The Pen is Truly Mightier Than the Sword

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief follows the life of the once illiterate Liesel Meminger and her progression into literacy set primarily during WWII in Molching, Germany. Liesel is adopted by a German couple in Molching, Germany after the death of her brother on the way to Molching and the implied death of her own mother. She begins to form relationships with town folk such as her adoptive parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, Max Vandenburg, a Jew the Hubermanns hide in their basement, Rudy Steiner, her childhood friend, and many other denizens of Molching. As she forms relationships with said town folk and develops her literacy, the double-edged nature of words becomes apparent, which bring both desolation and consolation. Adolf Hitler, the unseen antagonist of the entire novel, exemplifies the desolation of words and their impact on an entire country of impressionable people and an entire race of Jewish people during the Holocaust. As a result of widespread desolation, Liesel realizes the consolation of words, as they are able to comfort her bereaved soul by developing friendships with others. However, the fullness of human experience in Zusak’s The Book Thief is captured through a mixture of consoling and desolating words; words can demonstrate healing out of a place of destruction. Therefore, words can be a double-edged sword, bringing both desolation and consolation to a speaker and observer, and The Book Thief exemplifies this quality, displaying qualities of desolation in Hitler’s rhetoric as seen in Max Vandenburg’s The Word Shaker, consolation in a growing relationship between Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg through The Standover Man, and a mixture of both in a father-daughter relationship between Hans Hubermann and Liesel through The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

Even though Hitler was never a tangible character in The Book Thief, his omni-presence looms over the characters of the novel, demonstrated through his depiction in Max Vandenburg’s novella, The Word Shaker. Vandenburg is a German Jew hiding in the basement of the Hubermanns and acts as a physical representation of the displacement and impending destruction of an entire race because of Hitler’s social Darwinism. As a gift for Liesel, he writes a novel called The Word Shaker which provides a Jewish perspective on Hitler with imagery of Hitler’s use of rhetoric as a tool for world domination in its exposition. Max muses that “Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. ‘I will never fire a gun,’ he decides…His first plan of attack was to plant the words as many areas of the homeland as possible…It was a nation of farmed thoughts” (Zusak 445). Hitler never directly affects anything, but he indirectly directs the destruction and the terror of the events of the novel through his rhetoric according to The Word Shake; his rhetoric creates forests of rampant nationalism throughout Germany, causing the sons of the Holtzapfels, neighbors of the Hubermanns to die, drawing the Hans Jr. Hubermann, a Nazi soldier to die in the brunt of a Russian invasion, and ultimately provoking Allied nations to kill innocent Germans, including those in Molching. His words serve as weapons, uniting the nation under his racially driven demonization of Jews in Mein Kampf; his words farm a forest of concentration camps sprawled throughout Germany and Poland, including Dachau and Auschwitz. Book burnings, air raids, hate crimes, and concentration camps are all a product of the machine-gun like words of Hitler’s machinations. He never needed to fire a gun because his words drove others to fire guns for him. The destructive words set into motion the misfortunes of Molching and abroad, create tension between people and people groups, and significantly shape the lives of the souls on Himmel Street.

Despite the destruction created by Hitler, words also bring consolation to both Liesel and Max, evidenced by Max’s The Standover Man. The pair’s relationship begins with Max’s moving into the Hubermann household away from his entire family in fear of Hitler. The German Jew has nightmares, very similar to the nightmares of Liesel herself, and they form a strong relationship that lasts until the end of the novel. Because of their strikingly similar experiences, the two begin to discuss their similarities when she asks him to explain his dreams. Not only is he just a lucky survivor left alone in a dark basement, unexposed to the world, he develops a multi-dimensional character to Liesel, not simply a foil Liesel’s personality traits. Vandenburg encapsulates this sentiment to Liesel through his self-written novel, The Standover Man. The novella of sorts demonstrates Max’s constant fear of men standing over him, except when Liesel stands over him herself, soon sharing her similarities including the stuff of her dreams, writing, “She said, ‘Tell me what you dream of…’ In return, she explained what her own dreams were made of. Now I think we are friends, the girl and me…the best standover man I’ve ever known is not a man at all” (Zusak 233-235). Because of their exchange of words, they achieve a certain level of consolation juxtaposed against such a desolate epoch of time; because of their exchange of words, Max no longer becomes afraid of standover men, be it his father, a boxing opponent, or a Nazi officer because he realizes that some standover men, like Liesel Meminger, are able to bring him to a degree of happiness when everything is falling apart; she is the best standover man of them all. Instead of tearing apart the fabric of a racial group, words stitch the damaged fabric with a meaningful relationship.

Despite the seemingly mutually exclusive factors of desolation and consolation, at times, both are necessary for the fullness of the human experience, demonstrated by the beginning of Hans and Liesel’s relationship through The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Before Liesel reaches the Hubermann household, she witnesses the death of her own brother, Werner and takes a book near her brother’s buried corpse entitled The Grave Digger’s Handbook perhaps as a memento or an impulsive action in an emotionally charged moment. In her first few nights at the Hubermanns, her adoptive parents, she urinates in her sleep because of the nightmares that were borne out of her traumatic experience. However, Hans Hubermann, her adoptive father, helps her read the morbid handbook to ease her nightmares, described as, “…Liesel could tell exactly what her papa was thinking…he was clearly aware that such a book was hardly ideal…as for the girl, there was a sudden desire to read it…perhaps she wanted to make sure her brother was buried right” (Zusak 66). Despite her traumatic experience, she seeks for comfort with her father with a particularly morbid guidebook. The desolation of her nightmares and the traumatic experience contributed to the consolation she experienced through building a relationship with Hans Hubermann. Her adoptive father eventually teaches her to read out of this seemingly inappropriate book. The gateway to her experiences with words, both desolating and consoling, is this guidebook on the digging of graves. On a microscopic scale, Liesel is able to turn an embarrassing and uncomfortable moment into a consoling relationship involving her progression into literacy. The handbook with such powerful memories tied to it ironically allowed Liesel to reach closure with the death of Werner, as the fragment of the tragedy brought her closer to Hans Hubermann. However, on a grander scale, The Grave Digger’s Handbook serves as a gateway to her experiences with more and more books that shape her as a character and introduce her to more instances of consoling and desolating words.

All of the novels mentioned in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak have both a desolating and consoling effect on the protagonist, Liesel Meminger. She experiences a range of emotions tied to some books like The Word Shaker, The Standover Man, and The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Often, the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” coined by English author Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, becomes contrite in the today’s vernacular. However, Zusak illustrates this adage well in this novel, as Hitler’s rhetoric is able to build up and destroy whole nations and cause the everyman to take arms against a fellow human. However, Liesel’s friendship with Hans or Max allows her to feel friendship, a rare emotion in a time of hatred and discrimination. The important lesson from this thematic facet of The Book Thief is to be wary of how one utilizes words and understands another’s words. For example, the political arena becomes a hotbed for rhetoric in speeches, especially with the previous 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. When one listens to a speech, he has to be cautious of ideas sugarcoated with anaphora, alliteration, praeteritio, and the like. Yes, rhetoric is an effective tool designed to capture an audience’s attention, but it can also build up or destroy because of its sheer power in alluring people with often faulty ideas. Furthermore, people have to be mindful of how words can be used to comfort the suffering. An important facet of the human experience is sadness, so others should be equipped with the knowledge of how to make amends or sympathize with consoling language. All in all, the power of words comes as a double-edged sword, having the two qualities of being both comforting and disquieting. Everyday people should be aware of the power of words, lest another Hitler comes along to rally them up for an unethical purpose.

Violence in The Book Thief: Close Readings of Key Scenes

In works of great literature, violent scenes often play prominent roles. However, these scenes of violence do not exist for their own sake, but instead add value and depth to the story being told. The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is no exception to this statement. Throughout the story there are many violent scenes, and all of them add meaning and potency to Zusak’s writing. In this story in particular, the violent acts show how a cruel, Nazi, fascist society responds to the acts of human kindness; they also show the power of words and, lastly, show how survivors of tragedies handle their guilt. The violent scenes in The Book Thief help to display the themes of human kindness, the power of words, and survivor’s guilt.

One example of a violent scene in the story arises during the first time the Nazis parade a line of Jews down Munich Street. “Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls. And the dirt. The dirt was molded to them. Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands…” (Zusak, 391-92). The parade of these human beings, being treated like animals, is certainly a scene of unimaginable violence. However because of this violence, Hans Hubermann’s thoughts about the Nazis are shown through his caring actions. “The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented him with a piece of bread, like magic” (Zusak, 394). When he gives one of the Jews a piece of bread, his compassion and care for humans, regardless of their ethnic or religious background is displayed. From this scene of violence, the theme that even in the darkest of times, human compassion for one another still exists is shown.

Another example of how a scene of violence affected the meaning of the story is the death of Liesel’s brother on the train in the beginning of the story. “Liesel Meminger-could see without question that her little brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead. His blue eyes stared at the floor. Seeing nothing” (Zusak, 20). Although the death of her brother is a quick scene of violence, as he died coughing on a train, it sets off a chain of events that benefited Liesel’s life and affects the meaning of the story. Since Werner died, Liesel had to stop before she arrived at her foster home to bury him. It is at this stop that she picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook and steals her first book. This book later becomes the glue that binds Liesel and Hans together, and helps Liesel to learn more and more about books, and words. She then realizes the power that words have and the damage they can do. “The words. Why did they have to exist?… Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoner, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better” (Zusak, 521). All of these events, that began with the violent death of Werner, contributed to the book’s theme of the power of language.

Yet another violent scene comes when Michael Holtzapfel survives the Battle of Stalingrad, but his brother Robert dies. Michael is so full of guilt that he survived that he takes his own life. “Michael Holtzapfel knew what he was doing. He killed himself for wanting to live” (Zusak, 503). This violent act of someone taking their own life shines light on the theme of abandonment and survivor’s guilt in the story. This theme, which is introduced earlier in the book, when Liesel’s mother abandons her and Liesel goes to live in the foster home. This theme is also apparent in Hans’ story of when he was serving in World War I. The story was that, Erik Vandenberg saved his life by volunteering him for a written assignment, while the rest of the regiment was sent into battle and all of them died. “He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle. None of them came back” (Zusak, 178). The violence of the first World War, which took Erik Vandenberg, gave Hans survivor’s guilt and this causes Hans to take Max in. Some violent scenes contribute to the theme of survivor’s guilt, which dramatically changes the plot and meaning of the story.

Throughout the course of The Book Thief, many violent events occurred. However, these violent events had an underlying purpose, as they contributed to the many themes of the story. As the Jews are being mercilessly paraded through Munich street, the theme of human compassion is shown when Hans gives bread to a dying and starving Jew. From the death of Werner, Liesel’s brother, the theme of the power of words and books enters into the story. Lastly, in the deaths of Erik Vandenberg and Robert Holtzapfel, the theme of survivor’s guilt passes onto their friends and family and causes changes in the story. A simple scene of violence can change the plot of the story, deepen its themes, and even add completely new ones.

The Responsibility of German Citizens: Rhetoric, Close Reading, and Meaning in The Book Thief

Does following orders and laws justify allowing the mass persecution of a race? Is protecting one’s family a viable reason to tolerate the mistreatment of the Jews? During the Nuremberg trials, judges ruled simply following orders was an insubstantial reason to condone the actions of many of Hitler’s party officials. Although leaders who ran death camps and killed Jews blamed their involvement on obeying direction, half received the death sentence and the other half were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Nuremberg trials established “the idea that individuals are responsible for their own actions, even in times of war” (Danzer, 587). Similarly, in The Book Thief, the author Markus Zusak points out the responsibility of German citizens to speak out against Hitler’s actions towards Jews. The main character Liesel learns kindness towards Jews despite her community’s negative view of them when her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, shelter a Jew, Max, in their basement. Liesel forms a friendship with Max and bonds with him over their common loss of family. Later Max leaves the Hubermanns in order to protect them after Hans publicly gives bread to a Jewish man in the street. Throughout The Book Thief, Markus Zusak portrays the responsibility of a German citizen to protect the Jews and how a lack of leads to devastating effects with his diction and by utilizing juxtaposition and metaphor.

Early on, the author utilizes juxtaposition to demonstrate the contrast between Hitler-supporting Germans and those who disapproved of him and showcase each group’s responsibility for the mistreatment of the Jews. From the beginning of novel Liesel struggles to understand Hitler, the Nazis, and her community’s hatred of the Jews. Two contradictory characters in her life are Frau Holtzapfel and Hans Hubermann. Zusak presents Liesel’s neighbor Frau Holtzapfel as a devoted Nazi Party member with “one golden rule… if you walked into her shop and didn’t say ‘heil Hitler” you wouldn’t be served” (Zusak 49,50). Contrarily, Liesel’s father openly resists the Nazi Party. This is clear when Hans aids a Jew: after members of the Nazi Party paint a slur on a Jewish shopkeeper’s door Hans approaches the owner and says “‘I will come tomorrow… and repaint your door”, a promise he keeps (Zusak 181). Additionally, later in the book Hans attempts to aid a Jew marching to the death camp Dachau: “Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread” (Zusak 394). The contrast between these two characters depicts the undeniable split in society in Germany during World War II. However, Zusak examines the integrity of both types of German citizens when the people of Molching hide in the bomb shelter fearfully “waiting for their final demise” by asking the reader, “Did they deserve any better, these people?” (Zusak 375). The author chooses to create two very contrasting characters and throw them into the same life threatening situation to force the reader to contemplate German citizen’s responsibility to speak out and protect the Jews. Even though 90 percent of Germans fully supported Hitler, those who disapproved of his methods often remained silent. Those who chose not to remain silent were punished. The author expresses the need for society to speak out when something is wrong, even if they are of the smaller population. This is not the only time the author points out the responsibility of citizens during times of war.

In addition, Zusak’s diction when describing Max for the first time portrays the betrayal of the Jews by many German citizens. Zusak first introduces Max sitting in a dark secret storage room waiting for news of whether Hans Hubermann will help him or not. The narrator Death pleads the reader, “Please – try not to look away” in an attempt to portray Max’s misery and suffering (Zusak 138). When Hans agrees to shelter Max, he effectively saves Max’s life. By using the second person point of view the author appeals to the reader’s sense of compassion and sympathy, perhaps even pity, by using the word please to construct a helpless tone for the character Max. Zusak implores the reader not to look away in reference to Hans’ choice to help the struggling Jew. However, on a deeper level the author uses Hans’ situation as an example for all German citizens opposed to Hitler. In doing so, the author implies that the Germans who stood up for and aided the Jews were beneficial to society. Although Zusak gives credit to people who aided the Jews, he acknowledges those who remained silent in a very different way.

Finally, Zusak uses metaphors to enhance the negative effect both Hitler supporters and Germans who opposed Hitler silently had on the Jews, enhancing the need for citizens to take responsibility during the war. While hiding in the Hubermann’s basement, Max daydreams about fist fighting Hitler. During a part of the fight in which Max is losing, Death describes Max as a “punching-bag jew” who feels the “fists of an entire entire nation” on him (Zusak 253, 254). While some “made him bleed” and others “let him suffer” each allowed him to endure pain (Zusak 254). Those who made him bleed represent the Germans who outwardly despised and targeted the Jews, whereas those who let him suffer embody the citizens who did not feel the mass extermination of Jews was socially acceptable, yet remained silent in order to protect themselves and their families. In using the metaphor of a fist fight between Max Vandenburg and Hitler, Zusak comments on the damage all German citizens caused the Jews by either supporting Hitler or remaining silent. In doing so, Zusak urges the reader to understand the importance of voicing one’s opinion. Perhaps if citizens who disagreed with the Nazis spoke out during the Second Word War less damage would have occurred. The author expresses this to demonstrate to society the need for individuals to stand up for their beliefs. The metaphor for how German citizens treated the Jews successfully illustrates the need for society to voice its opinion in times of war.

Zusak thus informs the reader of a German citizen’s responsibility to protect the Jews throughout the book with his diction and by using metaphor and juxtaposition. In some ways, the author argues that it is unfair for Germans who genuinely care for the well-being of Jews, such as Hans Hubermann, to die from war in Germany. Society today follows Zusak’s views by staging peaceful protests against what many view as poor government choices. These methods of expression empower an individual to accept responsibility for his or her own communities treatment of people.

Works Cited

Danzer, Gerals A., Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, and Nancy Woloch. “The War in the Pacific.” The Americans. By Jorge Klor De Alva. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 2007. 587. Print.Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005. Print.

Stealing the Narrative: The Irony of Reading in The Book Thief

The dominating theme of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an ironic one. Here is a novel where a main character is nothing less than the symbol of mortality itself, Death, yet the story continually celebrates the life spirit that is contained within books. Books are inanimate objects, to be sure, but they are also very much like Death: a mere symbol of the stories contained them rather than the tangible concretizing of those living, breathing characters. And yet the message that arises over and over throughout the story is that a book can have multiple lives. Books, the story suggests, are almost like cats that have been endowed with the myth of multiple lives because they are capable of sudden reappearing after a long sojourn away from your consciousness. The Book Thief is a novel that raises the metaphor of each reader bringing his own meaning to the act of reading into the real world, primarily through its proposition that readers have the power to take the hatred intended by the author of Mein Kampf. That book is transformed into a literal key to unlocking what the reader wants the narrative to mean, creating freedom by undermining a symbol of totalitarianism.

Death narrates the book and very early on encapsulates for readers what they should expect from the narrative when he asserts that “It’s just a small story really, about, among things: a small girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (5). If a reader were to take Death at his word, The Book Thief might well turn out to be a relatively interesting story filled with crazy Krauts, a kind of fight club, weird music and probably a moral lesson. Death is not being entirely sincere, however; Death—as is his wont—is being ironic. This assertion is an example of real irony, not the kind of “bummer” irony like rain on your wedding day. He is underplaying what the book is actually going to be about and so right from the very beginning the theme that The Book Thief is about the power of books to contain multiple meanings for multiple readers is made clear. The reader who does not understand irony except in its modern-day “bummer” mentality will not interpret the book in the same way that someone who does understand the literary meaning of irony. The opening section establishes a motif that continues to show up throughout the novel in which insight into what a text means is dependent upon the reader’s relationship with that text.

For instance, most readers of this novel are probably already aware by the time they open the book that Mein Kampf was written by Adolf Hitler in order to rouse the Germans against Jews and to convince them that Nationalism was the answer to their problems. The ways that Mein Kampf are used throughout the story reveals that the relationship someone has with it is—for the most part—stripped away from whatever intention Hitler may have had. Hans Junior angrily confronts Liesel by admonishing that “You’re either for the Fuhrer or against him–and I can see that you’re against him. You always have been.” What this quote is really saying is that one person can read a book that is intended to produce one response and experience the exact opposite response. When this happens, the book does not die; it is reborn. Again the irony is explicit: Death is the narrator, but even when Death narrates, a book is a living thing. Not just a living thing, but a thing that can be resurrected into having a new meaning with each new reader. Even the title The Book Thief becomes something of an irony: it’s not the book that’s being stolen, it’s the meaning of the book!

The way Mein Kampf becomes the symbolic text divulging how the narrative of literally any book can be stolen and reinterpreted to serve the exact opposite purpose becomes most clear through the use of a more concrete symbol: the key. Nothing quite illuminates the symbolic power of stealing the intent of a narrative in quite the way that is achieved when Hans specifically chooses Mein Kampf as the place to hide the key he sends to Max. This choice verges on sheer genius. Because no “Good German” would ever even have reason to suspect that Hitler’s bible for planning his vision of the Nazi atrocity exhibition would be used to bring about the exact opposite of the book’s desired intent, everybody remains above suspicion. Hans steals the narrative from its author to use the content to serve purposes that fully undermine what the author had in mind. This is more than mere symbolism. This is a way of showing the true power that books have to change minds or even change the world. Much more symbolic in nature is the final and ultimate reinterpretation of Mein Kampf which not only steals the meaning, but does manage, finally, to kill the content

The final summation of the theme of The Book Thief that stealing a book means far more than just stealing the actual bound pages is demonstrated in a way that combines symbolic meaning with the literal. “The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another. Some took minutes. Others hours” (277-278). What is especially interesting about Max using the literal pages of Adolf Hitler’s notebook of hated to reinterpret its narrative meaning is that this this description is prefaced by “Originally, Max had intended to write his own story” (278). Instead of writing his own story—giving birth to brand new narrative—the means by which Max ultimately writes his own story is by inscribing his narrative into the story told by Hitler.

The Book Thief through its specific mechanism of utilizing Hitler’s Mein Kampf posits the argument that author and the reader are two integral parts of a narrative tied together and one cannot exist without the other. Through the act of interpretation, the reader becomes an inhabitant of the narrative and thus are tendered the privilege to rewrite the text to reflect their own existence in the world outside the covers. That is a concrete reality. The reader of a book can break into the narrative like a home invader to become a thief who hijacks the narrative himself. That is the symbolic reality of stealing a narrative.

The Toil of Good and Evil: Multi-Faceted Kindness in The Book Thief

Humanity is always engaged in an eternal power struggle between good and evil, and the well being of society often hangs in the balance when such forces collide. This presence of good and evil of humanity is a central theme in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Liesel Meminger is a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II; she lives with a foster family in a poor area of Munich. Throughout the novel, Liesel sees the great horrors of life in Germany during World War II, but she also finds herself among very empathetic and kind people, as demonstrated by three incidents in the book that illustrate good persevering over evil. First, Liesel and Max’s bond over the trauma they have experienced exemplifies good in the face of tremendous evil they have experienced. Second, Han’s relentless goodwill towards the Jews of Germany shows kindness in spite of the evils of Nazi Germany. Last, Rudy’s extraordinary efforts to aid and comfort those in need further exemplifies good over evil.

The relationship between Liesel and Max demonstrates true friendship whilst in hardship. Furthermore, Liesel and Max bond in an incredible fashion while being extremely different personalities and under a great deal of stress. Max gave Liesel a handmade book as a belated birthday gift, which Liesel was very pleased with as she loves books. Liesel read the book and then went to the basement to thank Max. “The first part of him she saw was his shoulder, and through the slender gap she slowly, painfully, inched her hand in until it rested there. His clothing was cool. He did not wake. She could feel his breathing and his shoulder moving up and down ever so slightly. For a while, she watched him. Then she sat and leaned back. Sleepy air seemed to have followed her. The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder. They breathed. German and Jewish lungs. Next to the wall the The Standover Man sat, numb and gratified, like a beautiful itch at Liesel Meminger’s feet” (Zusak 238). Liesel shows her growing bond with this gesture towards Max. Despite being polar opposites within their shared society, their bond through literature circumvents the oppression thrust upon them by Nazism. The Standover Man, the book that Max made for Liesel, is a metaphor for what is going on within Germany during World War II. The book was made out of pages from Mein Kampf painted over in white paint, and then filled with the story of Max’s struggle. The creation of this book symbolizes the changing of something evil into something good.

Moreover, Max and Liesel also bond over the trauma that has been inflicted upon them by the society they inhabit. Liesel witnessed the death of her brother on a cold winter night at a train yard and constantly experiences nightmares due to this. Similarly Max has nightmares about fighting Adolf Hitler. On a night shortly after the arrival of Max at Liesel’s house, this dialogue occurs: “The girl: ‘Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?’ The Jew: ”… I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.: The girl: ” I also have nightmares. ”The Jew: ”What do you see?” The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.” The Jew: Your brother?” The girl: “He died on when I moved here on the way.” The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja –yes.””(Zusak 220). Both Liesel and Max have had an immense amount of emotional trauma inflicted upon them by others. The trauma that has been inflicted upon Max and Liesel hangs over them throughout the book, and has a very negative effect on their lives. Due to Max and Liesel discussing what haunts them during the night, Liesel became able to get through nightmares without the aid of her foster father. At this point, the nightmares start to have a lesser effect on Liesel and she begins to sleep for longer periods. Liesel’s bond with Max over their trauma turns a horrible experience into a deep personal bond. Although many unfortunate events fall upon Liesel and Max, together they are able to use the evil around them to create a lasting friendship.

Secondly, on multiple occasions Hans Hubermann has shown a great deal of empathy and kindness to Jewish people within the harsh societal climate of Nazi Germany. One of these occasions was when Jews were marched through Hans’s neighbourhood in Munich. Despite facing harsh punishment if caught, Hans gave bread to an old, weakly Jewish man as they marched by. “The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.” (Zusak 394). This simple act from Hans shows a great deal of empathy for his fellow man despite later facing intense punishment and scrutiny for this action. Hans takes the evil of the holocaust and makes an example of how fellow humans should be treated.

Hans also shows empathy and kindness towards Jews by taking Max Vandenburg into his home. Max is the son of a Jewish man who sacrificed himself to save Hans in World War I. Due to this history, Hans takes it upon himself to hide Max in his home for the duration of the war. “He was not a well-educated man or political, but if nothing else, he was a man who appreciated fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a party that antagonized people in such a way. Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the hatred could last, and it was a conscious decision not to follow Hitler. On many levels, it was a disastrous one”(Zusak 180). Hans felt indebted to Max because his father saved Hans’s life. Hans is able to see past the religion of people and judges them on their strength of character and morals rather than labeling them. Due to this, Hans takes it upon himself to help Max in his time of need despite the hardship of hiding him, and the great punishment if Hans is found to be assisting Max in any way. Han’s actions in risking his life to save Max exemplifies the rise of good over evil in Nazi Germany.

Similarly, Rudy Steiner also treats people below him with the utmost respect and dignity they deserve in the face of the horrors of war and human cruelty. After a bombing of Munich, Rudy and Liesel discover a crashed plane with an english speaking pilot still inside. Rudy rushed to comfort the dying man, and placed his teddy bear on the pilot’s shoulder. “Carefully, he climbed to the dying man. He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot’s shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat. The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In english, he said, “Thank you””(Zusak 490-491). Despite the pilot being from the enemy forces and terrorizing Munich, Rudy treats the dying pilot with respect in his final moments in the face of the horrors of war.

Another example of treating people with respect and dignity in the face of unimaginable evil arises when Rudy shows dignity to Tommy Müller in Hitler’s Youth. Tommy has a hearing impairment and is constantly berated by the officers in Hitler’s Youth. Rudy routinely attempts to help Tommy as well as stand up for him. “That was when Rudy stepped forward. He faced Franz Deutscher looking up at him. “He’s got a problem sir–” “I can see that!” “With his ears,” Rudy finished. “He can’t–” “Right that’s it.” Deutscher rubbed his hands together. “Both of you — six laps of the grounds.” They obeyed but not fast enough. “Schnell!” His voice chased them” (Zusak 259). Rudy could not stand the inhuman manner in which Tommy was being treated, so Rudy did something about it by speaking out in defense of Tommy. There was no motive beyond helping someone, to aid Tommy and put himself at risk of punishment to defend a helpless person. Rudy constantly demonstrates his will to aid and ease people despite his surroundings.

The great evils of humanity are ever present in war time Nazi Germany, but human kindness and empathy still manage to shine through. Hans’s continued goodwill towards the Jews in the helpless environment of Nazi Germany, Liesel’s bond with Max over the trauma they both were put through and Rudy’s will to help Tommy Müller with his disability as well as comforting the dying pilot in his final hour exemplifies the good that humanity is capable of. The Book Thief teaches a very important lesson of being true to yourself and your values in the face of harsh opposition, for it is better to stand alone for what you believe in then to fall in line with what you do not.

Guilt in The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is set in Nazi Germany in World War II. Narrated by Death, the novel takes as its protagonist Liesel Meminger, a girl who grows up in a foster home where Jews aren’t seen as evil, in a departure from attitudes in the rest of Nazi Germany. Max, a Jew living in the Hubermann’s basement, carries guilt on his shoulders as much as anyone else. He left his family, endangered a man’s life, and jeopardized a whole family by living in their basement. Nazi Germany makes Max feel this way, persecuting Jews and threatening anyone who shows compassion towards the Jewish religion; naturally, guilt is a burden carried on the shoulders of many characters in The Book Thief.

In The Book Thief, Max is the character who bears the most guilt. When a Nazi soldier knocks at Max’s family’s door, his mother finds a way to let him escape, but only Max can go, and he decides to leave: “If only he’d turned for one last look at his family as he left the apartment. Perhaps then the guilt would not have been so heavy. No final goodbye” (193). Max feels selfish and cruel, escaping the arms of the Führer and going to live a new life while his family is tortured and killed. He also feels guilty because he endangered the life of a dear friend, Walter Kugler, who helped Max find a family to live in. When Max arrives at 33 Himmel Street, and Rosa and Hans take care of him, Max says, “‘Better than nothing,’ Max assured him. ‘Better than I deserve— thank you'” (208). Max feels guilty because he knows he is putting the Hubermanns in great danger by living in their basement. The Hubermanns barely have enough to eat with three people, so Max also feels guilty for taking what little food they have. Max, living in a cruel Nazi Germany, bears the guilt of a position where almost all of his decisions will hurt or affect anyone around him.

Nazi Germany, suppressed by the iron fist of the Führer, becomes so awful the Jews and the citizens that are all miserable because of the circumstances of that place. Death describes the weight of survivor’s guilt: “Living was Living. The price was guilt and shame” (208). Such a cruel society regularly forces Max to understand that he doesn’t deserve the most basic things that people take for granted, and he should feel guilty for having them. The Hubermanns are also plagued with shame because society consistently tells them they should feel guilty and ashamed for doing the right thing. When Michael feels guilt for leaving the war alive, he says to Rosa Hubermann, “’ Why do I want to live? I shouldn’t want to but I do”’ (487). He feels derelict for not staying with his mother during the air raid, thus feeling blameworthy for putting himself before his mother. Michael Holtzapfel has been through the death of his brother and the maimed and dead bodies of the war, and yet still wants to live, hating himself for it. In Germany, World War II, whether you were a Jew or one of Hitler’s most loyal followers, Nazi Germany is so cruel it makes people feel guilty for having the desire to live.

Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, inspires the lives of many hate-filled individuals but also saved the life of Max Vandenburg. On his way to the Hubermann household, he receives a book from his savior: “Midway through May 1940, Mein Kampf arrived, with a key taped to the inside cover. The man’s a genius, Max decided, but there was still a shudder when he thought about traveling to Munich” (195). Now, instead of Hitler holding and possessing Hitler, Max is holding Hitler in his hand, escaping near death and receiving a second chance. Max is traveling to a new, strange, world, with only the familiarity of the power of Hitler and his book Mein Kampf. When Liesel is thinking about writing about her life, Death narrates, “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?” (30). Hitler’s book Mein Kampf means “My Struggle,” and Hitler completely opposes Jews, but Death also describes Max also bearing the suffering. The jewel-like words falling from Hitler’s mouth and sprouting from the pages of Mein Kampf are eloquent enough to make a whole nation fall in love with them and believe that Hitler suffered while Jews don’t suffer at all. Mein Kampf is truly both a torture weapon and a heroic object that saved a Jew’s life.

Many of the characters in The Book Thief have lost family members, and many wrestle with the survivor’s guilt of continuing to live while their loved ones do not. Hans believes he owes his life to Erik Vandenburg, who saved him during World War I. As a result, he believes he is responsible for caring for Erik’s family in any way they need, and allows Max, Erik’s son, to reside safely in the Hubermann’s basement. Max, however, also has his feelings of responsibility. When he arrives at the Hubermanns’ house, he is so consumed by guilt over having left his family to die, taking the little food the Hubermann’s have, and endangering the whole Hubermann household for his own survival. Guilt in The Book Thief is an idea many characters fight with, and many characters like Michael Holzapfel give in to the guilt of wanting to live.

Zusak’s Death Breaks the Mould

In The Book Thief, Zusak expounds upon the concept of death as a passive force and not a vengeful creature. Zusak presents the character Death in a manner that is more effectively conceived than the traditional rendition of Death’s personae. This unconventional characterization is validated by the realization that dying is a natural occurrence whereby Zusak’s Death does not hunt, but merely collects souls whose times have run out. Zusak first touches upon the topic of human demise when Death states in the beginning of The Book Thief “A small fact: You are going to die” (3). Almost immediately upon opening the book, the reader sees that Death is the narrator, and they are surrounded with an aura of distress. However, the character of Death quickly proves not to be as cruel and heartless as his scythe-wielding counterpart. Death states that he is “not malicious. I am not violent. I am a result.” (6). Zusak’s Death does not methodically or whimsically reap the souls of the miscellaneous peoples he happens to come across. Rather, he approaches the souls when the time is appropriate and unavoidable, and leaves behind the souls’ survivors with an apologetic air. When presented in this benign, passive manner, and not as a hunter or malefactor, the character Death effectively mimics the actuality of dying. The character Death also does not choose the time, place, or manner in which a person dies. Instead, he is merely a means of collection and transportation for the souls. There are multiple instances in The Book Thief when Death questions the way a person’s life has ended.One example of this is when Death refers to the passing of a young German boy named Rudy. On page 241, Death makes a side note in the text, saying “A Small Announcement About Rudy Steiner: He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.” This selection brings multiple subjects into question, one of which is the matter of emotions. By saying that Rudy died unjustly, Death implies that he believes Rudy deserved better, which, in turn, leads the reader to conclude that Death cared about the fate of this little boy. There are also numerous references to Death questioning the cruelties bestowed upon the vast amounts of Jewish souls he carries in his arms, and there are a few times he questions the point of the reckless killings that make him terribly busy. Also, it appears that people died whom Death would have preferred to have live. He asks, “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?” (375). Death’s questions express the uncertainty he faces while performing his job, as well as his innocence concerning the actual deaths of the people whose souls he collects. He questions the necessity of the blameless’ demise with a hint of sorrow. This disquiet proves that Death is neither malicious nor violent, just as he claims earlier in the book. The traditional rendition of death personified involves malicious intent and cruelty. In keeping with unconventional characterization, however, Zusak’s Death shies away from the gore and pain he is commonly associated with. In conclusion, Zusak’s representation of Death is more effectively perceivable due to Death’s empathetic appearance as a bystander and not a destructive hunter, out to destroy mankind. Portraying Death as an emotive creature who is riddled with regrets opens the doorway for readers to explore the notion of Death standing in the contradictory position of a “humane monster”. By making Death appear more human in nature, Zusak allows his readers to feel as if they can relate to Death and his emotions – a skill which not only brings a clearer image of Zusak’s rendition of Death to mind, but allows readers to form attachments to a creature so often viewed as cruel.

Liesel’s Emotional Journey Through the Book Thief

“It’s just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (Zusak 5). And of course, there is Death. Set in Nazi Germany during the 1900s, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is told in the first-person point of view of Death as he narrates the unforgettable story of Liesel Meminger. Liesel is a young German girl who faces the inevitable pains of growing up in a time of war. Her emotional journey is one that begins with a journey. It is to thirty-three Himmel Street, Molching where a new life awaits her. Naturally, everyone changes in some way during an emotional journey, and Liesel is no different. There are three main components in Liesel’s emotional journey that will change her significantly; friendships, deaths, and words. When Liesel first arrives at her new foster parents’ home on thirty-three Himmel Street, she is friendless, desolate, and possesses only a small suitcase and a stolen book. “Liesel knew that.{…} 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” (Zusak 32). In spite of this, it is not before long that Liesel begins to accept her new surroundings and make some new friends. From the start, Liesel is immediately loved by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, though they both showcase it in a queer way. For Rosa, it involves bashing Liesel with a wooden spoon and words at various intervals. For Hans, it was the act of not leaving. And not surprisingly, Liesel immediately grows close to her new father. “{…}she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship{…}.”(Zusak 72). Hans Hubermann was a painter by trade, an accordionist by heart, and most importantly, he was a honest and moral man. “In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves 10 percent who didn’t. Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent. There was a reason for that” (Zusak 63). That is, a Jew had once saved his life and he couldn’t forget that. Namely, it was a man named Erik Vandenburg who had a son, Max, before he died. And as the terrorization of Jews grew turbulently worse, Max’s only hope became the aid of the Hubermanns. During the period of time that he hid in the Hubermann’s home, Max and Liesel became friends. Although one was a Jewish fist fighter and one was a German book thief, Max and Liesel soon saw that they had things in common. “Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared ”(Zusak 206). In addition, they are both victims of Hitler’s hate, for Liesel’s parents were communists, and they both had a loving respect for words. Nonetheless, Liesel’s greatest friend is Rudy Steiner, her neighbor, partner in crime, and ultimately, her lover. “Rudy was always destined to be Liesel’s best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship” (Zusak 48). Through the friendships of Hans Hubermann, Max Vandenburg, and Rudy Steiner, Liesel changes remarkably. Each of these people taps into Liesel’s emotions and affects her outlook on the world. Hans shows Liesel that it takes courage to stand up for something you believe in, knowing there are consequences. Max made Liesel empathetic towards people in need and gave her life purpose because he helped her understand the power of words. Lastly, Rudy shows her what true companionship and love is. On the whole, they each gave vital knowledge that changes her for the better.Another component that impacts Liesel considerably is death, especially the deaths of her family and friends. With Death as the narrator and World War II in the background, it is very apparent that death is a central theme in the novel. The constant threat and fear of death, as well as the reality of it, was ubiquitous during that time; and accordingly, the omnipresence of death is also present in the novel. From the very beginning of the book, there is foreshadowing from our narrator that Liesel’s life will hold a great amount of adversity and loss. “I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there. A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her.{…}I wanted to stop. To crouch down. I wanted to say: “I’m sorry, child”’(Zusak 12-13). The mountain of rubble around Liesel symbolizes that she has many obstacles to overcome. In other words, Liesel “was a girl with a mountain to climb”(Zusak 86). One of the main obstacles Liesel has to overcome in the novel is the deaths of loved ones. “Certainly, war meant dying, but it always shifted the ground beneath a person’s feet when it was someone who had once lived and breathed in close proximity” (Zusak 467). The first death Liesel experiences is of her younger brother, Werner, as they were sitting on the train to their new foster parents’ home in Molching. The unexpected death leaves Liesel broken and nightmared for a significant amount of time and it causes her to lose some of her childhood innocence. Simply put, for the first time, Liesel is exposed to the painful and harsh realities of life. Then, later on, Hans Hubermann is accepted into the Nazi Party on the most unlikely terms. However, it is soon followed by a letter that states he is being drafted into the German army. Five days later, Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, finds out that he is also being sent to war as a punishment for refusing to let Rudy attend a school that trains boys to become Nazis. “‘When they come and ask you for one of your children,’ Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, ‘you’re supposed to say yes’” (Zusak 419). Luckily, neither Hans Hubermann nor Alex Steiner were sent to fight. Alex was sent to Austria were he mended uniforms, socks, shirts that needed mending. Whereas Hans was sent to Stuttgart, and later, to Essen, where he was given one of the most undesirable positions on the home front― the LSE, otherwise known as Dead Body Collectors. Then one day in mid-February, Liesel and Rosa receive a letter from their Papa saying that he was coming home because of a broken leg. For a while, they rejoice. Papa comes home and all is well until October 7th; the day Himmel Street is bombarded and flattened to the ground. That day, the sirens and the cuckoo shrieks in the radio was too late. “Only one person survived. She survived because she was sitting in a basement reading through the story of her own life, checking for mistakes”(Zusak 498). When Liesel is rescued, she is desperate and overcome with grief at the deaths of her family and friends, especially of her foster parents and the Steiner family. This is the point where she experiences a major loss of innocence which causes her to grow up. She realizes that it is all based on fate. Why should one person die and not the other? Why him and not me? The answer is simple. “No one expects these things. They don’t plan them” (Zusak 525). Later, when Alex Steiner made it home, he was whittled away with regret for not letting Rudy attend the school. “You save someone. You kill them. How was he supposed to know?”(Zusak 547). So, from the deaths of those dear to her, Liesel thoughts mature substantially and she realizes that death is solely in the hands of fate.Finally, words are a crucial factor that causes Liesel to change in her emotional journey. Liesel is known as the book thief for a reason. That is, she has an obsession with stealing books and the first book she steals, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, was stolen before she could even read. Despite her inability to read, however, Liesel is determined. One night, Liesel has a bed-wetting accident and as Hans reaches under to pull the sheets off, he discovers her stolen book and asks her if she wanted to read it. From that point onward, Papa teaches Liesel to read every night, one letter at a time, until eventually, she understands the meaning of words. The second time that Liesel steals a book is when she takes The Shoulder Shrug from a bonfire on Hitler’s birthday. “When she looked back, Liesel was not ashamed to have stolen it. On the contrary, it was pride that more resembled that small pool of felt something in her stomach. And it was anger and dark hatred that her fueled her desire to steal it.{…}What was there to be angry about? In short, the answer traveled from Himmel Street, to the Führer, to the unfindable location of her real mother, and back again”(Zusak 84). In other words, Liesel steals The Shoulder Shrug as her way of getting back at Hitler for stealing her parents. Hitler’s act of thievery was what caused the anger and dark hatred that fueled her desire to steal. The next book Liesel steals is The Whistler from Ilsa Hermann’s library. Now, Rosa Hubermann happens to do the washing and ironing for some of the rich folks in town, including Ilsa and her husband who is the mayor. However, as the times grew harder, Rosa began summoning Liesel to pick up and deliver the laundry in hopes that her clients will be less likely to fire her with a skinny, pale girl standing in front of them. Regardless, one customer after another dismiss their services until Ilsa Hermann becomes the last customer. Then, when Ilsa disemploys them too, Liesel feels immense anger and for the first time, she realizes how powerful words really are. “‘You and your husband. Sitting up here.’ Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable. The injury of words. Yes, the brutality of words. She summoned them from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. ‘It’s about time,’ she informed her, ‘that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead{…}.’” (Zusak 263). “Liesel could see it on her face.{…}Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel’s words” (Zusak 263). Later, Liesel goes back with Rudy and steals The Whistler from her library as an act of revenge. Similar to The Shoulder Shrug, Liesel does it as a way of taking back something that had been taken from her, namely her weekly access to Ilsa’s library. At any rate, not all the words Liesel had were stolen. One Christmas, after Max had left the Hubermann household, for it was no longer a safe hiding place, and Hans was off at war, Rosa decided Liesel was ready and that it was time to give her Max’s present, The Word Shaker. From The Word Shaker, Liesel learns that words are what holds the country under the power of Hitler and the Nazi Party. She concludes that the world did not deserve the beauty of words. “She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half. Then a chapter. Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?” (Zusak 521). After ripping up the book in Ilsa’s library, Liesel began to feel guilty and she writes a letter to Ilsa indicating she will no longer steal from her library. As a result, Ilsa gives Liesel a journal where she is able to write her own stories. This little act of kindness ends up saving Liesel’s life because on the night of the bombing, Liesel was in the basement editing her story. Through the emotional journey that involved words, Liesel comes to see the beauty and brutality of words and how something beautiful could be manipulated to become something brutal. So, her perception of words have changed considerably and through it all, Liesel has come to understand the power of words better.In brief, Liesel’s life is shaped by three intertwined things; friendships, deaths and words. Each of these things exerted influence over the way Liesel saw the world and dealt with the difficult circumstances she faced. Through her emotional journey, she changes in countless ways. She changes in the way she views the world, the people around her, and the things that surround her. Above all, she has matured and grown to be an able young women. This is the coming-of-age story of a young girl who was able to survive poverty, death, and war. Even though she has seen the ugly things that life can bring, she is strong enough to survive and keep her love towards others true.