In the sixty-fifth and sixty-sixth chapters of The Book Thief, we learn where Hans Hubermann was sent and job he was given, and Rudy shows Liesel how her father inspired him. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
Things get worse, and then they sort of get better. I’ll take the joy where I can find it.
CH. 65: THE COLLECTOR
Surprisingly, Zusak doesn’t give us a long time to wait to share with us what happened to Hans Hubermann in those first few weeks away at war. I suppose I expected it to at least be five to ten chapters before we’d see him again, but now it feels necessary for him to tell this story right here to give us insight both into the world war and the strange turn Hans’s life has taken.
Unfortunately, Alex Steiner and Hans were not kept together, though neither of them was sent into actual fighting either. Alex is sent to Austria to do mending. Hans is sent right back to Stuttgart, where most of this story began, and given a job with the LSE, the Air Raid Special Unit:
The job of the LSE was to remain aboveground during air raids and put out fires, prop up the walls of buildings, and rescue anyone who had been trapped during the raid. As Hans soon discovered, there was also an alternative definition for the acronym. The men in the unit would explain to him on his first day that it really stood for Leichensammler Einheit–Dead Body Collectors.
Short of being put on the front lines, I can’t imagine a worse position. He has to stay aboveground during air raids? I suppose I’d never even thought about people being needed to do this job, but it does make a lot of sense. Which is why it also makes sense that this is where Hans is sent as well, since his crime made him particularly unwanted.
I was shocked that not only does the head sergeant ask Hans what he did to get sent there, but Hans ACTUALLY TELLS THEM. It doesn’t end like I expected:
When Hans explained the bread, the Jews, and the whip, the round-faced sergeant gave out a short spurt of laughter. “You’re lucky to be alive.” His eyes were also round and he was constantly wiping them. They were either tired or itchy or fully smoke and dust. “Just remember that the enemy here is not in front of you.”
Hans was about to ask the obvious question when a voice arrived from behind. Attached to it was the slender face of a young man with a smile like a sneer. Reinhold Zucker. “With us,” he said, “the enemy isn’t over the hill or in any specific direction. It’s all around.” He returned his focus to the letter he was writing. “You’ll see.”
I was still confused about this, as I imagine Hans was, too. What the hell does that mean???
In the messy space of a few months, Reinhold Zucker would be dead. He would be killed by Hans Hubermann’s seat.
WHAT THE FUCK DEATH. WHY DO YOU DO THIS AND MAKE ME SUFFER SO? How the hell does someone DIE BY SEAT?
The answer isn’t given to us quite yet, but Zusak describes to us what Hans’s daily routine comes to look like. Despite that the details are different every single time, there’s a pattern to it all. Essentially, the LSE is almost like a janitorial crew in a sense, moving through towns to clean up what they can, or heading to places that might be hit next so they can help during the bombing.
From the beginning, it was clear that they all owned a seat.
Reinhold Zucker’s was in the middle of the left row.
Hans Hubermann’s was at the very back, where the daylight stretched itself out. He learned quickly to be on the lookout for any rubbish that might be thrown from anywhere in the truck’s interior. Hans reserved a special respect for cigarette butts, still burning as they whistled by.
So….their truck is blown up? That’s all I can guess at this point.
Hans does clean up for the most part until the end of November 1942, when he gets to experience his first air raid from aboveground. The entire city, unnamed, is surrounded with a thick smoke, buildings crumbling, rubble suffocating:
Fires were burning and the ruined cases of buildings were piled up in mounds. Framework leaned. The smoke bombs stood like matchsticks in the ground, filling the city’s lungs.
In this specific instance, Hans and three of his group, including the sergeant, are busy watering down a fire and each other, just to be safe, when a building falls behind them, coming to rest just a few meters behind Hans Hubermann. As they get away from the smoke and dust enveloping that part of the city, I wondered if these men were wearing any sort of protection on their faces. Zusak describes how the dust becomes like “paste” due to the water from the hoses and their own sweat mixing on their skin, and this sort of becomes a thing that happens to these men as they work through these various cities:
All four men were plastered with the gray-and-white conglomeration of dust. When they stood up fully, to resume work, only small cracks of their uniform could be seen.
The idea that the country’s least wanted men are getting the filthiest job is not lost on me.
Hans finds small joys in his work, though, which is most certainly what Hans does well. In this case, traveling from city to city, they’re tasked with trying to find anything possible to help hold up the leaning and sagging buildings, and Hans’s uniquely creative mind is adept at the task:
He almost came to enjoy finding a smoldering rafter or disheveled slab of concrete to prop those elbows up, to give them something to rest on.
I couldn’t help but think of Liesel when reading this line. In his own way, this is what he did for her as well, to find the things at his disposal to prop her up after her traumatizing entrance into 33 Himmel Street.
Despite this, the joy can’t always hold back the horrors of war, and Hans comes to understand just how horrific this job is and why only the worst of the worst are assigned it. It’s the people. It’s always the people.
What Zusak describes here is some of the most disturbing shit I’ve ever read, and I know that it’s either a word-for-word transcription of a story told to him by his grandmother or maybe it’s culled from anecdotes, or maybe it’s just not hard to imagine that the second World War could produce such miniature tragedies with such a ferocious tenacity. Sometimes, Hans would come across someone screaming a name, and though the name was different each time, it ended in one of two ways:
As the density subsided, the roll call of names limped through the ruptured streets, sometimes ending with an ash-filled embrace or a knelt-down howl of grief. They accumulated, hour by hour, like sweet and sour dreams, waiting to happen.
The horrors and the visual assaults are so frequent that, as Zusak describes, “Hans would need to perfect the art of forgetting.” What else can you do? You either detach yourself from it all, or it will get under your skin and haunt you.
One of those assaults involves an older man who wanders towards Hans, who is trying to stabilize a building:
A bloodstained was signed across his face. It trailed off down his throat and neck. he was wearing a white shirt with a dark red color and he held his leg as if it was next to him. “Could you prop me up now, young man?”
Hans picked him up and carried him out of the haze.
And before I even get a chance to process this (I had to read it twice to catch what Zusak was describing), Death puts this moment into context for us:
* * * A SMALL, SAD NOTE * * *
I visited that small city street with the man
still in Hans Hubermann’s arms. The sky was
It wasn’t until he placed him down on a patch of concrete-coated grass that Hans noticed.
“What is it?” one of the other men asked.
Hans could only point.
“Oh.” A hand pulled him away. “Get used to it, Hubermann.”
How do you get used to something like that? Hans has been through war before, but something is so personally terrifying about an event like this. But Hans has a job to do, and concerning himself strictly with that is the only way to distract himself from the details. Develop a routine, find comfort in the normalcy of inanimate objects. Work work work work work.
Sometimes even that doesn’t work.
After perhaps two hours, he rushed from a building with the sergeant and two other men. He didn’t watch the ground and tripped. Only when he returned to his haunches and saw the others looking in distress at the obstacle did he realize.
The corpse was facedown.
It lay in a blanket of powder and dust, and it was holding its ears.
Oh christ, who is it?
It was a boy.
Perhaps eleven or twelve years old.
I can’t. I just can’t. Of course, my brain went straight to Liesel, who’s just a year older than this dead boy in the dust and rubble.
Not far away, as they progressed along the street, they found a woman calling the name Rudolf. She was drawn to the four men and met them in the mist. Her body was frail and bent with worry.
“Have you seen my boy?”
“How old is he?” the sergeant asked.
Oh, Christ. Oh, crucified Christ.
My thoughts exactly. Even worse, the woman calls out to the boy, calling him “Rudy,” and now it’s impossible for Hans to think of anything but his family and friends on Himmel Street, and he breathes a prayer, hoping they are safe.
“How was it down there?” someone asked.
Papa’s lungs were full of sky.
This is so fucked up.
CH. 66: THE BREAD EATERS
It’s hard for Liesel, far away from her father, to think of anything but the three men taken away from Himmel Street. Liesel’s imagination wanders, wondering what their lives are like, what they are doing, what they’re thinking, and above everything else, missing them dearly.
One afternoon, she lifted the accordion from its case and polished it with a rag. Only once, just before she put it away, did she take the step that Mama could not. She placed her finger on one of the keys and softly pumped the bellows. Rosa had been right. It only made the room feel emptier.
That emptiness seems to appear everywhere that Liesel goes, and she can see it inside of Rudy as well, who misses his father in his own way as well. Sometimes he’ll explain what appears in his father’s letters, but this only causes Liesel to miss her own father more, since his letters are nowhere near as descriptive or detailed.
Even around town, she sees Alex, Hans, and Max in places and people she encounters, so she begins to appreciate the distraction that reading to Frau Holtzapfel provides her:
The old woman sometimes made tea or gave Liesel some soup that was infinitely better than Mama’s. Less watery.
Well, at least something is going right for Liesel.
The remainder of chapter sixty-six, despite being from Liesel’s point of view, focuses mostly on Rudy Steiner. After their fathers left Molching, there is just one more parade of Jews to Dachau. For Liesel, she entertains a largely illogical thought as she runs to watch the parade. Maybe Max Vandenburg will be in that parade. At least then she would know he was still alive. But then she’s torn: what if he’s not? Maybe he’s free. The ideas confuse and excite her as she rushes to Munich Street to watch the parade.
Rudy, though–brave and magnificent Rudy–has a much different idea for this parade. He arrives with two bikes and a bag full of quarters of pieces of bread. It was hard not to realize what Rudy had planned here, as it’s impossible not to think of the last time bread was involved in a parade of Jews. Riding out far ahead of the parade, Rudy reveals his plan to drop bread in the road for the Jews.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
He slapped some bread onto her palm. “Your papa did.”
How could she argue? It was worth a whipping.
Oh, Rudy, I love you so much. Why do you have to die?
The two of them assemble into their hiding places to watch the parade, and as the first Jew hungrily snatches up a piece of bread and shoves it in his mouth, Liesel’s imagination gets the best of her. Wondering if the Jew is her Max, she tries to get a better view, upsetting Rudy, who knows they cannot risk getting spotted.
Unfortunately, despite being relieved that Max is not in that line of Jews marching to their certain death, the two of them get spotted.
They chose different directions, under the rafters of branches and the tall ceiling of the trees.
Just wanted to point out how fantastic this line is, giving the forest the appearance of a room. It makes the scene feel so much more claustrophobic.
Thankfully, Liesel only gets a boot to her behind from the soldier, who tells her to keep running. After running for a mile without stopping, it takes her forty-five minutes to return to Rudy at the bikes.
“I told you not to get too close,” he said.
She showed him her backside. “Have I got a footprint?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. At least for now, they were ok.