The Book Thief



  The next time she spoke, the questions stumbled from her mouth. Hot tears fought for room in her eyes as she would not let them out. Better to stand resolute and proud. Let the words do all of it. “‘Is it really you? the young man asked,’” she said. “‘Is it from your cheek that I took the seed?’”

  Max Vandenburg remained standing.

  He did not drop to his knees.

  People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched.

  As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams—planks of sun—falling randomly, wonderfully to the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this.

  Liesel walked at him. She was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face. “Is it really you, Max?”

  Such a brilliant German day and its attentive crowd.

  He let his mouth kiss her palm. “Yes, Liesel, it’s me,” and he held the girl’s hand in his face and cried onto her fingers. He cried as the soldiers came and a small collection of insolent Jews stood and watched.

  Standing, he was whipped.

  “Max,” the girl wept.

  Then silently, as she was dragged away:

  Max.

  Jewish fist fighter.

  Inside, she said all of it.

  Maxi Taxi. That’s what that friend called you in Stuttgart when you fought on the street, remember? Remember, Max? You told me. I remember everything ….

  That was you—the boy with the hard fists, and you said you would land a punch on death’s face when he came for you.

  Remember the snowman, Max?

  Remember?

  In the basement?

  Remember the white cloud with the gray heart?

  The Führer still comes down looking for you sometimes. He misses you. We all miss you.

  The whip. The whip.

  The whip continued from the soldier’s hand. It landed on Max’s face. It clipped his chin and carved his throat.

  Max hit the ground and the soldier now turned to the girl. His mouth opened. He had immaculate teeth.

  A sudden flash came before her eyes. She recalled the day she’d wanted Ilsa Hermann or at least the reliable Rosa to slap her, but neither of them would do it. On this occasion, she was not let down.

  The whip sliced her collarbone and reached across her shoulder blade.

  “Liesel!”

  She knew that person.

  As the soldier swung his arm, she caught sight of a distressed Rudy Steiner in the gaps of the crowd. He was calling out. She could see his tortured face and yellow hair. “Liesel, get out of there!”

  The book thief did not get out.

  She closed her eyes and caught the next burning streak, and another, till her body hit the warm flooring of the road. It heated her cheek.

  More words arrived, this time from the soldier.

  “Steh’auf.”

  The economical sentence was directed not to the girl but the Jew. It was elaborated on. “Get up, you dirty asshole, you Jewish whore-dog, get up, get up ….”

  Max hoisted himself upright.

  Just another push-up, Max.

  Just another push-up on the cold basement floor.

  His feet moved.

  They dragged and he traveled on.

  His legs staggered and his hands wiped at the marks of the whip, to soothe the stinging. When he tried to look again for Liesel, the soldier’s hands were placed upon his bloodied shoulders and pushed.

  The boy arrived. His lanky legs crouched and he called over, to his left.

  “Tommy, get out here and help me. We have to get her up. Tommy, hurry!” He lifted the book thief by her armpits. “Liesel, come on, you have to get off the road.”

  When she was able to stand, she looked at the shocked, frozen-faced Germans, fresh out of their packets. At their feet, she allowed herself to collapse, but only momentarily. A graze struck a match on the side of her face, where she’d met the ground. Her pulse flipped it over, frying it on both sides.

  Far down the road, she could see the blurry legs and heels of the last walking Jew.

  Her face was burning and there was a dogged ache in her arms and legs—a numbness that was simultaneously painful and exhausting.

  She stood, one last time.

  Waywardly, she began to walk and then run down Munich Street, to haul in the last steps of Max Vandenburg.

  “Liesel, what are you doing?!”

  She escaped the grip of Rudy’s words and ignored the watching people at her side. Most of them were mute. Statues with beating hearts. Perhaps bystanders in the latter stages of a marathon. Liesel cried out again and was not heard. Hair was in her eyes. “Please, Max!”

  After perhaps thirty meters, just as a soldier turned around, the girl was felled. Hands were clamped upon her from behind and the boy next door brought her down. He forced her knees to the road and suffered the penalty. He collected her punches as if they were presents. Her bony hands and elbows were accepted with nothing but a few short moans. He accumulated the loud, clumsy specks of saliva and tears as if they were lovely to his face, and more important, he was able to hold her down.

  On Munich Street, a boy and girl were entwined.

  They were twisted and comfortless on the road.

  Together, they watched the humans disappear. They watched them dissolve, like moving tablets in the humid air.

  CONFESSIONS

  When the Jews were gone, Rudy and Liesel untangled and the book thief did not speak. There were no answers to Rudy’s questions.

  Liesel did not go home, either. She walked forlornly to the train station and waited for her papa for hours. Rudy stood with her for the first twenty minutes, but since it was a good half day till Hans was due home, he fetched Rosa. On the way back, he told her what had happened, and when Rosa arrived, she asked nothing of the girl. She had already assembled the puzzle and merely stood beside her and eventually convinced her to sit down. They waited together.

  When Papa found out, he dropped his bag, he kicked the Bahnhof air.

  None of them ate that night. Papa’s fingers desecrated the accordion, murdering song after song, no matter how hard he tried. Everything no longer worked.

  For three days, the book thief stayed in bed.

  Every morning and afternoon, Rudy Steiner knocked on the door and asked if she was still sick. The girl was not sick.

  • • •

  On the fourth day, Liesel walked to her neighbor’s front door and asked if he might go back to the trees with her, where they’d distributed the bread the previous year.

  “I should have told you earlier,” she said.

  As promised, they walked far down the road toward Dachau. They stood in the trees. There were long shapes of light and shade. Pinecones were scattered like cookies.

  Thank you, Rudy.

  For everything. For helping me off the road, for stopping me …

  She said none of it.

  Her hand leaned on a flaking branch at her side. “Rudy, if I tell you something, will you promise not to say a word to anyone?”

  “Of course.” He could sense the seriousness in the girl’s face, and the heaviness in her voice. He leaned on the tree next to hers. “What is it?”

  “Promise.”

  “I did already.”

  “Do it again. You can’t tell your mother, your brother, or Tommy Müller. Nobody.”

  “I promise.”

  Leaning.

  Looking at the ground.

  She attempted several times to find the right place to start, reading sentences at her feet, joining words to the pinecones and the scraps of broken branches.

  “Remember when I was injured playing soccer,” she said, “out on the street?”

  It took approximately three-quarters of an hour to explain two
wars, an accordion, a Jewish fist fighter, and a basement. Not forgetting what had happened four days earlier on Munich Street.

  “That’s why you went for a closer look,” Rudy said, “with the bread that day. To see if he was there.”

  “Yes.”

  “Crucified Christ.”

  “Yes.”

  The trees were tall and triangular. They were quiet.

  Liesel pulled The Word Shaker from her bag and showed Rudy one of the pages. On it was a boy with three medals hanging around his throat.

  “‘Hair the color of lemons,’” Rudy read. His fingers touched the words. “You told him about me?”

  At first, Liesel could not talk. Perhaps it was the sudden bumpiness of love she felt for him. Or had she always loved him? It’s likely. Restricted as she was from speaking, she wanted him to kiss her. She wanted him to drag her hand across and pull her over. It didn’t matter where. Her mouth, her neck, her cheek. Her skin was empty for it, waiting.

  Years ago, when they’d raced on a muddy field, Rudy was a hastily assembled set of bones, with a jagged, rocky smile. In the trees this afternoon, he was a giver of bread and teddy bears. He was a triple Hitler Youth athletics champion. He was her best friend. And he was a month from his death.

  “Of course I told him about you,” Liesel said.

  She was saying goodbye and she didn’t even know it.

  ILSA HERMANN’S LITTLE BLACK BOOK

  In mid-August, she thought she was going to 8 Grande Strasse for the same old remedy.

  To cheer herself up.

  That was what she thought.

  The day had been hot, but showers were predicted for the evening. In The Last Human Stranger, there was a quote near the end. Liesel was reminded of it as she walked past Frau Diller’s.

  THE LAST HUMAN STRANGER,

  PAGE 211

  The sun stirs the earth. Around and

  around, it stirs us, like stew.

  At the time, Liesel only thought of it because the day was so warm.

  On Munich Street, she remembered the events of the previous week there. She saw the Jews coming down the road, their streams and numbers and pain. She decided there was a word missing from her quote.

  The world is an ugly stew, she thought.

  It’s so ugly I can’t stand it.

  Liesel crossed the bridge over the Amper River. The water was glorious and emerald and rich. She could see the stones at the bottom and hear the familiar song of water. The world did not deserve such a river.

  She scaled the hill up to Grande Strasse. The houses were lovely and loathsome. She enjoyed the small ache in her legs and lungs. Walk harder, she thought, and she started rising, like a monster out of the sand. She smelled the neighborhood grass. It was fresh and sweet, green and yellow-tipped. She crossed the yard without a single turn of the head or the slightest pause of paranoia.

  The window.

  Hands on the frame, scissor of the legs.

  Landing feet.

  Books and pages and a happy place.

  She slid a book from the shelf and sat with it on the floor.

  Is she home? she wondered, but she did not care if Ilsa Hermann was slicing potatoes in the kitchen or lining up in the post office. Or standing ghost-like over the top of her, examining what the girl was reading.

  The girl simply didn’t care anymore.

  For a long time, she sat and saw.

  She had seen her brother die with one eye open, one still in a dream. She had said goodbye to her mother and imagined her lonely wait for a train back home to oblivion. A woman of wire had laid herself down, her scream traveling the street, till it fell sideways like a rolling coin starved of momentum. A young man was hung by a rope made of Stalingrad snow. She had watched a bomber pilot die in a metal case. She had seen a Jewish man who had twice given her the most beautiful pages of her life marched to a concentration camp. And at the center of all of it, she saw the Führer shouting his words and passing them around.

  Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words.

  You bastards, she thought.

  You lovely bastards.

  Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don’t want to hope for anything anymore. I don’t want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner.

  Because the world does not deserve them.

  She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

  Then a chapter.

  Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

  What good were the words?

  She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

  The book thief stood and walked carefully to the library door. Its protest was small and halfhearted. The airy hallway was steeped in wooden emptiness.

  “Frau Hermann?”

  The question came back at her and tried for another surge to the front door. It made it only halfway, landing weakly on a couple of fat floorboards.

  “Frau Hermann?”

  The calls were greeted with nothing but silence, and she was tempted to seek out the kitchen, for Rudy. She refrained. It wouldn’t have felt right to steal food from a woman who had left her a dictionary against a windowpane. That, and she had also just destroyed one of her books, page by page, chapter by chapter. She’d done enough damage as it was.

  Liesel returned to the library and opened one of the desk drawers. She sat down.

  THE LAST LETTER

  Dear Mrs. Hermann,

  As you can see, I have been in your library again and I have ruined one of your books. I was just so angry and afraid and I wanted to kill the words. I have stolen from you and now I’ve wrecked your property. I’m sorry. To punish myself, I think I will stop coming here. Or is it punishment at all? I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words.

  You have been a friend to me even though I hurt you, even though I have been insufferable (a word I looked up in your dictionary), and I think I will leave you alone now. I’m sorry for everything.

  Thank you again.

  Liesel Meminger

  She left the note on the desk and gave the room a last goodbye, doing three laps and running her hands over the titles. As much as she hated them, she couldn’t resist. Flakes of torn-up paper were strewn around a book called The Rules of Tommy Hoffmann. In the breeze from the window, a few of its shreds rose and fell.

  The light was still orange, but it was not as lustrous as earlier. Her hands felt their final grip of the wooden window frame, and there was the last rush of a plunging stomach, and the pang of pain in her feet when she landed.

  By the time she made it down the hill and across the bridge, the orange light had vanished. Clouds were mopping up.

  When she walked down Himmel Street, she could already feel the first drops of rain. I will never see Ilsa Hermann again, she thought, but the book thief was better at reading and ruining books than making assumptions.

  THREE DAYS LATER

  The woman has knocked at number

  thirty-three and waits for a reply.

  It was strange for Liesel to see her without the bathrobe. The summer dress was yellow with red trim. There was a pocket with a small flower on it. No swastikas. Black shoes. Never before had she noticed Ilsa Hermann’s shins. She had porcelain legs.

  “Frau Hermann, I’m sorry—for what I did the last time in the library.”

  The woman quieted her. She reached into her bag
and pulled out a small black book. Inside was not a story, but lined paper. “I thought if you’re not going to read any more of my books, you might like to write one instead. Your letter, it was …” She handed the book to Liesel with both hands. “You can certainly write. You write well.” The book was heavy, the cover matted like The Shoulder Shrug. “And please,” Ilsa Hermann advised her, “don’t punish yourself, like you said you would. Don’t be like me, Liesel.”

  The girl opened the book and touched the paper. “Danke schön, Frau Hermann. I can make you some coffee, if you like. Would you come in? I’m home alone. My mama’s next door, with Frau Holtzapfel.”

  “Shall we use the door or the window?”

  Liesel suspected it was the broadest smile Ilsa Hermann had allowed herself in years. “I think we’ll use the door. It’s easier.”

  They sat in the kitchen.

  Coffee mugs and bread with jam. They struggled to speak and Liesel could hear Ilsa Hermann swallow, but somehow, it was not uncomfortable. It was even nice to see the woman gently blow across the coffee to cool it.

  “If I ever write something and finish it,” Liesel said, “I’ll show you.”

  “That would be nice.”

  When the mayor’s wife left, Liesel watched her walk up Himmel Street. She watched her yellow dress and her black shoes and her porcelain legs.

  At the mailbox, Rudy asked, “Was that who I think it was?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re joking.”

  “She gave me a present.”

  As it turned out, Ilsa Hermann not only gave Liesel Meminger a book that day. She also gave her a reason to spend time in the basement—her favorite place, first with Papa, then Max. She gave her a reason to write her own words, to see that words had also brought her to life.

  “Don’t punish yourself,” she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.

  In the night, when Mama and Papa were asleep, Liesel crept down to the basement and turned on the kerosene lamp. For the first hour, she only watched the pencil and paper. She made herself remember, and as was her habit, she did not look away.