on July 21, 2015
The Book Thief is beautifully written. Markus Zusak turns a phrase and his analogies in describing scenes are poignant. Though, some say the book is for youth because the main character is young, there is no reason adults shouldn’t read it. The Diary of Anne Frank was universal.
The story is touching and special. It is different than other Holocaust or World War II books in challenging our assumptions and our capacity for understanding. Death narrates the story. How unique is that? Can Death be objective?
The story begins in 1939 Germany (and ends in 1943), as 10-year old Liesel Meminger is on a train with her mother and six-year old brother. The brother dies. They get off the train to bury him and Liesel, unable to read, picks up the book the gravedigger drops, a manual on grave digging. It is her first book theft.
She is to be put in the foster care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street (“would anyone bomb a street named Heaven?”) in Molching, on the outskirts of Munich. They are an older couple with two grown children, the son a staunch Nazi. The reader’s – at least, mine – assumption is Liesel is Jewish, who is being rescued by a non-Jewish couple, but she is not Jewish. There are inferences later that her father might have been a Communist.
Liesel calls Hans and Rosa Mamma and Papa. The loose end is the neighbors unquestioning about this when they know there were two older children.
Rosa is acerbic and verbally abusive toward her husband and Liesel. Hans is the calming influence, tending to Liesel when she is awoken by nightmares, using the time to teach her to read, using the gravedigger’s manual.
Despite the tenor of Nazi Germany and specter of war, the children of Himmel Street engage in the innocence of childhood. Liesel becomes immediate friends with the boy next door, Rudy Steiner, and she is the only girl in the street soccer games. Rudy gained fame a few years earlier, when he was so impressed by Jesse Owen’s four gold medal performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he painted his face and went to a local track to copy Owens. That did not go over well.
The children attend school and obligatory Hitler Youth meetings. Everybody hangs Nazi flags on Hitler’s birthday. You don’t hear the children utter Anti-Semitic comments, so maybe in this corner of Nazidom, these German children weren’t accepting the brainwashing propaganda. Rudy gets in trouble with the Hitler Youth leader when he tries to explain Tommy Müller can’t keep in goosestep because he is hard of hearing.
Hans’ application to the Nazi Party has been rejected or delayed and he doesn’t seem to care. As a painter, many of his customers were Jews. Now that the Jewish neighborhood has been ransacked, he no longer has work.
A Jewish man saved Hans’ life in World War I, which cost the man his. Now, the parallel story begins. Twenty years later, the man’s 22-year old son, Max Vandenburg, shows up at the Hubermann’s door. You expected Rosa to yell at Hans, saying they are at danger if they hide Max. Instead she feeds Max soup. Her manner changes from that point.
A special relationship develops between the two protected people. He, too, is haunted by nightmares. There are great differences. He is hidden in the basement. Liesel has a room upstairs. Max must be a secret. Liesel can go out and live. She brings him the crossword puzzles from the newspaper. He asks for weather reports, since he can’t even look outside.
With war arriving, rationing hits Germany, too (just as in Europe and America). Rudy and Liesel join gangs going on expeditions stealing apples from farms. Liesel, with Rudy often as lookout, steals books from the Mayor’s wife’s library. Meanwhile, Max is sketching and writing a book about his experience, The Word Shaker, to be given to Liesel at another time. Words and books play a central role, and a reference is made to Hitler coming to power on words.
The challenge is can we identify with these people? After all, they are German. Germany was the enemy. That was difficult with the movie, Das Bot. What comes across in The Book Thief, is there are innocents in all wars on all sides, and it’s usually children. Once when their end of Himmel Street is in a bomb shelter, Rudy’s father is able to coax everyone to hold hands.
“From other shelters, there were stories of singing “Deutschland über Alles”…No such thing happened in the Fielder shelter. In that place, there was only fear and apprehension…The cold hands melted into the warm ones, and in some cases, the feeling or another human pulse was transported. It came through the layers of pale, stiffened skin. Some of them closed their eyes, waiting for their final demise, or hoping for a sign that the raid was finally over…Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children? The answer to each of these questions interests me very much, though I cannot allow them to seduce me…I pitied them, though not as much as I felt for the ones I scooped up from various camps in that time. The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. They were not sent there for a shower. For those people, life was still achievable.”