The Book Thief
Liesel knew her well enough to understand that it was not for the hiding.
The red marks grew larger, in patches on her skin, as she lay there, in the dust and the dirt and the dim light. Her breathing calmed, and a stray yellow tear trickled down her face. She could feel herself against the floor. A forearm, a knee. An elbow. A cheek. A calf muscle.
The floor was cold, especially against her cheek, but she was unable to move.
She would never see her mother again.
For nearly an hour, she remained, spread out under the kitchen table, till Papa came home and played the accordion. Only then did she sit up and start to recover.
When she wrote about that night, she held no animosity toward Rosa Hubermann at all, or toward her mother for that matter. To her, they were only victims of circumstance. The only thought that continually recurred was the yellow tear. Had it been dark, she realized, that tear would have been black.
But it was dark, she told herself.
No matter how many times she tried to imagine that scene with the yellow light that she knew had been there, she had to struggle to visualize it. She was beaten in the dark, and she had remained there, on a cold, dark kitchen floor. Even Papa’s music was the color of darkness.
Even Papa’s music.
The strange thing was that she was vaguely comforted by that thought, rather than distressed by it. The dark, the light. What was the difference?
Nightmares had reinforced themselves in each, as the book thief began to truly understand how things were and how they would always be. If nothing else, she could prepare herself. Perhaps that’s why on the Führer‘s birthday, when the answer to the question of her mother’s suffering showed itself completely, she was able to react, despite her perplexity and her rage.
Liesel Meminger was ready.
Happy birthday, Herr Hitler.
Many happy returns.
HITLER’S BIRTHDAY, 1940
Against all hopelessness, Liesel still checked the mailbox each afternoon, throughout March and well into April. This was despite a Hans-requested visit from Frau Heinrich, who explained to the Hubermanns that the foster care office had lost contact completely with Paula Meminger. Still, the girl persisted, and as you might expect, each day, when she searched the mail, there was nothing.
Molching, like the rest of Germany, was in the grip of preparing for Hitler’s birthday. This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitler’s current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire.
While Liesel walked the streets of Molching, picking up and delivering washing and ironing, Nazi Party members were accumulating fuel. A couple of times, Liesel was a witness to men and women knocking on doors, asking people if they had any material that they felt should be done away with or destroyed. Papa’s copy of the Molching Express announced that there would be a celebratory fire in the town square, which would be attended by all local Hitler Youth divisions. It would commemorate not only the Führer’s birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. “Any materials,” it requested, “from such times—newspapers, posters, books, flags—and any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street.” Even Schiller Strasse—the road of yellow stars—which was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Führer’s glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them.
Everything was in place to make April 20 magnificent. It would be a day full of burning and cheering.
And book thievery.
In the Hubermann household that morning, all was typical.
“That Saukerl’s looking out the window again,” cursed Rosa Hubermann. “Every day,” she went on. “What are you looking at this time?”
“Ohhh,” moaned Papa with delight. The flag cloaked his back from the top of the window. “You should have a look at this woman I can see.” He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Liesel. “I might just go and run after her. She leaves you for dead, Mama.”
“Schwein!” She shook the wooden spoon at him.
Papa continued looking out the window, at an imaginary woman and a very real corridor of German flags.
On the streets of Molching that day, each window was decorated for the Führer. In some places, like Frau Diller’s, the glass was vigorously washed, and the swastika looked like a jewel on a red-and-white blanket. In others, the flag trundled from the ledge like washing hung out to dry. But it was there.
Earlier, there had been a minor calamity. The Hubermanns couldn’t find their flag.
“They’ll come for us,” Mama warned her husband. “They’ll come and take us away.” They. “We have to find it!” At one point, it seemed like Papa might have to go down to the basement and paint a flag on one of his drop sheets. Thankfully, it turned up, buried behind the accordion in the cupboard.
“That infernal accordion, it was blocking my view!” Mama swiveled. “Liesel!”
The girl had the honor of pinning the flag to the window frame.
Hans Junior and Trudy came home for the afternoon eating, like they did at Christmas or Easter. Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively:
Hans Junior had the eyes of his father and the height. The silver in his eyes, however, wasn’t warm, like Papa’s—they’d been Führered. There was more flesh on his bones, too, and he had prickly blond hair and skin like off-white paint.
Trudy, or Trudel, as she was often known, was only a few inches taller than Mama. She had cloned Rosa Hubermann’s unfortunate, waddlesome walking style, but the rest of her was much milder. Being a live-in housemaid in a wealthy part of Munich, she was most likely bored of children, but she was always capable of at least a few smiled words in Liesel’s direction. She had soft lips. A quiet voice.
They came home together on the train from Munich, and it didn’t take long for old tensions to rise up.
A SHORT HISTORY OF
HANS HUBERMANN VS. HIS SON
The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany—one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that his father had been called “Der Juden Maler”—the Jew painter—for painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident I’ll fully present to you soon enough—the day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.
“So have they let you in yet?” Hans Junior was picking up where they’d left off at Christmas.
“Take a guess—the party.”
“No, I think they’ve forgotten about me.”
“Well, have you even tried again? You can’t just sit around waiting for the new world to take it with you. You have to go out and be part of it—despite your past mistakes.”
Papa looked up. “Mistakes? I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but not joining the Nazi Party isn’t one of them. They still have my application—you know that—but I couldn’t go back to ask. I just …”
That was when a great shiver arrived.
It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.
“You’ve never cared about this country,” said Hans Junior. “Not enough, anyway.”
Papa’s eyes started corroding. It did not stop Hans Junior. H
e looked now for some reason at the girl. With her three books standing upright on the table, as if in conversation, Liesel was silently mouthing the words as she read from one of them. “And what trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf.”
Liesel looked up.
“Don’t worry, Liesel,” Papa said. “Just keep reading. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
But Hans Junior wasn’t finished. He stepped closer and said, “You’re either for the Führer or against him—and I can see that you’re against him. You always have been.” Liesel watched Hans Junior in the face, fixated on the thinness of his lips and the rocky line of his bottom teeth. “It’s pathetic—how a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great.”
Trudy and Mama sat silently, scaredly, as did Liesel. There was the smell of pea soup, something burning, and confrontation.
They were all waiting for the next words.
They came from the son. Just two of them.
“You coward.” He upturned them into Papa’s face, and he promptly left the kitchen, and the house.
Ignoring futility, Papa walked to the doorway and called out to his son. “Coward? I’m the coward?!” He then rushed to the gate and ran pleadingly after him. Mama hurried to the window, ripped away the flag, and opened up. She, Trudy, and Liesel all crowded together, watching a father catch up to his son and grab hold of him, begging him to stop. They could hear nothing, but the manner in which Hans Junior shrugged loose was loud enough. The sight of Papa watching him walk away roared at them from up the street.
“Hansi!” Mama finally cried out. Both Trudy and Liesel flinched from her voice. “Come back!”
The boy was gone.
Yes, the boy was gone, and I wish I could tell you that everything worked out for the younger Hans Hubermann, but it didn’t.
When he vanished from Himmel Street that day in the name of the Führer, he would hurtle through the events of another story, each step leading tragically to Russia.
SOME FACTS ABOUT STALINGRAD
1. In 1942 and early ′43, in that city, the sky was bleached bedsheet-white each morning.
2. All day long, as I carried the souls across it, that sheet was splashed with blood, until it was full and bulging to the earth.
3. In the evening, it would be wrung out and bleached again, ready for the next dawn.
4. And that was when the fighting was only during the day.
With his son gone, Hans Hubermann stood for a few moments longer. The street looked so big.
When he reappeared inside, Mama fixed her gaze on him, but no words were exchanged. She didn’t admonish him at all, which, as you know, was highly unusual. Perhaps she decided he was injured enough, having been labeled a coward by his only son.
For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it.
“Papa?” Liesel asked, but he did not look at her. “What was he talking about? What did he mean when …”
“Nothing,” Papa answered. He spoke quiet and calm, to the table. “It’s nothing. Forget about him, Liesel.” It took perhaps a minute for him to speak again. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” He looked at her this time. “Don’t you have a bonfire to go to?”
The book thief went and changed into her Hitler Youth uniform, and half an hour later, they left, walking to the BDM headquarters. From there, the children would be taken to the town square in their groups.
Speeches would be made.
A fire would be lit.
A book would be stolen.
100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT
People lined the streets as the youth of Germany marched toward the town hall and the square. On quite a few occasions Liesel forgot about her mother and any other problem of which she currently held ownership. There was a swell in her chest as the people clapped them on. Some kids waved to their parents, but only briefly—it was an explicit instruction that they march straight and don’t look or wave to the crowd.
When Rudy’s group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a discrepancy. Tommy Müller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him.
“Dummkopf!” the boy spat before turning around.
“I’m sorry,” said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. “I couldn’t hear.” It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.
At the end of the marching, the Hitler Youth divisions were allowed to disperse. It would have been near impossible to keep them all together as the bonfire burned in their eyes and excited them. Together, they cried one united “heil Hitler” and were free to wander. Liesel looked for Rudy, but once the crowd of children scattered, she was caught inside a mess of uniforms and high-pitched words. Kids calling out to other kids.
By four-thirty, the air had cooled considerably.
People joked that they needed warming up. “That’s all this trash is good for anyway.”
Carts were used to wheel it all in. It was dumped in the middle of the town square and dowsed with something sweet. Books and paper and other material would slide or tumble down, only to be thrown back onto the pile. From further away, it looked like something volcanic. Or something grotesque and alien that had somehow landed miraculously in the middle of town and needed to be snuffed out, and fast.
The applied smell leaned toward the crowd, who were kept at a good distance. There were well in excess of a thousand people, on the ground, on the town hall steps, on the rooftops that surrounded the square.
When Liesel tried to make her way through, a crackling sound prompted her to think that the fire had already begun. It hadn’t. The sound was kinetic humans, flowing, charging up.
They’ve started without me!
Although something inside told her that this was a crime—after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned—she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn’t help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.
The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen.
Bits and pieces continued falling to its sides as Liesel hunted for Rudy. Where is that Saukerl?
When she looked up, the sky was crouching.
A horizon of Nazi flags and uniforms rose upward, crippling her view every time she attempted to see over a smaller child’s head. It was pointless. The crowd was itself. There was no swaying it, squeezing through, or reasoning with it. You breathed with it and you sang its songs. You waited for its fire.
Silence was requested by a man on a podium. His uniform was shiny brown. The iron was practically still on it. The silence began.
His first words: “Heil Hitler!”
His first action: the salute to the Führer.
“Today is a beautiful day,” he continued. “Not only is it our great leader’s birthday—but we also stop our enemies once again. We stop them reaching into our minds ….”
Liesel still attempted to fight her way through.
“We put an end to the disease that has been spread through Germany for the last twenty years, if not more!” He was performing now what is called a Schreierei—a consummate exhibition of passionate shouting—warning the crowd to be watchful,
to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the motherland with its deplorable ways. “The immoral! The Kommunisten!” That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men. “Die Juden—the Jews!”
Halfway through the speech, Liesel surrendered. As the word communist seized her, the remainder of the Nazi recital swept by, either side, lost somewhere in the German feet around her. Waterfalls of words. A girl treading water. She thought it again. Kommunisten.
Up until now, at the BDM, they had been told that Germany was the superior race, but no one else in particular had been mentioned. Of course, everyone knew about the Jews, as they were the main offender in regard to violating the German ideal. Not once, however, had the communists been mentioned until today, regardless of the fact that people of such political creed were also to be punished.
She had to get out.
In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of one word.
She saw it all so clearly.
Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.
Her dead brother.
“And now we say goodbye to this trash, this poison.”
Just before Liesel Meminger pivoted with nausea to exit the crowd, the shiny, brown-shirted creature walked from the podium. He received a torch from an accomplice and lit the mound, which dwarfed him in all its culpability. “Heil Hitler!”
The audience: “Heil Hitler!”
A collection of men walked from a platform and surrounded the heap, igniting it, much to the approval of everyone. Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Let’s not forget the smiling.
Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of “heil Hitlering.” You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire.