HERE IS A SMALL FACT - YOU ARE GOING TO DIE 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on ...(more)
Yes, an illustrious career.
I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.
When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything. Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them? Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler's Mein Kampf ? Was it reading in the shelters? The last parade to Dachau? Was it The Word Shaker? Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred. In any case, that's getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger's beginnings on Himmel Street and the art of saumensching:
Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wirelike shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.
Her hair was a close enough brand of German blond, but she had dangerous eyes. Dark brown. You didn't really want brown eyes in Germany around that time. Perhaps she received them from her father, but she had no way of knowing, as she couldn't remember him. There was really only one thing she knew about her father. It was a label she did not understand.
A STRANGE WORD
She'd heard it several times in the past few years.
There were boardinghouses crammed with people, rooms filled with questions. And that word. That strange word was always there somewhere, standing in the corner, watching from the dark. It wore suits, uniforms. No matter where they went, there it was, each time her father was mentioned. She could smell it and taste it. She just couldn't spell or understand it. When she asked her mother what it meant, she was told that it wasn't important, that she shouldn't worry about such things. At one boardinghouse, there was a healthier woman who tried to teach the children to write, using charcoal on the wall. Liesel was tempted to ask her the meaning, but it never eventuated. One day, that woman was taken away for questioning. She didn't come back.
When Liesel arrived in Molching, she had at least some inkling that she was being saved, but that was not a comfort. If her mother loved her, why leave her on someone else's doorstep? Why? Why?
The fact that she knew the answer--if only at the most basic level--seemed beside the point. Her mother was constantly sick and there was never any money to fix her. Liesel knew that. But that didn't mean she had to accept it. No matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment. Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone.
The Hubermanns lived in one of the small, boxlike houses on Himmel Street. A few rooms, a kitchen, and a shared outhouse with neighbors. The roof was flat and there was a shallow basement for storage. It was supposedly not a basement of adequate depth. In 1939, this wasn't a problem. Later, in '42 and '43, it was. When air raids started, they always needed to rush down the street to a better shelter.
In the beginning, it was the profanity that made an immediate impact. It was so vehement and prolific. Every second word was either Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch. For people who aren't familiar with these words, I should explain. Sau, of course, refers to pigs. In the case of Saumensch, it serves to castigate, berate, or plain humiliate a female. Saukerl (pronounced "saukairl") is for a male. Arschloch can be translated directly into "asshole." That word, however, does not differentiate between the sexes. It simply is.
"Saumensch, du dreckiges!" Liesel's foster mother shouted that first evening when she refused to have a bath. "You filthy pig! Why won't you get undressed?" She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion.
Liesel, naturally, was bathed in anxiety. There was no way she was getting into any bath, or into bed for that matter. She was twisted into one corner of the closetlike washroom, clutching for the nonexistent arms of the wall for some level of support. There was nothing but dry paint, difficult breath, and the deluge of abuse from Rosa.
"Leave her alone." Hans Hubermann entered the fray. His gentle voice made its way in, as if slipping through a crowd. "Leave her to me."
He moved closer and sat on the floor, against the wall. The tiles were cold and unkind.
"You know how to roll a cigarette?" he asked her, and for the next hour or so, they sat in the rising pool of darkness, playing with the tobacco and the cigarette papers and Hans Hubermann smoking them.
When the hour was up, Liesel could roll a cigarette moderately well. She still didn't have a bath.
SOME FACTS ABOUT HANS HUBERMANN
He loved to smoke.
The main thing he enjoyed about smoking
was the rolling.
He was a painter by trade and played the piano
accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter,
when he could make a little money playing in the pubs
of Molching, like the Knoller.
He had already cheated me in one world war but
would later be put into another (as a perverse
kind of reward), where he would somehow
manage to avoid me again.
To most people, Hans Hubermann was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly, his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I'm sure you've met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background, even if he was standing at the front of a line. He was always just there. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable.
The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadence, let's say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger. (The human child--so much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.) She saw it immediately.
The quiet air around him.
When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father's eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.
SOME FACTS ABOUT
She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her
browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did
the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier
households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate
almost anyone she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger.
Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.
It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words
at various intervals.
When Liesel finally had a bath, after two weeks of living on Himmel Street, Rosa gave her an enormous, injury-inducing hug. Nearly choking her, she said, " Saumensch, du dreckiges--it's about time!"
After a few months, they were no longer Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann. With a typical fistful of words, Rosa said, "Now listen, Liesel--from now on you call me Mama." She thought a moment. "What did you call your real mother?"
Liesel answered quietly. "Auch Mama--also Mama."
"Well, I'm Mama Number Two, then." She looked over at her husband. "And him over there." She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table. "That Saukerl, that filthy pig--you call him Papa, verstehst? Understand?"
"Yes," Liesel promptly agreed. Quick answers were appreciated in this household.
"Yes, Mama," Mama corrected her. "Saumensch. Call me Mama when you talk to me."
At that moment, Hans Hubermann had just completed rolling a cigarette, having licked the paper and joined it all up. He looked over at Liesel and winked. She would have no trouble calling him Papa.