Erik Vandenburg and Hans Huberman glanced at each other. If someone stepped forward now, the platoon would make his life a living hell for the rest of their time together. No one likes a coward. On the other hand, if someone was to be nominated…
Still no one stepped forward, but a voice stooped out and ambled toward the sergeant…. It said, “Hubermann, sir.” The voice belonged to Erik Vandenburg.
”He taught me to play,” Hans informed her, as though it might help.
Perhaps it did, for the devastated woman asked if he could play it for her, and she silently wept as he pressed the buttons and keys of a clumsy “Blue Danube Waltz.” It was her husband’s favorite.
“You know,” Hans explained to her, “he saved my life…. He—if there’s anything you ever need.” He slid a piece of paper with his name and address on it across the table.
He clung to his mother’s hand and that of Sarah, the nearest of his cousins. “I won’t leave. If we can’t all go, I don’t go, either.”
He was lying.
When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn’t want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he?
But he did.
“Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.” Hans was clearly worried he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact.
He smiled weakly. “All the best for your birthday…. I didn’t know, or else I could have given you something.” A blatant lie—he had nothing to give, except maybe Mein Kampf, and there was no way he’d give such propaganda to a young German girl….
[S]he walked over and hugged him for the first time. “Thanks, Max.”…
Only later would she find out about the helpless expression on Max Vandenburg’s face. She would also discover that he resolved at that moment to give her something back.