The Holocaust was a time in history where hatred and violence was expressed in many different ways. Millions of Jews were murdered, simply for their physical appearances. In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the time period is set during the time of Adolf Hitlers rule. The narrator, Death itself, follows the life of a young girl named Liesel Meminger and the struggles she faces. Although readers would assume that a young German girl would not be having many problems, Liesel’s life is constantly being thrown in the course of trouble.
Although many of her friends and family members, and even herself go through many obstacles, they still find faith within each other. Through compassion, happiness and courage, many characters show the reader that optimism is still possible in such a hopeless time. Despite the setting of Nazi Germany being one of the darkest times in history, The Book Thief is a story ultimately about hope. Although the novel is set in such a dark and hateful time, compassion is still being shown and felt within different characters in the novel such as Hans Hubermann, Ilsa Herman and, the entire Hubermann family.
Hans Hubermann shows compassion for the Jews as they walk by him in the street, and he left Liesel to help one. Hubermann is a German that is living under Hitler’s rule of dehumanizing Jews, but he does not agree with this, and instead of showing hatred towards them, he “held his hand out [to one] and presented a piece of bread, like magic” (Zusak, 394). In that time, associating with a Jew, or showing any type of kindness to one was considered an act of treason against Hitler’s rule. Therefore, to the Germans, Hans’ actions were considered disgusting.
As a result, his paint cart was thrown over and “they called him a Jew lover” (395, Zusak). Although, to the Jew he tried to help, it was an act of such kindness that it caused him to fall “to his knees and [hold Hans’] shins. He buried his face between them and thanked [Hans]” (395, Zusak) as the Jew began to cry. Although the majority of Germans are brainwashed to believe that the mistreatment of the Jews was justified, people such as Hans thought otherwise and literally stretched out a compassionate hand in order to help them.
This act of kindness shows how humans are capable of expressing compassion towards those in need, despite how out of the ordinary it may seem, and regardless of the consequences. Ilsa Hermann also shows kind-heartedness towards someone who is supposedly beneath her, according to social class. Ilsa Hermann is the mayor’s wife, and because of her social status in the town, the reader would not think to associate her with a poor little girl, such as Liesel. The mayor’s wife takes interest in Liesel because of her love for reading and even allows Liesel to come in at times to choose books from Ilsa’s library to read.
This is considered an act of kindness because Ilsa is fully knowledgeable for what is really going in Germany and with the Jews, and in order to shield Liesel from the horrible world outside, she allows her to stay in her luxurious house and read for a few hours. To anyone else, this act would be considered miniscule and unimportant, but to Liesel, this meant the world to her. Liesel has a strong passion for books, as she finds herself constantly getting lost in the words of any book she picks up, and Ilsa understand this as she used to be this way about reading as well.
To Ilsa, this is not considered a small act either. She wants to protect Liesel, even if it is for only a few hours. Every time Liesel comes to the mayor’s house to pick up and drop off laundry, the mayor’s wife allows her to read some more in the library. During Liesel’s last visit to the mayor’s house, “[Ilsa] offered Liesel The Whistler, [and] she insisted on the girl taking it…she almost begged” (Zusak, 259) because she felt terrible that Liesel was no longer able to come to her house to read.
She wanted to give Liesel a gift to help her forget about the outside world and “Liesel, touched by the strangeness of this woman, couldn’t bear to disappoint her” (Zusak, 259). Ilsa’s choice to allow Liesel to come into her home and read, and to give Liesel a book from her library shows that although most adults in this time are coldhearted and discriminating, there are some that still can show a special kind of care for others. This shows that in dark times, there are still going to be some adults that try to protect the innocence of children by shielding them from the outside world.
The Hubermann family displays a great deal of compassion to someone that they, literally, have no right to. If authorities were to figure out what they were doing, the entire family could be separated and most likely convicted. Rosa and Hans Hubermann show a great deal of courage, compassion and kindness for taking in and deciding to hide a Jew in their basement. Max is the son of Hans’ friend from war, and Hans promised Max’ father that he would help him by any means necessary in the future, and in this case, it was to hide his son from being internalized in a concentration camp.
During these times, it was not uncommon for Germans to try and help their Jewish friends, but more often than not, it resulted in them being discovered and both the Jews and the Germans would be killed. Knowing this, the Hubermann’s still decided to allow Max to live in their basement, in hopes that the madness with all the Jews would pass and Max would be free again. What makes this family remarkable, is that they did not know who Max was or what he looked like, before he showed up on their front porch one night and still, “Hans Hubermann shook [Max’s] hand and introduced himself.
He made him some coffee in the dark,” (Zusak, 195) to allow Max to rest and become acquainted with his saviors. There were many times where the Hubermann’s were almost caught with a Jew in their basement, but luckily, they were never actually discovered. Although it was a fearful time for the entire family, they still knew what they were doing was the right thing to do. When Max first came to the house, “there was a look of triumph on [Rosa’s] face…the triumph of having saved another human being persecution. (Zusak, 197) was clearly shown and Max was just as grateful.
Max was aware of the danger he was putting the family in, but had no other choice unless he was to go into a concentration camp. He grew a strong friendship with not only Rose and Hans, but Liesel as well. Liesel would go into the basement every night and read with Max, and although most of the times they sat in silence, that is when their friendship grew the strongest. They bonded through Liesel’s readings, and Max’s books that he later gives to Liesel as a present.
Max was afraid of being sent away, but he was more afraid of putting this family in danger, especially a little girl like Liesel that had already been through so much. Max knew that Liesel had already lost her first family, so he felt guilty that she could lose this family too, because of him. Although it was a great risk taking Max in, the Hubermann’s knew that it was the right thing to do. Their act of kindness, in the end, benefitted Max as well as their entire family as it brought the three of them closer.
This shows that in a place where there is so much hatred, there are still people that can show love and honor by helping those in need. Through Hans, Ilsa, and the Hubermann family, the reader is able to see that hope can be given as well as received through simple acts of kindness, regardless of the time or situation. Despite this many negative emotions going on in this time, happiness could still sometimes be found by both children and adults. Hans, Rudy and, Liesel all felt some degree of joy despite the negative world around them.
Hans Hubermann’s happiness did not come from someone else, but from an object. His happiness came from his accordion. Liesel pays close attention to when her Papa plays the accordion, because not only does she notice his happiness, but hearing him play makes her happy as well. Liesel “often looks at Papa’s fingers and face when he plays. The accordion breathes…Sometimes [she] thinks [her] Papa is an accordion. When he looks at [her] and smiles and breathes, [she] hears the notes,” (Zusak, 527) which lets Liesel know that her Papa is being filled with joy as he plays his accordion.
Hans has been playing the accordion for a long time now, and he uses his talent to bring delight in the Hubermann household every night when he plays the instrument to Liesel and Rosa, and even Max. Hans is a grown man that not only understands the war going outside his household, but has even been in war as well. Despite this knowledge, Hans refuses to give us the simple pleasures in life such as playing an instrument he loves, and allowing his daughter to hear him and receive the same joy he does when he is playing. Hans being happy gives himself, as well as the reader that Hans will never die a bitter man.
This shows that adults are still capable of enjoying simple moments, even in times of great stress. During a time where most friendships were broken because of ethnical and physical differences, there was still hope for some new friendships to be made. Rudy and Liesel are two children, a boy and girl, which live on the same street that immediately connect when Liesel moves to Himmel Street. This friendship creates a bond between the two that can only bring a special kind of happiness to them, although neither would ever admit it. Rudy and Liesel’s friendship grew stronger with each new situation they experienced together.
There bond grew the strongest after the two decided to steal together because they both came from poor families. When Rudy was caught stealing a potato, he attempted to explain to the shop owner that his brothers and sisters “[were] all starving” (Zusak, 294) in order to escape punishment. “The problem with Rudy…was greed” (Zusak, 293), he could never steal enough to satisfy him and because Liesel was his friend she always tagged along with him. Rudy was even able to convince Liesel to start stealing from the mayor’s house. Although it seems like Rudy was a bad influence on Liesel, their friendship still kept them sane.
Even as kids, they were able to understand that there was something going on, although they could not tell what is was. They still brought each other joy, whether it be when they played soccer in the street or after they stole something. They helped each other distract the other of what was really going on, and because of it they became inseparable. After they were to steal, “the book thief and her best friend, [Rudy], sat back to back on a patchy red toolbox in the middle of the street” (Zusak, 484), enjoying one another’s company in still happiness.
These two children were able to understand what it means to become a true friend to someone, and because of it, each has gained a special kind of happiness in their life, because the other child was in it. These two’s friendship shows that children are able to bring happiness into anyone’s life, even their own. Regardless of the amount of destruction that surrounds Liesel’s life, she is able to find her own happiness through her readings. When Liesel’s little brother was being buried, Liesel found a book by his grave entitled The Gravedigger’s Handbook that goes through step by step how to perform a proper burial.
Liesel steals this book from one of the workers, and when she arrives at the Hubermann’s house, Hans offers to help Liesel learn how to read. Because of Liesel’s nightmares from her brother, she and Hans are constantly awake in the middle of the night attempting to read her book. Liesel ended up with a passion for reading after learning how to with her Papa. She found her escape within her books, and she used her readings to bring others comfort, and herself happiness.
During a bomb-raid, while everyone was in a basement taking cover, Liesel started to read in order to calm down the other children. They were crying because of the noises they heard, and once Liesel started reading from her book she “could feel their frightened eyes hanging onto her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out,” (Zusak, 381). As the kids started to calm down “a voice played the notes inside [Liesel]. This, it said, is your accordion” (Zusak, 381). Liesel’s reading became what Hans’ accordion is to him, their happiness.
These objects were able to bring these two people such happiness in their lives that it allowed them to forget about the harshness outside them. From this happiness that Liesel gets from books, readers can conclude that the simplest of objects can be the cause of great joy. Hans, Rudy and Liesel are all examples that humans are able to create their own happiness, or allow simple objects to bring them joy. Although these three are living through such a dark and angry time, their ability to feel and express happiness shows that there is still hope for a happier future for them.
Nazi Germany consists of a time where those with enough courage to speak against Hitler are beaten down, physically and mentally, to the point where all they have left is fear. Knowing this, Liesel, Max and Hans all display a great amount of courage towards other Germans, Death itself as well as Hitler. Liesel expresses her boldness when she sees Max walking with the rest of the Jews, and decides to acknowledge and speak to him. Max was forced to leave the Hubermann household for fear that Nazi’s would come and discover the family was hiding a Jew in the basement.
Unfortunately, Max was caught “halfway to Stuttgart” (Zusak, 511) and was placed in a concentration camp with other Jews. When Liesel saw Max walking with the other Jews on the street, “never had movement been such a burden. Never had a heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest” (Zusak, 509). Liesel’s heart shattered when she Max because he was a genuine friend. Max and Liesel created such a strong friendship, that he had given her a story that he created, and she had read to him while he was in their basement.
She told Max about her past experiences, about the books that she stole, about the nightmares she had and Max returned the favor by sharing his hallucinations, books and nightmares with Liesel. So, when Liesel saw Max walking with the Jews, “[she] shrugged away entirely from the crowd and entered the tide of Jews, weaving through them till she grabbed hold of [Max’s] arm” (Zusak, 510). Knowing that the soldiers were watching, she still grabbed ahold of him, wanting to let him know she was there.
Max attempted to get rid of her, for fear that she would get in trouble but she would not leave his side. Once the solider realized Liesel was there, he ordered her to leave but “she ignored [the soldier] completely, [and he] used his arm to separate the stickiness of people…the soldier took her [and] his hands manhandled her clothes” (Zusak, 511) but she still insisted on seeing Max. After this, she once again approached max and “she was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face” (Zusak, 512) and reassured Max that she was here for him.
The soldier, seeing Liesel once again talking to Max, pulled out a whip and whipped both Max and Liesel. Even then, the only thing that stopped Liesel from running after Max, was Rudy tackling to the floor and “[collecting] her punches as if they were presents” (Zusak, 515). Liesel was determined to be with Max, and this act of bravery shows her courage towards the soldier that was threatening to punish her severely. The courage she expresses shows that people can be brave enough to do what is considered crazy things, if motivated enough.
While Max was living in the basement of the Hubermann’s, he was constantly fantasizing about fighting against Hitler himself in a boxing arena. He dreamt that he would finally one day be able to physically beat Hitler down, the way Hitler had done to him and his people. Max shows great bravery in the face of struggle and even Death. As a child, Max had this idea that when he died, he did not want to die a quiet death. The boy vowed that “when death captured [him],… he will feel [Max’s] fist on his face” (Zusak, 189). Max has shown bravery in the face of many struggles.
He had enough courage to travel on his own to seek out Hans Hubermann, with the very likely risk that Germans would catch him. His bravery continued when Nazi’s came to the Hubermnn’s and Max hid under the Swastika flag. Max also shows courage when Liesel discovers him walking with the other Jews after being caught, and instead of ignoring her, he talks to her and comments on how “it’s such a beautiful day” (Zusak, 512). This was something he used to always say to Liesel when he was living in her basement, so he knew that Liesel would appreciate him saying it to her.
He knew that the soldiers would punish him with a whip if he did not stop talking to Liesel, but after everything she had done for him, and the friendship that the two had, he could not even think to ignore her. Max suffered many whippings from the soldier, and afterwards, still “hoisted himself upright” (Zusak, 514). Max showed courage against death, as well as a Nazi soldier which shows that fearless individuals still exist, and they will do whatever they need to in order to stand up for themselves and those they care about. These individuals also give hope to others around them, by not being afraid and by doing what is right.
Hans Hubermann is a man that knows what is right and wrong. The reader learns very early that he has a good head on his shoulder by the decisions he makes with his life. Hans shows great courage when he makes the decision of not being a supporter of Hitler. Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent of Germans that did not show unflinching support for Adolf Hitler (Zusak, 63). He knew what was going on, and he knew that it was wrong. The reason why he took Max in was because Max’s father was Hans’ friend, and rather than looking at it as helping a Jew, Hans saw it as helping a friend.
It was very dangerous for Hans not to show support to Hitler. It could ultimately cost him his life, and the life of his family but he chose to boldly stand by his opinion, and not change it for the sake of being a part of the majority. Hans knew that he could not “join a party that antagonized [Jews] in such a way” (Zusak, 180) because “he was a man who appreciates fairness [and] and Jew had once saved his life” (Zusak, 180) therefore Hans refused to be a part of a party that antagonized them.
Hans’ refusal to join the party was very dangerous, and because of his decision Hans was constantly ridiculed and his business was even impacted from it. Although he had to go through many hardships as a result of his decision, Hans had the courage to stand by his choices, and because of this it shows that humans are, in fact, capable of doing the right thing. Even if the majority of people are following something that is wrong, there are a few individuals that will be able to stand up and voice their opinion over it, regardless of the consequences.
Although The Book Thief takes place in the time of the Holocaust, a time in history that took the lives of many people, this story’s characters continuously show the reader that this is a story about hope. Through characters showing compassion, feeling happiness and expressing their courage, it allows the reader to feel hope that each of those characters will be alright. Hope is something that can be found, even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to look for it.