The Book Thief
“Because they’ll take you away.”
“Because you shouldn’t want to be like black people or Jewish people or anyone who is … not us.”
“Who are Jewish people?”
“You know my oldest customer, Mr. Kaufmann? Where we bought your shoes?”
“Well, he’s Jewish.”
“I didn’t know that. Do you have to pay to be Jewish? Do you need a license?”
“No, Rudy.” Mr. Steiner was steering the bike with one hand and Rudy with the other. He was having trouble steering the conversation. He still hadn’t relinquished the hold on his son’s earlobe. He’d forgotten about it. “It’s like you’re German or Catholic.”
“Oh. Is Jesse Owens Catholic?”
“I don’t know!” He tripped on a bike pedal then and released the ear.
They walked on in silence for a while, until Rudy said, “I just wish I was like Jesse Owens, Papa.”
This time, Mr. Steiner placed his hand on Rudy’s head and explained, “I know, son—but you’ve got beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes. You should be happy with that; is that clear?”
But nothing was clear.
Rudy understood nothing, and that night was the prelude of things to come. Two and a half years later, the Kaufmann Shoe Shop was reduced to broken glass, and all the shoes were flung aboard a truck in their boxes.
THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER
People have defining moments, I suppose, especially when they’re children. For some it’s a Jesse Owens incident. For others it’s a moment of bed-wetting hysteria:
It was late May 1939, and the night had been like most others. Mama shook her iron fist. Papa was out. Liesel cleaned the front door and watched the Himmel Street sky.
Earlier, there had been a parade.
The brown-shirted extremist members of the NSDAP (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) had marched down Munich Street, their banners worn proudly, their faces held high, as if on sticks. Their voices were full of song, culminating in a roaring rendition of “Deutschland über Alles.” “Germany over Everything.”
As always, they were clapped.
They were spurred on as they walked to who knows where.
People on the street stood and watched, some with straight-armed salutes, others with hands that burned from applause. Some kept faces that were contorted by pride and rally like Frau Diller, and then there were the scatterings of odd men out, like Alex Steiner, who stood like a human-shaped block of wood, clapping slow and dutiful. And beautiful. Submission.
On the footpath, Liesel stood with her papa and Rudy. Hans Hubermann wore a face with the shades pulled down.
SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS
In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler.
That leaves 10 percent who didn’t.
Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent.
There was a reason for that.
In the night, Liesel dreamed like she always did. At first, she saw the brownshirts marching, but soon enough, they led her to a train, and the usual discovery awaited. Her brother was staring again.
When she woke up screaming, Liesel knew immediately that on this occasion, something had changed. A smell leaked out from under the sheets, warm and sickly. At first, she tried convincing herself that nothing had happened, but as Papa came closer and held her, she cried and admitted the fact in his ear.
“Papa,” she whispered, “Papa,” and that was all. He could probably smell it.
He lifted her gently from the bed and carried her into the washroom. The moment came a few minutes later.
“We take the sheets off,” Papa said, and when he reached under and pulled at the fabric, something loosened and landed with a thud. A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall man’s feet.
He looked down at it.
He looked at the girl, who timidly shrugged.
Then he read the title, with concentration, aloud: “The Grave Digger’s Handbook.”
So that’s what it’s called, Liesel thought.
A patch of silence stood among them now. The man, the girl, the book. He picked it up and spoke soft as cotton.
A 2 A.M. CONVERSATION
“Is this yours?”
“Do you want to read it?”
Again, “Yes, Papa.”
A tired smile. Metallic eyes, melting.
“Well, we’d better read it, then.”
Four years later, when she came to write in the basement, two thoughts struck Liesel about the trauma of wetting the bed. First, she felt extremely lucky that it was Papa who discovered the book. (Fortunately, when the sheets had been washed previously, Rosa had made Liesel strip the bed and make it up. “And be quick about it, Saumensch! Does it look like we’ve got all day?”) Second, she was clearly proud of Hans Hubermann’s part in her education. You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion …
• • •
“First things first,” Hans Hubermann said that night. He washed the sheets and hung them up. “Now,” he said upon his return. “Let’s get this midnight class started.”
The yellow light was alive with dust.
Liesel sat on cold clean sheets, ashamed, elated. The thought of bed-wetting prodded her, but she was going to read. She was going to read the book.
The excitement stood up in her.
Visions of a ten-year-old reading genius were set alight.
If only it was that easy.
“To tell you the truth,” Papa explained upfront, “I am not such a good reader myself.”
But it didn’t matter that he read slowly. If anything, it might have helped that his own reading pace was slower than average. Perhaps it would cause less frustration in coping with the girl’s lack of ability.
Still, initially, Hans appeared a little uncomfortable holding the book and looking through it.
When he came over and sat next to her on the bed, he leaned back, his legs angling over the side. He examined the book again and dropped it on the blanket. “Now why would a nice girl like you want to read such a thing?”
Again, Liesel shrugged. Had the apprentice been reading the complete works of Goethe or any other such luminary, that was what would have sat in front of them. She attempted to explain. “I—when … It was sitting in the snow, and—” The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder.
Papa knew what to say, though. He always knew what to say.
He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, “Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right.”
She nodded, with great sincerity.
“No skipping chapter six or step four in chapter nine.” He laughed, as did the bed wetter. “Well, I’m glad that’s settled. We can get on with it now.”
He adjusted his position and his bones creaked like itchy floorboards. “The fun begins.”
Amplified by the still of night, the book opened—a gust of wind.
Looking back, Liesel could tell exactly what her papa was thinking when he scanned the first page of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. As he realized the difficulty of the text, he was clearly aware that such a book was hardly ideal. There were words in there that he’d have trouble with himself. Not to mention the morbidity of the subject. As for the girl, there was a sudden desire to read it that she didn’t even attempt to understand. On some level, perhaps she wanted to make sure her brother was buried right. Whatever the reason, her hunger to read that book was as intense as any ten-year-old human could experience.
Chapter one was called “The First Step: Choosing
the Right Equipment.” In a short introductory passage, it outlined the kind of material to be covered in the following twenty pages. Types of shovels, picks, gloves, and so forth were itemized, as well as the vital need to properly maintain them. This grave digging was serious.
As Papa flicked through it, he could surely feel Liesel’s eyes on him. They reached over and gripped him, waiting for something, anything, to slip from his lips.
“Here.” He shifted again and handed her the book. “Look at this page and tell me how many words you can read.”
She looked at it—and lied.
“Read some for me.” But of course, she couldn’t. When he made her point out any words she could read and actually say them, there were only three—the three main German words for “the.” The whole page must have had two hundred words on it.
This might be harder than I thought.
She caught him thinking it, just for a moment.
He lifted himself forward, rose to his feet, and walked out.
This time, when he came back, he said, “Actually, I have a better idea.” In his hand, there was a thick painter’s pencil and a stack of sandpaper. “Let’s start from scratch.” Liesel saw no reason to argue.
In the left corner of an upturned piece of sandpaper, he drew a square of perhaps an inch and shoved a capital A inside it. In the other corner, he placed a lowercase one. So far, so good.
“A,” Liesel said.
“A for what?”
She smiled. “Apfel.”
He wrote the word in big letters and drew a misshapen apple under it. He was a housepainter, not an artist. When it was complete, he looked over and said, “Now for B.”
As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesel’s eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic. It was nice to watch Papa’s hand as he wrote the words and slowly constructed the primitive sketches.
“Ah, come on, Liesel,” he said when she struggled later on. “Something that starts with S. It’s easy. I’m very disappointed in you.”
She couldn’t think.
“Come on!” His whisper played with her. “Think of Mama.”
That was when the word struck her face like a slap. A reflex grin. “SAUMENSCH!” she shouted, and Papa roared with laughter, then quieted.
“Shhh, we have to be quiet.” But he roared all the same and wrote the word, completing it with one of his sketches.
ATYPICAL HANS HUBERMANN
“Papa!” she whispered. “I have no eyes!”
He patted the girl’s hair. She’d fallen into his trap. “With a smile like that,” Hans Hubermann said, “you don’t need eyes.” He hugged her and then looked again at the picture, with a face of warm silver. “Now for T.”
With the alphabet completed and studied a dozen times, Papa leaned over and said, “Enough for tonight?”
“A few more words?”
He was definite. “Enough. When you wake up, I’ll play accordion for you.”
“Good night.” A quiet, one-syllable laugh. “Good night, Saumensch.”
“Good night, Papa.”
He switched off the light, came back, and sat in the chair. In the darkness, Liesel kept her eyes open. She was watching the words.
THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP
Over the next few weeks and into summer, the midnight class began at the end of each nightmare. There were two more bed-wetting occurrences, but Hans Hubermann merely repeated his previous cleanup heroics and got down to the task of reading, sketching, and reciting. In the morning’s early hours, quiet voices were loud.
On a Thursday, just after 3 p.m., Mama told Liesel to get ready to come with her and deliver some ironing. Papa had other ideas.
He walked into the kitchen and said, “Sorry, Mama, she’s not going with you today.”
Mama didn’t even bother looking up from the washing bag. “Who asked you, Arschloch? Come on, Liesel.”
“She’s reading,” he said. Papa handed Liesel a steadfast smile and a wink. “With me. I’m teaching her. We’re going to the Amper—upstream, where I used to practice the accordion.”
Now he had her attention.
Mama placed the washing on the table and eagerly worked herself up to the appropriate level of cynicism. “What did you say?”
“I think you heard me, Rosa.”
Mama laughed. “What the hell could you teach her?” A cardboard grin. Uppercut words. “Like you could read so much, you Saukerl.”
The kitchen waited. Papa counterpunched. “We’ll take your ironing for you.”
“You filthy—” She stopped. The words propped in her mouth as she considered it. “Be back before dark.”
“We can’t read in the dark, Mama,” Liesel said.
“What was that, Saumensch?”
Papa grinned and pointed at the girl. “Book, sandpaper, pencil,” he ordered her, “and accordion!” once she was already gone. Soon, they were on Himmel Street, carrying the words, the music, the washing.
As they walked toward Frau Diller’s, they turned around a few times to see if Mama was still at the gate, checking on them. She was. At one point, she called out, “Liesel, hold that ironing straight! Don’t crease it!”
A few steps later: “Liesel, are you dressed warm enough?!”
“What did you say?”
“Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything! Are you dressed warm enough? It might get cold later!”
Around the corner, Papa bent down to do up a shoelace. “Liesel,” he said, “could you roll me a cigarette?”
Nothing would give her greater pleasure.
Once the ironing was delivered, they made their way back to the Amper River, which flanked the town. It worked its way past, pointing in the direction of Dachau, the concentration camp.
There was a wooden-planked bridge.
They sat maybe thirty meters down from it, in the grass, writing the words and reading them aloud, and when darkness was near, Hans pulled out the accordion. Liesel looked at him and listened, though she did not immediately notice the perplexed expression on her papa’s face that evening as he played.
It traveled and wondered, but it disclosed no answers.
There had been a change in him. A slight shift.
She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story.
For now, there was only the one as far as Liesel was concerned, and she was enjoying it.
She settled into the long arms of grass, lying back.
She closed her eyes and her ears held the notes.
There were, of course, some problems as well. A few times, Papa nearly yelled at her. “Come on, Liesel,” he’d say. “You know this word; you know it!” Just when progress seemed to be flowing well, somehow things would become lodged.
When the weather was good, they’d go to the Amper in the afternoon. In bad weather, it was the basement. This was mainly on account of Mama. At first, they tried in the kitchen, but there was no way.
“Rosa,” Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. “Could you do me a favor?”
She looked up from the stove. “What?”
“I’m asking you, I’m begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes?”
You can imagine the reaction.
They ended up in the basement.
bsp; There was no lighting there, so they took a kerosene lamp, and slowly, between school and home, from the river to the basement, from the good days to the bad, Liesel was learning to read and write.
“Soon,” Papa told her, “you’ll be able to read that awful graves book with your eyes closed.”
“And I can get out of that midget class.”
She spoke those words with a grim kind of ownership.
In one of their basement sessions, Papa dispensed with the sandpaper (it was running out fast) and pulled out a brush. There were few luxuries in the Hubermann household, but there was an oversupply of paint, and it became more than useful for Liesel’s learning. Papa would say a word and the girl would have to spell it aloud and then paint it on the wall, as long as she got it right. After a month, the wall was recoated. A fresh cement page.
Some nights, after working in the basement, Liesel would sit crouched in the bath and hear the same utterances from the kitchen.
“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”
Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.
THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL-YARD
The summer of ′39 was in a hurry, or perhaps Liesel was. She spent her time playing soccer with Rudy and the other kids on Himmel Street (a year-round pastime), taking ironing around town with Mama, and learning words. It felt like it was over a few days after it began.
In the latter part of the year, two things happened.
1. World War Two begins.
2. Liesel Meminger becomes the heavyweight champion of the school yard.
The beginning of September.
It was a cool day in Molching when the war began and my workload increased.
The world talked it over.
Newspaper headlines reveled in it.