As I think I have mentioned the other day, I am in the process of reading the beautiful “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It’s a unique kind of book, set in Nazi Germany and there are a lot of scenes filled with meaning that just made me cry like a baby.
But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread,
not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.
The love of Liesel for her papa
In the basement, when she wrote about her life, Liesel vowed that she would never drink champagne again, for it would never taste as good as it did on that warm afternoon in July.
It was the same with accordions.
Many times, she wanted to ask her papa if he might teach her to play, but somehow, something always stopped her. Perhaps an unknown intuition told her that she would never be able to play it like Hans Hubermann. Surely, not even the world’s greatest accordionists could compare. They could never be equal to the casual concentration on Papa’s face. Or there wouldn’t be a paintwork-traded cigarette slouched on the player’s lips. And they could never make a small mistake with a three-note laugh of hindsight. Not the way he could. At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her ears. She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue.
Sometimes she sat against the wall, longing for the warm finger of paint to wander just once more down the side of her nose, or to watch the sandpaper texture of her papa’s hands.
If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it.
There is something heartbreaking of loving someone and then loosing them. Of unconditionally giving your love away to a person that will always be in your mind associated with a sound or a taste.
The Jewish march through the city
The ache in his arms was unbearable to watch as they shook, trying to lift his body. They gave way one more time before he stood and took another group of steps.
He was dead.
The man was dead.
Just give him five more minutes and he would surely fall into the German gutter and die. They would all let him, and they would all watch.
Then, one human.
It happened so quickly.
The hand that held firmly on to Liesel’s let it drop to her side as the man came struggling by. She felt her palm slap her hip.
Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out. He made his way through the people, onto the road. The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.
When it changed hands, the Jew slid down. He fell to his knees and held Papa’s shins. He buried his face between them and thanked him.
With tears in her eyes, she saw the man slide farther forward, pushing Papa back to cry into his ankles. Other Jews walked past, all of them watching this small, futile miracle. They streamed by, like human water.
That day, a few would reach the ocean. They would be handed a white cap.
This simple gesture of humanity, of inability to stand still in the face of injustice – even when it ended in whips and tears for both the Jew and Hans Huberman is one of the most important moments in the book. Being German is second to being a Human being and to aiding another in trouble. Hans gave back a bit of dignity to the Jew before his death in the concentration camp..
When the elderly Jew climbed to his feet for the last time and continued on, he looked briefly back. He took a last sad glance at the man who was kneeling now himself, whose back was burning with four lines of fire, whose knees were aching on the road. If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human.
The death of the pilot and the teddy bear
As the sky began to charcoal toward light, we both moved on. We both observed the boy as he reached into his toolbox again and searched through some picture frames to pull out a small, stuffed yellow toy.
Carefully, he climbed to the dying man.
He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot’s shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat.
The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, “Thank you.” His straight-line cuts opened as he spoke, and a small drop of blood rolled crookedly down his throat.
“What?” Rudy asked him. “Was hast du gesagt? What did you say?”
Unfortunately, I beat him to the answer. The time was there and I was reaching into the cockpit. I slowly extracted the pilot’s soul from his ruffled uniform and rescued him from the broken plane. The crowd played with the silence as I made my way through. I jostled free.
Above me, the sky eclipsed—just a last moment of darkness— and I swear I could see a black signature in the shape of a swastika. It loitered untidily above.
“Heil Hitler,” I said, but I was well into the trees by then. Behind me, a teddy bear rested on the shoulder of a corpse. A lemon candle stood below the branches. The pilot’s soul was in my arms.
This simple moment when two German kids offer a kind gesture to a dying English pilot moved me. They did not understand each other but the language of Death can be universal. They sat with him as he breathed his last breadth and offered their company. No-one should die alone.
It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.
A SMALL, SAD HOPE. No one wanted to bomb Himmel Street. No one would bomb a place named after heaven, would they?
The last time I cried (and I feel like crying now even thinking about it) is when Death came on Himmel Street and took everyone that Lisel loved with him. He tiptoed around houses, grabbed people in their sleep, gently took each and every soul with him. All except Lisel.
I have always wondered how Death looks like and by his words, to know how he looks, I would just have to look in the mirror. He’s us.
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.
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?
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.
Rudy – with his whole life ahead of him, always pranking, always laughing. A golden boy.
The death of the Hubermans
While death is inevitable, there are certain people close to your heart, that you know, that you grew up with, that you cannot let go.
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.
Hans is Liesel’s foster father, her Papa. He is a very tall man who walks upright, plays the accordion, and has silver eyes. His quiet, gentle nature is what wins Liesel over, and Death tells us that he is the one Liesel loves most. And he’s the one I cried most for.