The Book Thief
“How do you like that?” The boy grinned, and he ran off in pursuit of the ball.
“Saukerl,” Liesel whispered. The vocabulary of her new home was catching on fast.
SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER
He was eight months older than Liesel and had bony legs, sharp teeth, gangly blue eyes, and hair the color of a lemon.
One of six Steiner children, he was permanently hungry.
On Himmel Street, he was considered a little crazy.
This was on account of an event that was rarely spoken about but widely regarded as “The Jesse Owens Incident,” in which he painted himself charcoal black and ran the 100 meters at the local playing field one night.
Insane or not, Rudy was always destined to be Liesel’s best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.
A few days after Liesel started school, she went along with the Steiners. Rudy’s mother, Barbara, made him promise to walk with the new girl, mainly because she’d heard about the snowball. To Rudy’s credit, he was happy enough to comply. He was not the junior misogynistic type of boy at all. He liked girls a lot, and he liked Liesel (hence, the snowball). In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a juvenile in its midst and mists. He’s the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, purely because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and he’s the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case, Rudy had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger.
On the way to school, he tried to point out certain landmarks in the town, or at least, he managed to slip it all in, somewhere between telling his younger siblings to shut their faces and the older ones telling him to shut his. His first point of interest was a small window on the second floor of an apartment block.
“That’s where Tommy Müller lives.” He realized that Liesel didn’t remember him. “The twitcher? When he was five years old, he got lost at the markets on the coldest day of the year. Three hours later, when they found him, he was frozen solid and had an awful earache from the cold. After a while, his ears were all infected inside and he had three or four operations and the doctors wrecked his nerves. So now he twitches.”
Liesel chimed in, “And he’s bad at soccer.”
Next was the corner shop at the end of Himmel Street. Frau Diller’s.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE
ABOUT FRAU DILLER
She had one golden rule.
Frau Diller was a sharp-edged woman with fat glasses and a nefarious glare. She developed this evil look to discourage the very idea of stealing from her shop, which she occupied with soldierlike posture, a refrigerated voice, and even breath that smelled like “heil Hitler.” The shop itself was white and cold, and completely bloodless. The small house compressed beside it shivered with a little more severity than the other buildings on Himmel Street. Frau Diller administered this feeling, dishing it out as the only free item from her premises. She lived for her shop and her shop lived for the Third Reich. Even when rationing started later in the year, she was known to sell certain hard-to-get items under the counter and donate the money to the Nazi Party. On the wall behind her usual sitting position was a framed photo of the Führer. If you walked into her shop and didn’t say “heil Hitler,” you wouldn’t be served. As they walked by, Rudy drew Liesel’s attention to the bulletproof eyes leering from the shop window.
“Say ‘heil’ when you go in there,” he warned her stiffly. “Unless you want to walk a little farther.” Even when they were well past the shop, Liesel looked back and the magnified eyes were still there, fastened to the window.
Around the corner, Munich Street (the main road in and out of Molching) was strewn with slosh.
As was often the case, a few rows of troops in training came marching past. Their uniforms walked upright and their black boots further polluted the snow. Their faces were fixed ahead in concentration.
Once they’d watched the soldiers disappear, the group of Steiners and Liesel walked past some shop windows and the imposing town hall, which in later years would be chopped off at the knees and buried. A few of the shops were abandoned and still labeled with yellow stars and anti-Jewish slurs. Farther down, the church aimed itself at the sky, its rooftop a study of collaborated tiles. The street, overall, was a lengthy tube of gray—a corridor of dampness, people stooped in the cold, and the splashed sound of watery footsteps.
At one stage, Rudy rushed ahead, dragging Liesel with him.
He knocked on the window of a tailor’s shop.
Had she been able to read the sign, she would have noticed that it belonged to Rudy’s father. The shop was not yet open, but inside, a man was preparing articles of clothing behind the counter. He looked up and waved.
“My papa,” Rudy informed her, and they were soon among a crowd of various-sized Steiners, each waving or blowing kisses at their father or simply standing and nodding hello (in the case of the oldest ones), then moving on, toward the final landmark before school.
THE LAST STOP
The road of yellow stars
It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain.
“Schiller Strasse,” Rudy said. “The road of yellow stars.”
At the bottom, some people were moving around. The drizzle made them look like ghosts. Not humans, but shapes, moving about beneath the lead-colored clouds.
“Come on, you two,” Kurt (the oldest of the Steiner children) called back, and Rudy and Liesel walked quickly toward him.
At school, Rudy made a special point of seeking Liesel out during the breaks. He didn’t care that others made noises about the new girl’s stupidity. He was there for her at the beginning, and he would be there later on, when Liesel’s frustration boiled over. But he wouldn’t do it for free.
THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN
A BOY WHO HATES YOU
A boy who loves you.
In late April, when they’d returned from school for the day, Rudy and Liesel waited on Himmel Street for the usual game of soccer. They were slightly early, and no other kids had turned up yet. The one person they saw was the gutter-mouthed Pfiffikus.
“Look there.” Rudy pointed.
A PORTRAIT OF PFIFFIKUS
He was a delicate frame.
He was white hair.
He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth—and what a mouth it was.
As the distant figure turned, Rudy started whistling.
The old man simultaneously straightened and proceeded to swear with a ferocity that can only be described as a talent. No one seemed to know the real name that belonged to him, or at least if they did, they never used it. He was only called Pfiffikus because you give that name to someone who likes to whistle, which Pfiffikus most definitely did. He was constantly whistling a tune called the Radetzky March, and all the kids in town would call out to him and duplicate that tune. At that precise moment, Pfiffikus would abandon his usual walking style (bent forward, taking large, lanky steps, arms behind his raincoated back) and erect himself to deliver abuse. It was then that any impression of serenity was violently interrupted, for his voice was brimming with rage.
On this occasion, Liesel followed Rudy’s taunt almost as a reflex action.
“Pfiffikus!” she echoed, quickly adopting the appropriate cruelty that childhood seems to require. Her whistling was awful, but there was no time to perfect it.
He chased them, calling out. It started with “Geh’ scheissen!” and deteriorated rapidly from there. At first, he leveled his abuse only at the boy, but soon enough, it was Liesel’s turn.
“You little slut!” he roared at her. The words clobbered her in the back. “I’ve never seen you before!” Fancy calling a ten-year-old girl a slut. That was Pfiffikus. It was widely agreed that he and Frau Holtzapfel would have made a lovely couple. “Get back here!” were the last words Liesel and Rudy heard as they continued running. They ran until they were on Munich Street.
“Come on,” Rudy said, once they’d recovered their breath. “Just down here a little.”
He took her to Hubert Oval, the scene of the Jesse Owens incident, where they stood, hands in pockets. The track was stretched out in front of them. Only one thing could happen. Rudy started it. “Hundred meters,” he goaded her. “I bet you can’t beat me.”
Liesel wasn’t taking any of that. “I bet you I can.”
“What do you bet, you little Saumensch? Have you got any money?”
“Of course not. Do you?”
“No.” But Rudy had an idea. It was the lover boy coming out of him. “If I beat you, I get to kiss you.” He crouched down and began rolling up his trousers.
Liesel was alarmed, to put it mildly. “What do you want to kiss me for? I’m filthy.”
“So am I.” Rudy clearly saw no reason why a bit of filth should get in the way of things. It had been a while between baths for both of them.
She thought about it while examining the weedy legs of her opposition. They were about equal with her own. There’s no way he can beat me, she thought. She nodded seriously. This was business. “You can kiss me if you win. But if I win, I get out of being goalie at soccer.”
Rudy considered it. “Fair enough,” and they shook on it.
All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.
The track was muddier than it looked.
Both competitors were set.
Rudy threw a rock in the air as the starting pistol. When it hit the ground, they could start running.
“I can’t even see the finish line,” Liesel complained.
“And I can?”
The rock wedged itself into the earth.
They ran next to each other, elbowing and trying to get in front. The slippery ground slurped at their feet and brought them down perhaps twenty meters from the end.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” yelped Rudy. “I’m covered in shit!”
“It’s not shit,” Liesel corrected him, “it’s mud,” although she had her doubts. They’d slid another five meters toward the finish. “Do we call it a draw, then?”
Rudy looked over, all sharp teeth and gangly blue eyes. Half his face was painted with mud. “If it’s a draw, do I still get my kiss?”
“Not in a million years.” Liesel stood up and flicked some mud off her jacket.
“I’ll get you out of goalie.”
“Stick your goalie.”
As they walked back to Himmel Street, Rudy forewarned her. “One day, Liesel,” he said, “you’ll be dying to kiss me.”
But Liesel knew.
As long as both she and Rudy Steiner lived, she would never kiss that miserable, filthy Saukerl, especially not this day. There were more important matters to attend to. She looked down at her suit of mud and stated the obvious.
“She’s going to kill me.”
She, of course, was Rosa Hubermann, also known as Mama, and she very nearly did kill her. The word Saumensch featured heavily in the administration of punishment. She made mincemeat out of her.
THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT
As we both know, Liesel wasn’t on hand on Himmel Street when Rudy performed his act of childhood infamy. When she looked back, though, it felt like she’d actually been there. In her memory, she had somehow become a member of Rudy’s imaginary audience. Nobody else mentioned it, but Rudy certainly made up for that, so much that when Liesel came to recollect her story, the Jesse Owens incident was as much a part of it as everything she witnessed firsthand.
It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.
Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 × 100m relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand were touted around the world. Even the most racist Germans were amazed with the efforts of Owens, and word of his feat slipped through the cracks. No one was more impressed than Rudy Steiner.
Everyone in his family was crowded together in their family room when he slipped out and made his way to the kitchen. He pulled some charcoal from the stove and gripped it in the smallness of his hands. “Now.” There was a smile. He was ready.
He smeared the charcoal on, nice and thick, till he was covered in black. Even his hair received a once-over.
In the window, the boy grinned almost maniacally at his reflection, and in his shorts and tank top, he quietly abducted his older brother’s bike and pedaled it up the street, heading for Hubert Oval. In one of his pockets, he’d hidden a few pieces of extra charcoal, in case some of it wore off later.
In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.
The rusty bike crumbled to a halt at the Hubert Oval fence line and Rudy climbed over. He landed on the other side and trotted weedily up toward the beginning of the hundred. Enthusiastically, he conducted an awkward regimen of stretches. He dug starting holes into the dirt.
Waiting for his moment, he paced around, gathering concentration under the darkness sky, with the moon and the clouds watching, tightly.
“Owens is looking good,” he began to commentate. “This could be his greatest victory ever ….”
He shook the imaginary hands of the other athletes and wished them luck, even though he knew. They didn’t have a chance.
The starter signaled them forward. A crowd materialized around every square inch of Hubert Oval’s circumference. They were all calling out one thing. They were chanting Rudy Steiner’s name—and his name was Jesse Owens.
All fell silent.
His bare feet gripped the soil. He could feel it holding on between his toes.
At the request of the starter, he raised to crouching position—and the gun clipped a hole in the night.
• • •
For the first third of the race, it was pretty even, but it was only a matter of time before the charcoaled Owens drew clear and streaked away.
“Owens in front,” the boy’s shrill voice cried as he ran down the empty track, straight toward the uproarious applause of Olympic glory. He could even feel the tape break in two across his chest as he burst through it in first place. The fastest man alive.
It was only on his victory lap that things turned sour. Among the crowd, his father was standing at the finish line like the bogeyman. Or at least, the bogeyman in a suit. (As previously mentioned, Rudy’s father was a tailor. He was rarely seen on the street without a suit and tie. On this occasion, it was only the suit and a disheveled shirt.)
“Was ist los?” he said to his son when he showed up in all his charcoal glory. “What the hell is going on here?” The crowd vanished. A breeze sprang up. “I was asleep in my chair when Kurt noticed you were gone. Everyone’s out looking for you.”
Mr. Steiner was a remarkably polite man under normal circumstances. Discovering one of his children smeared charcoal black on a summer evening was not what he considered normal circumstances. “The boy is crazy,” he muttered, although he conceded that with six kids, something like this was bound to happen. At least one of them had to be a bad egg. Right now, he was looking at it, waiting for an explanation. “Well?”
Rudy panted, bending down and placing his hands on his knees. “I was being Jesse Owens.” He answered as though it was the most natural thing on earth to be doing. There was even something implicit in his tone that suggested something along the lines of, “What the hell does it look like?” The tone vanished, however, when he saw the sleep deprivation whittled under his father’s eyes.
“Jesse Owens?” Mr. Steiner was the type of man who was very
wooden. His voice was angular and true. His body was tall and heavy, like oak. His hair was like splinters. “What about him?”
“You know, Papa, the Black Magic one.”
“I’ll give you black magic.” He caught his son’s ear between his thumb and forefinger.
Rudy winced. “Ow, that really hurts.”
“Does it?” His father was more concerned with the clammy texture of charcoal contaminating his fingers. He covered everything, didn’t he? he thought. It’s even in his ears, for God’s sake. “Come on.”
On the way home, Mr. Steiner decided to talk politics with the boy as best he could. Only in the years ahead would Rudy understand it all—when it was too late to bother understanding anything.
THE CONTRADICTORY POLITICS
OF ALEX STEINER
Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter.
Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse—gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business—propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers.
Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely?
Point Four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party.
Point Five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.
They walked around a few corners onto Himmel Street, and Alex said, “Son, you can’t go around painting yourself black, you hear?”
Rudy was interested, and confused. The moon was undone now, free to move and rise and fall and drip on the boy’s face, making him nice and murky, like his thoughts. “Why not, Papa?”