The Book Thief



  A SMALL, SAD HOPE

  No one wanted to

  bomb Himmel Street.

  No one would bomb a

  place named after

  heaven, would they?

  Would they?

  The bombs came down, and soon, the clouds would bake and the cold raindrops would turn to ash. Hot snowflakes would shower to the ground.

  In short, Himmel Street was flattened.

  Houses were splashed from one side of the street to the other. A framed photo of a very serious-looking Führer was bashed and beaten on the shattered floor. Yet he smiled, in that serious way of his. He knew something we all didn’t know. But I knew something he didn’t know. All while people slept.

  Rudy Steiner slept. Mama and Papa slept. Frau Holtzapfel, Frau Diller. Tommy Müller. All sleeping. All dying.

  Only one person survived.

  She survived because she was sitting in a basement reading through the story of her own life, checking for mistakes. Previously, the room had been declared too shallow, but on that night, October 7, it was enough. The shells of wreckage cantered down, and hours later, when the strange, unkempt silence settled itself in Molching, the local LSE could hear something. An echo. Down there, somewhere, a girl was hammering a paint can with a pencil.

  They all stopped, with bent ears and bodies, and when they heard it again, they started digging.

  PASSED ITEMS, HAND TO HAND

  Blocks of cement and roof tiles.

  A piece of wall with a dripping

  sun painted on it. An unhappy-looking

  accordion, peering

  through its eaten case.

  • • •

  They threw all of it upward.

  When another piece of broken wall was removed, one of them saw the book thief’s hair.

  The man had such a nice laugh. He was delivering a newborn child. “I can’t believe it—she’s alive!”

  There was so much joy among the cluttering, calling men, but I could not fully share their enthusiasm.

  Earlier, I’d held her papa in one arm and her mama in the other. Each soul was so soft.

  Farther away, their bodies were laid out, like the rest. Papa’s lovely silver eyes were already starting to rust, and Mama’s cardboard lips were fixed half open, most likely the shape of an incomplete snore. To blaspheme like the Germans—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

  The rescuing hands pulled Liesel out and brushed the crumbs of rubble from her clothes. “Young girl,” they said, “the sirens were too late. What were you doing in the basement? How did you know?”

  What they didn’t notice was that the girl was still holding the book. She screamed her reply. A stunning scream of the living.

  “Papa!”

  A second time. Her face creased as she reached a higher, more panic-stricken pitch. “Papa, Papa!”

  They passed her up as she shouted, wailed, and cried. If she was injured, she did not yet know it, for she struggled free and searched and called and wailed some more.

  She was still clutching the book.

  She was holding desperately on to the words who had saved her life.

  THE NINETY-EIGHTH DAY

  For the first ninety-seven days after Hans Hubermann’s return in April 1943, everything was fine. On many occasions he was pensive about the thought of his son fighting in Stalingrad, but he hoped that some of his luck was in the boy’s blood.

  On his third night at home, he played the accordion in the kitchen. A promise was a promise. There was music, soup, and jokes, and the laughter of a fourteen-year-old girl.

  “Saumensch,” Mama warned her, “stop laughing so loud. His jokes aren’t that funny. And they’re filthy, too ….”

  After a week, Hans resumed his service, traveling into the city to one of the army offices. He said that there was a good supply of cigarettes and food there, and sometimes he was able to bring home some cookies or extra jam. It was like the good old days. A minor air raid in May. A “heil Hitler” here or there and everything was fine.

  Until the ninety-eighth day.

  A SMALL STATEMENT

  BY AN OLD WOMAN

  On Munich Street, she said, “Jesus,

  Mary, and Joseph, I wish they

  wouldn’t bring them through. These

  wretched Jews, they’re rotten luck.

  They’re a bad sign. Every time I see

  them, I know we’ll be ruined.”

  It was the same old lady who announced the Jews the first time Liesel saw them. On ground level, her face was a prune. Her eyes were the dark blue of a vein. And her prediction was accurate.

  In the heart of summer, Molching was delivered a sign of things to come. It moved into sight like it always did. First the bobbing head of a soldier and the gun poking at the air above him. Then the ragged chain of clinking Jews.

  The only difference this time was that they were brought from the opposite direction. They were taken through to the neighboring town of Nebling to scrub the streets and do the cleanup work that the army refused to do. Late in the day, they were marched back to camp, slow and tired, defeated.

  Again, Liesel searched for Max Vandenburg, thinking that he could easily have ended up in Dachau without being marched through Molching. He was not there. Not on this occasion.

  Just give it time, though, for on a warm afternoon in August, Max would most certainly be marched through town with the rest of them. Unlike the others, however, he would not watch the road. He would not look randomly into the Führer’s German grandstand.

  A FACT REGARDING

  MAX VANDENBURG

  He would search the faces on Munich

  Street for a book-thieving girl.

  On this occasion, in July, on what Liesel later calculated as the ninety-eighth day of her papa’s return, she stood and studied the moving pile of mournful Jews—looking for Max. If nothing else, it alleviated the pain of simply watching.

  That’s a horrible thought, she would write in her Himmel Street basement, but she knew it to be true. The pain of watching them. What about their pain? The pain of stumbling shoes and torment and the closing gates of the camp?

  They came through twice in ten days, and soon after, the anonymous, prune-faced woman on Munich Street was proven absolutely correct. Suffering had most definitely come, and if they could blame the Jews as a warning or prologue, they should have blamed the Führer and his quest for Russia as the actual cause—for when Himmel Street woke later in July, a returned soldier was discovered to be dead. He was hanging from one of the rafters in a laundry up near Frau Diller’s. Another human pendulum. Another clock, stopped.

  The careless owner had left the door open.

  JULY 24, 6:03 A.M.

  The laundry was warm,

  the rafters were firm,

  and Michael Holtzapfel

  jumped from the chair

  as if it were a cliff.

  • • •

  So many people chased after me in that time, calling my name, asking me to take them with me. Then there was the small percentage who called me casually over and whispered with their tightened voices.

  “Have me,” they said, and there was no stopping them. They were frightened, no question, but they were not afraid of me. It was a fear of messing up and having to face themselves again, and facing the world, and the likes of you.

  There was nothing I could do.

  They had too many ways, they were too resourceful—and when they did it too well, whatever their chosen method, I was in no position to refuse.

  Michael Holtzapfel knew what he was doing.

  He killed himself for wanting to live.

  Of course, I did not see Liesel Meminger at all that day. As is usually the case, I advised myself that I was far too busy to remain on Himmel Street to listen to the screams. It’s bad enough when people catch me red-handed, so I made the usual decision to make my exit, into the breakfast-colored sun.

  I did not hear the detonation of an old man’s voice whe
n he found the hanging body, nor the sound of running feet and jaw-dropped gasps when other people arrived. I did not hear a skinny man with a mustache mutter, “Crying shame, a damn shame …”

  I did not see Frau Holtzapfel laid out flat on Himmel Street, her arms out wide, her screaming face in total despair. No, I didn’t discover any of that until I came back a few months later and read something called The Book Thief. It was explained to me that in the end, Michael Holtzapfel was worn down not by his damaged hand or any other injury, but by the guilt of living.

  In the lead-up to his death, the girl had realized that he wasn’t sleeping, that each night was like poison. I often imagine him lying awake, sweating in sheets of snow, or seeing visions of his brother’s severed legs. Liesel wrote that sometimes she almost told him about her own brother, like she did with Max, but there seemed a big difference between a long-distance cough and two obliterated legs. How do you console a man who has seen such things? Could you tell him the Führer was proud of him, that the Führer loved him for what he did in Stalingrad? How could you even dare? You can only let him do the talking. The dilemma, of course, is that such people save their most important words for after, when the surrounding humans are unlucky enough to find them. A note, a sentence, even a question, or a letter, like on Himmel Street in July 1943.

  MICHAEL HOLTZAPFEL—

  THE LAST GOODBYE

  Dear Mama,

  Can you ever forgive me?

  I just couldn’t stand it any longer.

  I’m meeting Robert. I don’t care

  what the damn Catholics say about it.

  There must be a place in heaven for

  those who have been where I have been.

  You might think I don’t love you

  because of what I’ve done, but I do.

  Your Michael

  It was Hans Hubermann who was asked to give Frau Holtzapfel the news. He stood on her threshold and she must have seen it on his face. Two sons in six months.

  The morning sky stood blazing behind him as the wiry woman made her way past. She ran sobbing to the gathering farther up on Himmel Street. She said the name Michael at least two dozen times, but Michael had already answered. According to the book thief, Frau Holtzapfel hugged the body for nearly an hour. She then returned to the blinding sun of Himmel Street and sat herself down. She could no longer walk.

  From a distance, people observed. Such a thing was easier from far away.

  Hans Hubermann sat with her.

  He placed his hand on hers, as she fell back to the hard ground.

  He allowed her screams to fill the street.

  Much later, Hans walked with her, with painstaking care, through her front gate, and into the house. And no matter how many times I try to see it differently, I can’t pull it off ….

  When I imagine that scene of the distraught woman and the tall silver-eyed man, it is still snowing in the kitchen of 31 Himmel Street.

  THE WAR MAKER

  There was the smell of a freshly cut coffin. Black dresses. Enormous suitcases under the eyes. Liesel stood like the rest, on the grass. She read to Frau Holtzapfel that same afternoon. The Dream Carrier, her neighbor’s favorite.

  It was a busy day all around, really.

  JULY 27, 1943

  Michael Holtzapfel was buried and the book

  thief read to the bereaved. The Allies bombed

  Hamburg—and on that subject, it’s lucky I’m

  somewhat miraculous. No one else could carry close to

  forty-five thousand people in such a short amount

  of time. Not in a million human years.

  The Germans were starting to pay in earnest by then. The Führer’s pimply little knees were starting to shake.

  Still, I’ll give him something, that Führer.

  He certainly had an iron will.

  There was no slackening off in terms of war-making, nor was there any scaling back on the extermination and punishment of a Jewish plague. While most of the camps were spread throughout Europe, there were some still in existence in Germany itself.

  In those camps, many people were still made to work, and walk.

  Max Vandenburg was one such Jew.

  WAY OF THE WORDS

  It happened in a small town of Hitler’s heartland.

  The flow of more suffering was pumped nicely out, and a small piece of it had now arrived.

  Jews were being marched through the outskirts of Munich, and one teenage girl somehow did the unthinkable and made her way through to walk with them. When the soldiers pulled her away and threw her to the ground, she stood up again. She continued.

  The morning was warm.

  Another beautiful day for a parade.

  The soldiers and Jews made their way through several towns and were arriving now in Molching. It was possible that more work needed to be done in the camp, or several prisoners had died. Whatever the reason, a new batch of fresh, tired Jews was being taken on foot to Dachau.

  As she always did, Liesel ran to Munich Street with the usual band of onlookers.

  • • •

  “Heil Hitler!”

  She could hear the first soldier from far up the road and made her way toward him through the crowd, to meet the procession. The voice amazed her. It made the endless sky into a ceiling just above his head, and the words bounced back, landing somewhere on the floor of limping Jewish feet.

  Their eyes.

  They watched the moving street, one by one, and when Liesel found a good vantage point, she stopped and studied them. She raced through the files of face after face, trying to match them to the Jew who wrote The Standover Man and The Word Shaker.

  Feathery hair, she thought.

  No, hair like twigs. That’s what it looks like when it hasn’t been washed. Look out for hair like twigs and swampy eyes and a kindling beard.

  God, there were so many of them.

  So many sets of dying eyes and scuffing feet.

  Liesel searched them and it was not so much a recognition of facial features that gave Max Vandenburg away. It was how the face was acting—also studying the crowd. Fixed in concentration. Liesel felt herself pausing as she found the only face looking directly into the German spectators. It examined them with such purpose that people on either side of the book thief noticed and pointed him out.

  “What’s he looking at?” said a male voice at her side.

  The book thief stepped onto the road.

  Never had movement been such a burden. Never had a heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest.

  She stepped forward and said, very quietly, “He’s looking for me.”

  Her voice trailed off and fell away, inside. She had to refind it—reaching far down, to learn to speak again and call out his name.

  Max.

  “I’m here, Max!”

  Louder.

  “Max, I’m here!”

  He heard her.

  MAX VANDENBURG, AUGUST 1943

  There were twigs of hair, just like

  Liesel thought, and the swampy eyes

  stepped across, shoulder to shoulder

  over the other Jews. When they reached

  her, they pleaded. His beard

  stroked down his face and his mouth

  shivered as he said the word,

  the name, the girl.

  Liesel.

  Liesel shrugged away entirely from the crowd and entered the tide of Jews, weaving through them till she grabbed hold of his arm with her left hand.

  His face fell on her.

  It reached down as she tripped, and the Jew, the nasty Jew, helped her up. It took all of his strength.

  “I’m here, Max,” she said again. “I’m here.”

  “I can’t believe …” The words dripped from Max Vandenburg’s mouth. “Look how much you’ve grown.” There was an intense sadness in his eyes. They swelled. “Liesel … they got me a few months ago.” The voice was crippled but it dragged itself toward her. “Halfway
to Stuttgart.”

  From the inside, the stream of Jews was a murky disaster of arms and legs. Ragged uniforms. No soldier had seen her yet, and Max gave her a warning. “You have to let go of me, Liesel.” He even tried to push her away, but the girl was too strong. Max’s starving arms could not sway her, and she walked on, between the filth, the hunger and confusion.

  After a long line of steps, the first soldier noticed.

  “Hey!” he called in. He pointed with his whip. “Hey, girl, what are you doing? Get out of there.”

  When she ignored him completely, the soldier used his arm to separate the stickiness of people. He shoved them aside and made his way through. He loomed above her as Liesel struggled on and noticed the strangled expression on Max Vandenburg’s face. She had seen him afraid, but never like this.

  The soldier took her.

  His hands manhandled her clothes.

  She could feel the bones in his fingers and the ball of each knuckle. They tore at her skin. “I said get out!” he ordered her, and now he dragged the girl to the side and flung her into the wall of onlooking Germans. It was getting warmer. The sun burned her face. The girl had landed sprawling with pain, but now she stood again. She recovered and waited. She reentered.

  This time, Liesel made her way through from the back.

  Ahead, she could just see the distinct twigs of hair and walked again toward them.

  This time, she did not reach out—she stopped. Somewhere inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her.

  “Max,” she said. He turned and briefly closed his eyes as the girl continued. “‘There was once a strange, small man,’” she said. Her arms were loose but her hands were fists at her side. “But there was a word shaker, too.”

  One of the Jews on his way to Dachau had stopped walking now.

  He stood absolutely still as the others swerved morosely around him, leaving him completely alone. His eyes staggered, and it was so simple. The words were given across from the girl to the Jew. They climbed on to him.