The Book Thief
The Führer’s voice roared from German radios. We will not give up. We will not rest. We will be victorious. Our time has come.
The German invasion of Poland had begun and people were gathered everywhere, listening to the news of it. Munich Street, like every other main street in Germany, was alive with war. The smell, the voice. Rationing had begun a few days earlier—the writing on the wall—and now it was official. England and France had made their declaration on Germany. To steal a phrase from Hans Hubermann:
The fun begins.
The day of the announcement, Papa was lucky enough to have some work. On his way home, he picked up a discarded newspaper, and rather than stopping to shove it between paint cans in his cart, he folded it up and slipped it beneath his shirt. By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo. Holding the shirt open, he looked down in the unsure kitchen light.
“What does it say?” Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper.
“‘Hitler takes Poland,’” he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. “Deutschland über Alles,” he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic.
The face was there again—his accordion face.
That was one war started.
Liesel would soon be in another.
Nearly a month after school resumed, she was moved up to her rightful year level. You might think this was due to her improved reading, but it wasn’t. Despite the advancement, she still read with great difficulty. Sentences were strewn everywhere. Words fooled her. The reason she was elevated had more to do with the fact that she became disruptive in the younger class. She answered questions directed to other children and called out. A few times, she was given what was known as a Watschen (pronounced “varchen”) in the corridor.
Watschen = a good hiding
She was taken up, put in a chair at the side, and told to keep her mouth shut by the teacher, who also happened to be a nun. At the other end of the classroom, Rudy looked across and waved. Liesel waved back and tried not to smile.
At home, she was well into reading The Grave Digger’s Handbook with Papa. They would circle the words she couldn’t understand and take them down to the basement the next day. She thought it was enough. It was not enough.
Somewhere at the start of November, there were some progress tests at school. One of them was for reading. Every child was made to stand at the front of the room and read from a passage the teacher gave them. It was a frosty morning but bright with sun. Children scrunched their eyes. A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way—I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)
In the sun-heavy classroom, names were rattled off at random.
“Waldenheim, Lehmann, Steiner.”
They all stood up and did a reading, all at different levels of capability. Rudy was surprisingly good.
Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them?
Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel’s ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon, it would be around her neck, thick as rope.
When Tommy Müller finished his mediocre attempt, she looked around the room. Everyone had read. She was the only one left.
“Very good.” Sister Maria nodded, perusing the list. “That’s everyone.”
A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.”
Was not impressed.
She plonked her folder on the table in front of her and inspected Rudy with sighing disapproval. It was almost melancholic. Why, she lamented, did she have to put up with Rudy Steiner? He simply couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Why, God, why?
“No,” she said, with finality. Her small belly leaned forward with the rest of her. “I’m afraid Liesel cannot do it, Rudy.” The teacher looked across, for confirmation. “She will read for me later.”
The girl cleared her throat and spoke with quiet defiance. “I can do it now, Sister.” The majority of other kids watched in silence. A few of them performed the beautiful childhood art of snickering.
The sister had had enough. “No, you cannot! … What are you doing?”
—For Liesel was out of her chair and walking slowly, stiffly toward the front of the room. She picked up the book and opened it to a random page.
“All right, then,” said Sister Maria. “You want to do it? Do it.”
“Yes, Sister.” After a quick glance at Rudy, Liesel lowered her eyes and examined the page.
When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.
A KEY WORD
“Come on, Liesel!”
Rudy broke the silence.
The book thief looked down again, at the words.
Come on. Rudy mouthed it this time. Come on, Liesel.
Her blood loudened. The sentences blurred.
The white page was suddenly written in another tongue, and it didn’t help that tears were now forming in her eyes. She couldn’t even see the words anymore.
And the sun. That awful sun. It burst through the window—the glass was everywhere—and shone directly onto the useless girl. It shouted in her face. “You can steal a book, but you can’t read one!”
It came to her. A solution.
Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Chapter three: “In the Event of Snow.” She’d memorized it from her papa’s voice.
“In the event of snow,” she spoke, “you must make sure you use a good shovel. You must dig deep; you cannot be lazy. You cannot cut corners.” Again, she sucked in a large clump of air. “Of course, it is easier to wait for the warmest part of the day, when—”
The book was snatched from her grasp and she was told. “Liesel—the corridor.”
As she was given a small Watschen, she could hear them all laughing in the classroom, between Sister Maria’s striking hand. She saw them. All those mashed children. Grinning and laughing. Bathed in sunshine. Everyone laughing but Rudy.
In the break, she was taunted. A boy named Ludwig Schmeikl came up to her with a book. “Hey, Liesel,” he said to her, “I’m having trouble with this word. Could you read it for me?” He laughed—a ten-year-old, smugness laughter. “You Dummkopf—you idiot.”
Clouds were filing in now, big and clumsy, and more kids were calling out to her, watching her seethe.
“Don’t listen to them,” Rudy advised.
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the stupid one.”
Nearing the end of the break, the tally of comments stood at nineteen. By the twentieth, she snapped. It was Schmeikl, back for more. “Come on, Liesel.” He stuck the book under her nose. “Help me out, will you?”
Liesel helped him out, all right.
She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over his shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin.
Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who w
as utterly consumed with rage. His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. “You Saukerl.” Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. “You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”
Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky.
Great obese clouds.
Dark and plump.
Bumping into each other. Apologizing. Moving on and finding room.
Children were there, quick as, well, quick as kids gravitating toward a fight. A stew of arms and legs, of shouts and cheers grew thicker around them. They were watching Liesel Meminger give Ludwig Schmeikl the hiding of a lifetime. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a girl commentated with a shriek, “she’s going to kill him!”
Liesel did not kill him.
But she came close.
In fact, probably the only thing that stopped her was the twitchingly pathetic, grinning face of Tommy Müller. Still crowded with adrenaline, Liesel caught sight of him smiling with such absurdity that she dragged him down and started beating him up as well.
“What are you doing?!” he wailed, and only then, after the third or fourth slap and a trickle of bright blood from his nose, did she stop.
On her knees, she sucked in the air and listened to the groans beneath her. She watched the whirlpool of faces, left and right, and she announced, “I’m not stupid.”
No one argued.
It was only when everyone moved back inside and Sister Maria saw the state of Ludwig Schmeikl that the fight resumed. First, it was Rudy and a few others who bore the brunt of suspicion. They were always at each other. “Hands,” each boy was ordered, but every pair was clean.
“I don’t believe this,” the sister muttered. “It can’t be,” because sure enough, when Liesel stepped forward to show her hands, Ludwig Schmeikl was all over them, rusting by the moment. “The corridor,” she stated for the second time that day. For the second time that hour, actually.
This time, it was not a small Watschen. It was not an average one. This time, it was the mother of all corridor Watschens, one sting of the stick after another, so that Liesel would barely be able to sit down for a week. And there was no laughter from the room. More the silent fear of listening in.
At the end of the school day, Liesel walked home with Rudy and the other Steiner children. Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over her—the failed recital of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the day—and she crouched in the gutter and wept. It all led here.
Rudy stood there, next to her.
It began to rain, nice and hard.
Kurt Steiner called out, but neither of them moved. One sat painfully now, among the falling chunks of rain, and the other stood next to her, waiting.
“Why did he have to die?” she asked, but still, Rudy did nothing; he said nothing.
When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like.
Just don’t kick me in the eggs.
That’s what he was thinking, but he didn’t tell Liesel that. It was nearly four years later that he offered that information.
For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.
the shoulder shrug
a girl made of darkness—the joy of cigarettes
—a town walker—some dead letters—hitler’s birthday—
100 percent pure german sweat—the gates of thievery—
and a book of fire
A GIRL MADE OF DARKNESS
SOME STATISTICAL INFORMATION
First stolen book: January 13, 1939
Second stolen book: April 20, 1940
Duration between said stolen books: 463 days
If you were being flippant about it, you’d say that all it took was a little bit of fire, really, and some human shouting to go with it. You’d say that was all Liesel Meminger needed to apprehend her second stolen book, even if it smoked in her hands. Even if it lit her ribs.
The problem, however, is this:
This is no time to be flippant.
It’s no time to be half watching, turning around, or checking the stove—because when the book thief stole her second book, not only were there many factors involved in her hunger to do so, but the act of stealing it triggered the crux of what was to come. It would provide her with a venue for continued book thievery. It would inspire Hans Hubermann to come up with a plan to help the Jewish fist fighter. And it would show me, once again, that one opportunity leads directly to another, just as risk leads to more risk, life to more life, and death to more death.
• • •
In a way, it was destiny.
You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader, and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity:
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books. They enjoyed a good book-burning, all right—which gave people who were partial to books the opportunity to get their hands on certain publications that they otherwise wouldn’t have. One person who was that way inclined, as we know, was a thin-boned girl named Liesel Meminger. She may have waited 463 days, but it was worth it. At the end of an afternoon that had contained much excitement, much beautiful evil, one blood-soaked ankle, and a slap from a trusted hand, Liesel Meminger attained her second success story. The Shoulder Shrug. It was a blue book with red writing engraved on the cover, and there was a small picture of a cuckoo bird under the title, also red. When she looked back, Liesel was not ashamed to have stolen it. On the contrary, it was pride that more resembled that small pool of felt something in her stomach. And it was anger and dark hatred that had fueled her desire to steal it. In fact, on April 20—the Führer’s birthday—when she snatched that book from beneath a steaming heap of ashes, Liesel was a girl made of darkness.
The question, of course, should be why?
What was there to be angry about?
What had happened in the past four or five months to culminate in such a feeling?
In short, the answer traveled from Himmel Street, to the Führer, to the unfindable location of her real mother, and back again.
Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.
THE JOY OF CIGARETTES
Toward the end of 1939, Liesel had settled into life in Molching pretty well. She still had nightmares about her brother and missed her mother, but there were comforts now, too.
She loved her papa, Hans Hubermann, and even her foster mother, despite the abusages and verbal assaults. She loved and hated her best friend, Rudy Steiner, which was perfectly normal. And she loved the fact that despite her failure in the classroom, her reading and writing were definitely improving and would soon be on the verge of something respectable. All of this resulted in at least some form of contentment and would soon be built upon to approach the concept of Being Happy.
THE KEYS TO HAPPINESS
1. Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
2. Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
3. Receiving two books for Christmas.
• • •
She remembered the date well, as it was exactly a week before Christmas.
As usual, her nightly nightmare interrupted her sleep and she was woken by Hans Hubermann. His hand he
ld the sweaty fabric of her pajamas. “The train?” he whispered.
Liesel confirmed. “The train.”
She gulped the air until she was ready, and they began reading from the eleventh chapter of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Just past three o’clock, they finished it, and only the final chapter, “Respecting the Graveyard,” remained. Papa, his silver eyes swollen in their tiredness and his face awash with whiskers, shut the book and expected the leftovers of his sleep. He didn’t get them.
The light was out for barely a minute when Liesel spoke to him across the dark.
He made only a noise, somewhere in his throat.
“Are you awake, Papa?”
Up on one elbow. “Can we finish the book, please?”
There was a long breath, the scratchery of hand on whiskers, and then the light. He opened the book and began. “‘Chapter Twelve: Respecting the Graveyard.’”
They read through the early hours of morning, circling and writing the words she did not comprehend and turning the pages toward daylight. A few times, Papa nearly slept, succumbing to the itchy fatigue in his eyes and the wilting of his head. Liesel caught him out on each occasion, but she had neither the selflessness to allow him to sleep nor the hide to be offended. She was a girl with a mountain to climb.
Eventually, as the darkness outside began to break up a little, they finished. The last passage looked like this:
We at the Bayern Cemetery Association hope that we have informed and entertained you in the workings, safety measures, and duties of grave digging. We wish you every success with your career in the funerary arts and hope this book has helped in some way.
When the book closed, they shared a sideways glance. Papa spoke.
“We made it, huh?”
Liesel, half-wrapped in blanket, studied the black book in her hand and its silver lettering. She nodded, dry-mouthed and early-morning hungry. It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.