiner?
He had a point.
ONE TOOLBOX, ONE BLEEDER, ONE BEAR
Since his father’s recruitment to the army the previous October, Rudy’s anger had been growing nicely. The news of Hans Hubermann’s return was all he needed to take it a few steps further. He did not tell Liesel about it. There was no complaining that it wasn’t fair. His decision was to act.
He carried a metal case up Himmel Street at the typical thieving time of darkening afternoon.
It was patchy red and the
length of an oversized shoe box.
It contained the following:
Rusty pocketknife × 1
Small flashlight × 1
Hammer × 2
(one medium, one small)
Hand towel × 1