The Book Thief
Screwdriver × 3
(varying in size)
Ski mask × 1
Clean socks × 1
Teddy bear × 1
Liesel saw him from the kitchen window—his purposeful steps and committed face, exactly like the day he’d gone to find his father. He gripped the handle with as much force as he could, and his movements were stiff with rage.
The book thief dropped the towel she was holding and replaced it with a single thought.
He’s going stealing.
She ran out to meet him.
There was not even the semblance of a hello.
Rudy simply continued walking and spoke through the cold air in front of him. Close to Tommy Müller’s apartment block, he said, “You know something, Liesel, I was thinking. You’re not a thief at all,” and he didn’t give her a chance to reply. “That woman lets you in. She even leaves you cookies, for Christ’s sake. I don’t call that stealing. Stealing is what the army does. Taking your father, and mine.” He kicked a stone and it clanged against a gate. He walked faster. “All those rich Nazis up there, on Grande Strasse, Gelb Strasse, Heide Strasse.”
Liesel could concentrate on nothing but keeping up. They’d already passed Frau Diller’s and were well onto Munich Street. “Rudy—”
“How does it feel, anyway?”
“How does what feel?”
“When you take one of those books?”
At that moment, she chose to keep still. If he wanted an answer, he’d have to come back, and he did. “Well?” But again, it was Rudy who answered, before Liesel could even open her mouth. “It feels good, doesn’t it? To steal something back.”
Liesel forced her attention to the toolbox, trying to slow him down. “What have you got in there?”
He bent over and opened it up.
Everything appeared to make sense but the teddy bear.
As they kept walking, Rudy explained the toolbox at length, and what he would do with each item. For example, the hammers were for smashing windows and the towel was to wrap them up, to quell the sound.
“And the teddy bear?”
It belonged to Anna-Marie Steiner and was no bigger than one of Liesel’s books. The fur was shaggy and worn. The eyes and ears had been sewn back on repeatedly, but it was friendly looking nonetheless.
“That,” answered Rudy, “is the one masterstroke. That’s if a kid walks in while I’m inside. I’ll give it to them to calm them down.”
“And what do you plan to steal?”
He shrugged. “Money, food, jewelry. Whatever I can get my hands on.” It sounded simple enough.
It wasn’t until fifteen minutes later, when Liesel watched the sudden silence on his face, that she realized Rudy Steiner wasn’t stealing anything. The commitment had disappeared, and although he still watched the imagined glory of stealing, she could see that now he was not believing it. He was trying to believe it, and that’s never a good sign. His criminal greatness was unfurling before his eyes, and as the footsteps slowed and they watched the houses, Liesel’s relief was pure and sad inside her.
It was Gelb Strasse.
On the whole, the houses sat dark and huge.
Rudy took off his shoes and held them with his left hand. He held the toolkit with his right.
Between the clouds, there was a moon. Perhaps a mile of light.
“What am I waiting for?” he asked, but Liesel didn’t reply. Again, Rudy opened his mouth, but without any words. He placed the toolbox on the ground and sat on it.
His socks grew cold and wet.
“Lucky there’s another pair in the toolbox,” Liesel suggested, and she could see him trying not to laugh, despite himself.
Rudy moved across and faced the other way, and there was room for Liesel now as well.
The book thief and her best friend sat back to back on a patchy red toolbox in the middle of the street. Each facing a different way, they remained for quite a while. When they stood up and went home, Rudy changed his socks and left the previous ones on the road. A gift, he decided, for Gelb Strasse.
THE SPOKEN TRUTH
OF RUDY STEINER
“I guess I’m better at leaving
things behind than stealing them.”
A few weeks later, the toolbox ended up being good for at least something. Rudy cleared it of screwdrivers and hammers and chose instead to store in it many of the Steiners’ valuables for the next air raid. The only item that remained was the teddy bear.
On March 9, Rudy exited the house with it when the sirens made their presence felt again in Molching.
While the Steiners rushed down Himmel Street, Michael Holtzapfel was knocking furiously at Rosa Hubermann’s door. When she and Liesel came out, he handed them his problem. “My mother,” he said, and the plums of blood were still on his bandage. “She won’t come out. She’s sitting at the kitchen table.”
As the weeks had worn on, Frau Holtzapfel had not yet begun to recover. When Liesel came to read, the woman spent most of the time staring at the window. Her words were quiet, close to motionless. All brutality and reprimand were wrested from her face. It was usually Michael who said goodbye to Liesel or gave her the coffee and thanked her. Now this.
Rosa moved into action.
She waddled swiftly through the gate and stood in the open doorway. “Holtzapfel!” There was nothing but sirens and Rosa. “Holtzapfel, get out here, you miserable old swine!” Tact had never been Rosa Hubermann’s strong point. “If you don’t come out, we’re all going to die here on the street!” She turned and viewed the helpless figures on the footpath. A siren had just finished wailing. “What now?”
Michael shrugged, disoriented, perplexed. Liesel dropped her bag of books and faced him. She shouted at the commencement of the next siren. “Can I go in?” But she didn’t wait for the answer. She ran the short distance of the path and shoved past Mama.
Frau Holtzapfel was unmoved at the table.
What do I say? Liesel thought.
How do I get her to move?
When the sirens took another breath, she heard Rosa calling out. “Just leave her, Liesel, we have to go! If she wants to die, that’s her business,” but then the sirens resumed. They reached down and tossed the voice away.
Now it was only noise and girl and wiry woman.
“Frau Holtzapfel, please!”
Much like her conversation with Ilsa Hermann on the day of the cookies, a multitude of words and sentences were at her fingertips. The difference was that today there were bombs. Today it was slightly more urgent.
• “Frau Holtzapfel, we have to go.”
• “Frau Holtzapfel, we’ll die if we stay here.”
• “You still have one son left.”
• “Everyone’s waiting for you.”
• “The bombs will blow your head off.”
• “If you don’t come, I’ll stop coming to read to you, and that means you’ve lost your only friend.”
She went with the last sentence, calling the words directly through the sirens. Her hands were planted on the table.
The woman looked up and made her decision. She didn’t move.
Liesel left. She withdrew herself from the table and rushed from the house.
Rosa held open the gate and they started running to number forty-five. Michael Holtzapfel remained stranded on Himmel Street.
“Come on!” Rosa implored him, but the returned soldier hesitated. He was just about to make his way back inside when something turned him around. His mutilated hand was the only thing attached to the gate, and shamefully, he dragged it free and followed.
They all looked back several times, but there was still no Frau Holtzapfel.
The road seemed so wide, and when the final siren evaporated into the air, the last three people on Himmel Street made their way into the Fiedlers’ basement.
“What took you so long?” Rudy asked. He was holding the toolbox.
Liesel placed her bag of
books on the ground and sat on them. “We were trying to get Frau Holtzapfel.”
Rudy looked around. “Where is she?”
“At home. In the kitchen.”
In the far corner of the shelter, Michael was cramped and shivery. “I should have stayed,” he said, “I should have stayed, I should have stayed ….” His voice was close to noiseless, but his eyes were louder than ever. They beat furiously in their sockets as he squeezed his injured hand and the blood rose through the bandage.
It was Rosa who stopped him.
“Please, Michael, it’s not your fault.”
But the young man with only a few remaining fingers on his right hand was inconsolable. He crouched in Rosa’s eyes.
“Tell me something,” he said, “because I don’t understand ….” He fell back and sat against the wall. “Tell me, Rosa, how she can sit there ready to die while I still want to live.” The blood thickened. “Why do I want to live? I shouldn’t want to, but I do.”
The young man wept uncontrollably with Rosa’s hand on his shoulder for many minutes. The rest of the people watched. He could not make himself stop even when the basement door opened and shut and Frau Holtzapfel entered the shelter.
Her son looked up.
Rosa stepped away.
When they came together, Michael apologized. “Mama, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.”
Frau Holtzapfel didn’t hear. She only sat with her son and lifted his bandaged hand. “You’re bleeding again,” she said, and with everyone else, they sat and waited.
Liesel reached into her bag and rummaged through the books.
THE BOMBING OF MUNICH,
MARCH 9 AND 10
The night was long with bombs
and reading. Her mouth was
dry, but the book thief worked
through fifty-four pages.
The majority of children slept and didn’t hear the sirens of renewed safety. Their parents woke them or carried them up the basement steps, into the world of darkness.
Far away, fires were burning and I had picked up just over two hundred murdered souls.
I was on my way to Molching for one more.
Himmel Street was clear.
The sirens had been held off for many hours, just in case there was another threat and to allow the smoke to make its way into the atmosphere.
It was Bettina Steiner who noticed the small fire and the sliver of smoke farther down, close to the Amper River. It trailed into the sky and the girl held up her finger. “Look.”
The girl might have seen it first, but it was Rudy who reacted. In his haste, he did not relinquish his grip on the toolbox as he sprinted to the bottom of Himmel Street, took a few side roads, and entered the trees. Liesel was next (having surrendered her books to a heavily protesting Rosa), and then a smattering of people from several shelters along the way.
Rudy did not wait.
Liesel could only see the toolbox in certain gaps in the trees as he made his way through to the dying glow and the misty plane. It sat smoking in the clearing by the river. The pilot had tried to land there.
Within twenty meters, Rudy stopped.
Just as I arrived myself, I noticed him standing there, recovering his breath.
The limbs of trees were scattered in the dark.
There were twigs and needles littered around the plane like fire fuel. To their left, three gashes were burned into the earth. The runaway ticktock of cooling metal sped up the minutes and seconds till they were standing there for what felt like hours. The growing crowd was assembling behind them, their breath and sentences sticking to Liesel’s back.
“Well,” said Rudy, “should we take a look?”
He stepped through the remainder of trees to where the body of the plane was fixed to the ground. Its nose was in the running water and the wings were left crookedly behind.
Rudy circled slowly, from the tail and around to the right.
“There’s glass,” he said. “The windshield is everywhere.”
Then he saw the body.
Rudy Steiner had never seen a face so pale.
“Don’t come, Liesel.” But Liesel came.
She could see the barely conscious face of the enemy pilot as the tall trees watched and the river ran. The plane let out a few more coughs and the head inside tilted from left to right. He said something they obviously could not understand.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Rudy whispered. “He’s alive.”
The toolbox bumped the side of the plane and brought with it the sound of more human voices and feet.
The glow of fire was gone and the morning was still and black. Only the smoke was in its way, but it, too, would soon be exhausted.
The wall of trees kept the color of a burning Munich at bay. By now, the boy’s eyes had adjusted not only to the darkness, but to the face of the pilot. The eyes were like coffee stains, and gashes were ruled across his cheeks and chin. A ruffled uniform sat, unruly, across his chest.
Despite Rudy’s advice, Liesel came even closer, and I can promise you that we recognized each other at that exact moment.
I know you, I thought.
There was a train and a coughing boy. There was snow and a distraught girl.
You’ve grown, I thought, but I recognize you.
She did not back away or try to fight me, but I know that something told the girl I was there. Could she smell my breath? Could she hear my cursed circular heartbeat, revolving like the crime it is in my deathly chest? I don’t know, but she knew me and she looked me in my face and she did not look away.
As the sky began to charcoal toward light, we both moved on. We both observed the boy as he reached into his toolbox again and searched through some picture frames to pull out a small, stuffed yellow toy.
Carefully, he climbed to the dying man.
He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot’s shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat.
The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, “Thank you.” His straight-line cuts opened as he spoke, and a small drop of blood rolled crookedly down his throat.
“What?” Rudy asked him. “Was hast du gesagt? What did you say?”
Unfortunately, I beat him to the answer. The time was there and I was reaching into the cockpit. I slowly extracted the pilot’s soul from his ruffled uniform and rescued him from the broken plane. The crowd played with the silence as I made my way through. I jostled free.
Above me, the sky eclipsed—just a last moment of darkness—and I swear I could see a black signature in the shape of a swastika. It loitered untidily above.
“Heil Hitler,” I said, but I was well into the trees by then. Behind me, a teddy bear rested on the shoulder of a corpse. A lemon candle stood below the branches. The pilot’s soul was in my arms.
It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.
It was a time of bleeders and broken planes and teddy bears, but the first quarter of 1943 was to finish on a positive note for the book thief.
At the beginning of April, Hans Hubermann’s plaster was trimmed to the knee and he boarded a train for Munich. He would be given a week of rest and recreation at home before joining the ranks of army pen pushers in the city. He would help with the paperwork on the cleanup of Munich’s factories, houses, churches, and hospitals. Time would tell if he would be sent out to do the repair work. That all depended on his leg and the state of the city.
It was dark when he ar
rived home. It was a day later than expected, as the train was delayed due to an air-raid scare. He stood at the door of 33 Himmel Street and made a fist.
Four years earlier, Liesel Meminger was coaxed through that doorway when she showed up for the first time. Max Vandenburg had stood there with a key biting into his hand. Now it was Hans Hubermann’s turn. He knocked four times and the book thief answered.
She must have said it a hundred times as she hugged him in the kitchen and wouldn’t let go.
Later, after they ate, they sat at the kitchen table long into the night and Hans told his wife and Liesel Meminger everything. He explained the LSE and the smoke-filled streets and the poor, lost, wandering souls. And Reinhold Zucker. Poor, stupid Reinhold Zucker. It took hours.
At 1 a.m., Liesel went to bed and Papa came in to sit with her, like he used to. She woke up several times to check that he was there, and he did not fail her.
The night was calm.
Her bed was warm and soft with contentment.
Yes, it was a great night to be Liesel Meminger, and the calm, the warm, and the soft would remain for approximately three more months.
But her story lasts for six.
the book thief
the end of a world—the ninety-eighth day—
a war maker—way of the words—a catatonic girl—
confessions—ilsa hermann’s little black book—
some rib-cage planes—and a mountain range of rubble
THE END OF THE WORLD (Part I)
Again, I offer you a glimpse of the end. Perhaps it’s to soften the blow for later, or to better prepare myself for the telling. Either way, I must inform you that it was raining on Himmel Street when the world ended for Liesel Meminger.
The sky was dripping.
Like a tap that a child has tried its hardest to turn off but hasn’t quite managed. The first drops were cool. I felt them on my hands as I stood outside Frau Diller’s.
Above me, I could hear them.
Through the overcast sky, I looked up and saw the tin-can planes. I watched their stomachs open and the bombs drop casually out. They were off target, of course. They were often off target.