Page 38

The Book Thief

“Schreibe,” she instructed herself. “Write.”

After more than two hours, Liesel Meminger started writing, not knowing how she was ever going to get this right. How could she ever know that someone would pick her story up and carry it with him everywhere?

No one expects these things.

They don’t plan them.

She used a small paint can for a seat, a large one as a table, and Liesel stuck the pencil onto the first page. In the middle, she wrote the following.


a small story


Liesel Meminger


Her hand was sore by page three.

Words are so heavy, she thought, but as the night wore on, she was able to complete eleven pages.


I try to ignore it, but I know this all

started with the train and the snow and my

coughing brother. I stole my first book that

day. It was a manual for digging graves and

I stole it on my way to Himmel Street ….

She fell asleep down there, on a bed of drop sheets, with the paper curling at the edges, up on the taller paint can. In the morning, Mama stood above her, her chlorinated eyes questioning.

“Liesel,” she said, “what on earth are you doing down here?”

“I’m writing, Mama.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Rosa stomped back up the steps. “Be back up in five minutes or you get the bucket treatment. Verstehst?”

“I understand.”

Every night, Liesel made her way down to the basement. She kept the book with her at all times. For hours, she wrote, attempting each night to complete ten pages of her life. There was so much to consider, so many things in danger of being left out. Just be patient, she told herself, and with the mounting pages, the strength of her writing fist grew.

Sometimes she wrote about what was happening in the basement at the time of writing. She had just finished the moment when Papa had slapped her on the church steps and how they’d “heil Hitlered” together. Looking across, Hans Hubermann was packing the accordion away. He’d just played for half an hour as Liesel wrote.


Papa sat with me tonight. He brought the

accordion down and sat close to where Max

used to sit. I often look at his fingers and

face when he plays. The accordion breathes.

There are lines on his cheeks. They look drawn

on, and for some reason, when I see them,

I want to cry. It is not for any sadness or

pride. I just like the way they move and

change. Sometimes I think my papa is an

accordion. When he looks at me and smiles

and breathes, I hear the notes.

After ten nights of writing, Munich was bombed again. Liesel was up and was asleep in the basement. She did not hear the cuckoo or the sirens, and she was holding the book in her sleep when Papa came to wake her. “Liesel, come.” She took The Book Thief and each of her other books, and they fetched Frau Holtzapfel.

PAGE 175

A book floated down the Amper River.

A boy jumped in, caught up to it, and held

it in his right hand. He grinned. He stood

waist-deep in the icy, Decemberish water.

“How about a kiss, Saumensch?” he said.

By the next raid, on October 2, she was finished. Only a few dozen pages remained blank and the book thief was already starting to read over what she’d written. The book was divided into ten parts, all of which were given the title of books or stories and described how each affected her life.

Often, I wonder what page she was up to when I walked down Himmel Street in the dripping-tap rain, five nights later. I wonder what she was reading when the first bomb dropped from the rib cage of a plane.

Personally, I like to imagine her looking briefly at the wall, at Max Vandenburg’s tightrope cloud, his dripping sun, and the figures walking toward it. Then she looks at the agonizing attempts of her paint-written spelling. I see the Führer coming down the basement steps with his tied-together boxing gloves hanging casually around his neck. And the book thief reads, rereads, and rereads her last sentence, for many hours.


I have hated the words and

I have loved them,

and I hope I have made them right.

Outside, the world whistled. The rain was stained.


Almost all the words are fading now. The black book is disintegrating under the weight of my travels. That’s another reason for telling this story. What did we say earlier? Say something enough times and you never forget it. Also, I can tell you what happened after the book thief’s words had stopped, and how I came to know her story in the first place. Like this.

Picture yourself walking down Himmel Street in the dark. Your hair is getting wet and the air pressure is on the verge of drastic change. The first bomb hits Tommy Müller’s apartment block. His face twitches innocently in his sleep and I kneel at his bed. Next, his sister. Kristina’s feet are sticking out from under the blanket. They match the hopscotch footprints on the street. Her little toes. Their mother sleeps a few feet away. Four cigarettes sit disfigured in her ashtray, and the roofless ceiling is hot plate red. Himmel Street is burning.

The sirens began to howl.

“Too late now,” I whispered, “for that little exercise,” because everyone had been fooled, and fooled again. First up, the Allies had feigned a raid on Munich in order to strike at Stuttgart. But next, ten planes had remained. Oh, there were warnings, all right. In Molching, they came with the bombs.


Munich, Ellenberg, Johannson, Himmel.

The main street + three more,

in the poorer part of town.

In the space of a few minutes, all of them were gone.

A church was chopped down.

Earth was destroyed where Max Vandenburg had stayed on his feet.

At 31 Himmel Street, Frau Holtzapfel appeared to be waiting for me in the kitchen. A broken cup was in front of her and in a last moment of awakeness, her face seemed to ask just what in the hell had taken me so long.

By contrast, Frau Diller was fast asleep. Her bulletproof glasses were shattered next to the bed. Her shop was obliterated, the counter landing across the road, and her framed photo of Hitler was taken from the wall and thrown to the floor. The man was positively mugged and beaten to a glass-shattering pulp. I stepped on him on my way out.

The Fiedlers were well organized, all in bed, all covered. Pfiffikus was hidden up to his nose.

At the Steiners’, I ran my fingers through Barbara’s lovely combed hair, I took the serious look from Kurt’s serious sleeping face, and one by one, I kissed the smaller ones good night.

Then Rudy.

• • •

Oh, crucified Christ, Rudy …

He lay in bed with one of his sisters. She must have kicked him or muscled her way into the majority of the bed space because he was on the very edge with his arm around her. The boy slept. His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet?

No one.

There was only me.

And I’m not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart. With him, I tried a little harder. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name Jesse Owens as he ran through an imaginary tape. I
saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbor. He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.

Lastly, the Hubermanns.



He was tall in the bed and I could see the silver through his eyelids. His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do—the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places. This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping. He lay in my arms and rested. There was an itchy lung for a last cigarette and an immense, magnetic pull toward the basement, for the girl who was his daughter and was writing a book down there that he hoped to read one day.


His soul whispered it as I carried him. But there was no Liesel in that house. Not for me, anyway.

For me, there was only a Rosa, and yes, I truly think I picked her up midsnore, for her mouth was open and her papery pink lips were still in the act of moving. If she’d seen me, I’m sure she would have called me a Saukerl, though I would not have taken it badly. After reading The Book Thief, I discovered that she called everyone that. Saukerl. Saumensch. Especially the people she loved. Her elastic hair was out. It rubbed against the pillow and her wardrobe body had risen with the beating of her heart. Make no mistake, the woman had a heart. She had a bigger one than people would think. There was a lot in it, stored up, high in miles of hidden shelving. Remember that she was the woman with the instrument strapped to her body in the long, moon-slit night. She was a Jew feeder without a question in the world on a man’s first night in Molching. And she was an arm reacher, deep into a mattress, to deliver a sketchbook to a teenage girl.


I moved from street to street and

came back for a single man named

Schultz at the bottom of Himmel.

• • •

He couldn’t hold out inside the collapsed house, and I was carrying his soul up Himmel Street when I noticed the LSE shouting and laughing.

There was a small valley in the mountain range of rubble.

The hot sky was red and turning. Pepper streaks were starting to swirl and I became curious. Yes, yes, I know what I told you at the beginning. Usually my curiosity leads to the dreaded witnessing of some kind of human outcry, but on this occasion, I have to say that although it broke my heart, I was, and still am, glad I was there.

When they pulled her out, it’s true that she started to wail and scream for Hans Hubermann. The men of the LSE attempted to keep her in their powdery arms, but the book thief managed to break away. Desperate humans often seem able to do this.

She did not know where she was running, for Himmel Street no longer existed. Everything was new and apocalyptic. Why was the sky red? How could it be snowing? And why did the snowflakes burn her arms?

Liesel slowed to a staggering walk and concentrated up ahead.

Where’s Frau Diller’s? she thought. Where’s—

She wandered a short while longer until the man who found her took her arm and kept talking. “You’re just in shock, my girl. It’s just shock; you’re going to be fine.”

“What’s happened?” Liesel asked. “Is this still Himmel Street?”

“Yes.” The man had disappointed eyes. What had he seen these past few years? “This is Himmel. You got bombed, my girl. Es tut mir leid, Schatzi. I’m sorry, darling.”

The girl’s mouth wandered on, even if her body was now still. She had forgotten her previous wails for Hans Hubermann. That was years ago—a bombing will do that. She said, “We have to get my papa, my mama. We have to get Max out of the basement. If he’s not there, he’s in the hallway, looking out the window. He does that sometimes when there’s a raid—he doesn’t get to look much at the sky, you see. I have to tell him how the weather looks now. He’ll never believe me ….”

Her body buckled at that moment and the LSE man caught her and sat her down. “We’ll move her in a minute,” he told his sergeant. The book thief looked at what was heavy and hurting in her hand.

The book.

The words.

Her fingers were bleeding, just like they had on her arrival here.

The LSE man lifted her and started to lead her away. A wooden spoon was on fire. Aman walked past with a broken accordion case and Liesel could see the instrument inside. She could see its white teeth and the black notes in between. They smiled at her and triggered an alertness to her reality. We were bombed, she thought, and now she turned to the man at her side and said, “That’s my papa’s accordion.” Again. “That’s my papa’s accordion.”

“Don’t worry, young girl, you’re safe; just come a little farther.”

But Liesel did not come.

She looked to where the man was taking the accordion and followed him. With the red sky still showering its beautiful ash, she stopped the tall LSE worker and said, “I’ll take that if you like—it’s my papa’s.” Softly, she took it from the man’s hand and began carrying it off. It was right about then that she saw the first body.

The accordion case fell from her grip. The sound of an explosion.

Frau Holtzapfel was scissored on the ground.



She turns on her heel and looks as far

as she can down this ruined canal

that was once Himmel Street. She sees two

men carrying a body and she follows them.

When she saw the rest of them, Liesel coughed. She listened momentarily as a man told the others that they had found one of the bodies in pieces, in one of the maple trees.

There were shocked pajamas and torn faces. It was the boy’s hair she saw first.


She did more than mouth the word now. “Rudy?”

He lay with yellow hair and closed eyes, and the book thief ran toward him and fell down. She dropped the black book. “Rudy,” she sobbed, “wake up ….” She grabbed him by his shirt and gave him just the slightest disbelieving shake. “Wake up, Rudy,” and now, as the sky went on heating and showering ash, Liesel was holding Rudy Steiner’s shirt by the front. “Rudy, please.” The tears grappled with her face. “Rudy, please, wake up, Goddamn it, wake up, I love you. Come on, Rudy, come on, Jesse Owens, don’t you know I love you, wake up, wake up, wake up ….”

But nothing cared.

The rubble just climbed higher. Concrete hills with caps of red. A beautiful, tear-stomped girl, shaking the dead.

“Come on, Jesse Owens—”

But the boy did not wake.

In disbelief, Liesel buried her head into Rudy’s chest. She held his limp body, trying to keep him from lolling back, until she needed to return him to the butchered ground. She did it gently.

Slow. Slow.

“God, Rudy …”

She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Liesel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection. She kissed him long and soft, and when she pulled herself away, she touched his mouth with her fingers. Her hands were trembling, her lips were fleshy, and she leaned in once more, this time losing control and misjudging it. Their teeth collided on the demolished world of Himmel Street.

She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding.


The bodies of Mama and Papa,

; both lying tangled in the gravel

bedsheet of Himmel Street

Liesel did not run or walk or move at all. Her eyes had scoured the humans and stopped hazily when she noticed the tall man and the short, wardrobe woman. That’s my mama. That’s my papa. The words were stapled to her.

“They’re not moving,” she said quietly. “They’re not moving.”

Perhaps if she stood still long enough, it would be they who moved, but they remained motionless for as long as Liesel did. I realized at that moment that she was not wearing any shoes. What an odd thing to notice right then. Perhaps I was trying to avoid her face, for the book thief was truly an irretrievable mess.

She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did. Slowly, Liesel walked to her mama and papa and sat down between them. She held Mama’s hand and began speaking to her. “Remember when I came here, Mama? I clung to the gate and cried. Do you remember what you said to everyone on the street that day?” Her voice wavered now. “You said, ‘What are you assholes looking at?’” She took Mama’s hand and touched her wrist. “Mama, I know that you … I liked when you came to school and told me Max had woken up. Did you know I saw you with Papa’s accordion?” She tightened her grip on the hardening hand. “I came and watched and you were beautiful. Goddamn it, you were so beautiful, Mama.”


Papa. She would not, and

could not, look at Papa.

Not yet. Not now.

Papa was a man with silver eyes, not dead ones.

Papa was an accordion!

But his bellows were all empty.

Nothing went in and nothing came out.

She began to rock back and forth. A shrill, quiet, smearing note was caught somewhere in her mouth until she was finally able to turn.

To Papa.

At that point, I couldn’t help it. I walked around to see her better, and from the moment I witnessed her face again, I could tell that this was who she loved the most. Her expression stroked the man on his face. It followed one of the lines down his cheek. He had sat in the washroom with her and taught her how to roll a cigarette. He gave bread to a dead man on Munich Street and told the girl to keep reading in the bomb shelter. Perhaps if he didn’t, she might not have ended up writing in the basement.

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