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June 17, 2024

Book Thief

By Olga Livshin

I have loved books since childhood. Nothing made me happier than holding a new book in my hands, touching the covers, leafing through the pages, and knowing it was mine. Never in my life have I craved anything as much as I craved books in my youth. Every purchase was a celebration. A couple of times, my passion for books led me astray: I stole the books I couldn't buy. I was a book thief. And I fondly remember the people I stole the books from.

When I was a high-school student in Moscow in the '70s, I disliked going to parties or spending time with friends. I would rather snuggle at home on a sofa with a good book. In grade nine, I set myself a goal to read every piece of classic world literature I could put my hands on. Moliere and Cervantes, Shakespeare and Goethe were on my list, along with Homer, Ramayana, Arthurian novels and medieval romances.

It was a gargantuan task. Not because of the sheer amount of reading required; I didn't mind that. I enjoyed reading. No, it was huge because I lived in the Soviet Union, where nothing was readily available: neither clothing, nor furniture, nor books. One couldn't just buy a book one wanted. One had to obtain it, and it wasn't easy.

Bookstores and libraries were stocked with Russian classics and crappy Soviet novels about noble proletarian communists. Russian translations of foreign classics were published, but not very often. Modern western literature, with rare exceptions, wasn't published at all. The entire genres of fantasy, romance and horror didn't exist in Soviet Russia; nobody read Tolkien till the late '90s.

To get the books I wanted, I frequented second-hand bookstores, spending my student stipend in there instead of on clothing or cosmetics.

When a chance to steal a couple dozen great books without the risk of being discovered presented itself, I had grabbed it. I'm ashamed I had yielded to temptation, yes, but I'm not sorry. I hadn't hurt anyone. Nobody suffered from my crime. No, I'm not sorry, but I feel the need to unburden, to confess my duplicity. Stealing those books was the only dishonest act I've ever committed. To a degree, I owe the joy of my life -- writing -- to the former owners of those books. I must tell their story.

During my first year of university, I decided to travel to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) for a winter break. I had never been there before and wanted to see the Hermitage and other glamorous palaces and cathedrals of the city. Like everything in Russia, a cheap hotel room in Leningrad was unavailable. I needed another kind of accommodation.

I had pumped my friends and relatives for a place to stay, until my grandfather delivered a good news. His friend Michael had another friend, Nicolay Sizov, who lived in Leningrad. Both old men were my grandfather's age, around seventy. Their friendship had an odd beginning. During the '30s and '40s, they were cellmates in Stalin's prisons; both old communists, wrongfully accused as the 'enemies of the people'.

Michael gave me Nicolay's address in Leningrad and a letter to his friend, but he didn't know the telephone number. So there I was: an eighteen-year-old, independent for the first time in my life. As I stood in front of Nicolay Sizov's apartment, I hesitated to press the buzzer. What could I say to the people I had never seen before. What would they say to me? I was an interloper, coming from the streets, hoping to invade their house for two weeks, without a warning, without an introduction. I wouldn't have been surprised if they kicked me out.

They didn't. As soon as a giant woman with a stern but kind face opened the door, I cowed, mumbling about my grandfather in Moscow, his friend Michael and a letter which I held in my sweating hand.

"You need a place to stay in Leningrad? Come in," she said gruffly. That's how I met Stalin's former prisoner Nicolay Sizov and his wife Natalya.

Later, I learned their tragic story. In the '30s, Nicolay was a math professor at Leningrad University and very active in the Communist Party. His wife was a chemistry professor. Both were bright, intelligent people, the type Stalin's regime hated the most. They had a young daughter. As many educated professionals in Russia of that time, they had hired a nanny, Natalya, a huge and awkward girl from a neighboring village. Barely literate, Natalya had only finished three classes of church school.

In 1938, both Nicolay and his wife had been arrested, charged with the ridiculous but common in those bloody times label 'enemy of the people' and sent to prison camps. A few years later, Nicolay's wife died in prison. He had survived for fifteen years.

After Nicolay and his wife had been arrested, his mother-in-law took care of their daughter. To finish high school and not be branded the enemy of the people herself, the girl had to repudiate her parents officially and publicly. She did. She believed they were enemies: Stalin's clique used extraordinary brainwashing techniques, augmented by all-permeating terror. To keep the girl safe, the old grandmother didn't say a word.

Following Stalin's death, Nicolay and his wife were rehabilitated, she posthumously, along with millions of other innocent victims of the dictator's repressions. Nicolay returned home and resumed his work at the university, although the deprivations he had suffered in prison had permanently damaged his health. Shocked by her betrayal of her parents, who were not guilty of anything after all, his daughter had succumbed to acute depression which had later escalated into schizophrenia. Nicolay had hired her former nanny Natalya to take care of the young woman. A few years later, Nicolay and Natalya got married.

When I came into their house, Nicolay's daughter had already deteriorated to the point that she had to be institutionalized. He was retired and very sick, hardly able to walk, although his spirit was still full of spunk. Natalya, who had never had a family of her own until her marriage to Nicolay, took care of everyone. She visited Nicolay's daughter at the clinic, nursed Nicolay, cooked, cleaned, and she mothered me, too.

I'm over fifty now but I still consider her the best and kindest person I've ever met in my life, the purest example of a Russian Woman. Her selflessness was amazing, and despite having only three classes of formal education, she was much wiser and more astute than her professorial but idealistic husband. She didn't have any illusions about the communists and only smiled indulgently, when Nicolay declared that Stalin's terror was a simple mistake. A representative of the Russian intellectual elite, Nicolay still believed in communism with all his heart.

He had a huge library. Ten bookcases from floor to ceiling, each shelf two tomes deep, made the walls of the room invisible. The only place where one could see wallpaper was above a sofa. A large desk with a leather chair stood in the middle of the room. The shelves were packed with childrens books and travel books, chess books and art books, books on math and science, antique books and books autographed by famous Russian authors, memoirs and poetry and all the fiction classics I had ever dreamed of.

When Natalya first showed me to the library, I was stunned. My mouth dropped open. I think I forgot how to breathe for a moment. She noticed my astonishment. "You'll sleep on the sofa," she said. "Read whatever you like. Just put it back afterwards. There is a ladder in the corner, if you need to get anything from the top shelves."

I was in Heaven. Our home library consisted of two medium-sized bookcases in my parents' room and a small one in my room. Even so, most people regarded three bookcases in one household as too many. Here, I slept surrounded by books. I bubbled with delight, thrilled by the sheer number of printed pages in one room. I explored the shelves tirelessly. I would pull the books out, caress their often faded titles, read a little and reverently put them back. Of course, I went sightseeing every day, visited all the museums of Leningrad, roamed the majestic streets, but my free time I spent either talking to Natalya and Nicolay in their spacious kitchen or alone in the library, in cahoots with books. My trusting hosts never interfered.

Several days into my visit, I realized I didn't have nearly enough time to read everything I wanted in their library. So I decided to steal a few books, mostly classics. Nicolay didn't read them anymore because of his fading eyesight. Natalya didn't care. Their daughter was mentally ill and didn't have children. After Nicolay's death, Natalya would probably give the library away to some distant relatives of hers. I had as much right to those books as any other person in Russia and I desired them more than anyone else. Besides, both Natalya and Nicolay favored me. I was young, smart, and I loved reading. Deprived of the joy of their own healthy children, they would've probably given those books to me if I asked. Or so I rationalized my felony at the time.

They had so many books, they never noticed my robbery. I took books from different shelves, two or three every morning, and mailed them home on my way to a museum or an excursion. Many of the books I took came from the inside rows, invisible to the first glance. Most resided on the top shelves. I stole Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio and sonnets by Luiz de Camoes, memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini and fables by Jean de La Fontaine, books by Plutarch, Chretien de Troyes and Margaret of Navarre. All in all, I stole more than twenty books from that library. After three decades and two emigrations, I still have most of them.

When I left, the Sizovs invited me to come again. I did, twice in the next five years. I liked staying at their warm and welcoming home, with its high ceiling and plentiful reading material. The discussions with the old man challenged my intellect, and I glowed under Natalya's tender attention. We exchanged Christmas cards with Natalya for several more years, before the Sizovs dropped out of my sight.

It might seem that I abused their trust, but I don't feel this way. Guilt doesn't bother me. Instead, every time I handle one of the books I stole from them, my heart is swelling with gratitude. I remember Nicolay and Natalya, their library, our late-night chats in the kitchen, their stories, which were worth thousands of books each, and their poor schizophrenic daughter whom I met on my second visit. These books are their gift to me.

Even more than that: these books are a memorial to Nicolay and Natalya Sizov. I might be the only one on Earth who still remembers them. Between the lines of those books, I always see two wonderful people, full of integrity, naiveté and good will. This story is my thank you.

* * *

Olga is a freelance writer and journalist. Her articles and book reviews appear regularly in local newspapers. She also writes short stories in the fantasy genre and is working on a novel. Her short fiction credits (under the pen name Olga Godim) include Bewildering Stories, The Cynic Online, The Rejected Quarterly, Sorcerous Signals, Lorelei Signal, Aoife's Kiss, and other publications. The Toe to Toe anthology with one of her short stories was a finalist of the 2009 Golden Crown Literary Award.

Olga lives in Vancouver, Canada. She collects monkeys and enjoys reading romance novels during the incessant Vancouver rains.

Article © Olga Livshin. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-11-22
1 Reader Comments
pnina granirer
12:30:27 AM
Olga, what a story! I very much enjoyed reading it. I can understand your passion for books and I think that your host might have even been happy that you stole them, had he known about it.
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