The Book Thief (2006) is a story about a young girl living in Nazi Germany who makes her way in the world by stealing books. With Death as the narrator, it follows her coming of age in the most difficult of times and places.
Introduction: Discover a story that has captured readers’ hearts
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Discover a story that has captured readers’ hearts
- Meet Liesel, one of contemporary literature’s most memorable protagonists
- Complicity and courage intertwine in this story of wartime German life
- War comes close to home on Himmel Strasse
- An ending that highlights the random workings of fate
- About the Author
Markus Zusak’s accomplished and inventive novel The Book Thief is, undoubtedly, a literary phenomenon. In the years since its publication in 2006, it has been translated into 63 languages, sold over 17 million copies, and been adapted into a film.
The first character we meet is also the book’s narrator: Death himself. Death pays a great deal of attention to colors. The white of snow, the black of smoke, the red of flames. The colors distract Death – not from his job, of gently carrying the souls of dead humans away, but from the other humans. The ones he leaves behind. Death can barely stand to look at these humans; that’s why he prefers to look at the colors around them, instead.
But in Nazi Germany, as the horrors of the second world war unfold and Death is busier than ever before, one of the humans he leaves behind catches his eye. He will come across her three times before he is finally tasked with carrying her away. Her name is Liesel Memminger. She is a young girl, when they first meet. And she is a thief. Liesel steals books that the Nazis want to destroy. Soon enough, she starts writing down her own story. The third time Death encounters Liesel the German village where she lives has been bombed. He has come to collect her family and friends, who have all been killed. Liesel’s manuscript, hidden away in the basement where she secretly works on it, would certainly be burned – if it weren’t for the fact that Death himself pockets it and carries it with him, waiting until the time he meets her again…
Meet Liesel, one of contemporary literature’s most memorable protagonists
Liesel Memminger is a book thief.
The first book she steals is called The Gravedigger’s Handbook and she steals it from the cemetery where the body of her six-year-old brother Werner has just been buried.
Two days earlier, Liesel, her mother, and Werner were on a train to Munich. Liesel is midway through a dream about Adolf Hitler, who is currently leader of the Nazi Party and the Chancellor of Germany. When she stirs, she sees that Werner, after a fit of coughing, has died. She spies Death as he leans down to take the boy away.
She takes The Gravedigger’s Handbook to Himmel Strasse – translation: Heaven Street – in Munich, where her mother leaves her with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Himmel Street is far from heavenly. Liesel quickly learns that her father, a communist, has been jailed by the Nazi regime. Rosa is brusque and unaffectionate. Hans paints houses for a living and plays the piano accordion. In their own ways, Rosa and Hans both love Liesel. School is difficult and humiliating for Liesel who is not a natural student. And she misses her mother and brother terribly. The stolen book she keeps under her mattress feels like her only connection to them. Remember – Liesel is not a natural student. So she can’t read the book, only brush her hands over its cover.
Time passes on Himmel Strasse. Liesel becomes best friends with her neighbor, Rudy Steiner, who might also secretly be in love with her. On nearby Schiller street, yellow stars appear in the windows of all the Jewish owned businesses. One night, after Hans discovers Liesel’s stolen book, he begins teaching his foster daughter to read. Liesel writes to her mother but receives no answer. She hears Hans and Rosa whispering about the “they” who have taken her mother away. War is declared in Europe.
463 days pass between thefts. But a year and a half after the day in the cemetery, Liesel steals another book. It is April 20 1940, Hitler’s birthday. Hans’s son, Hans Junior, a committed Nazi pays his parents a visit. He is angry at his father for not being devoted enough to the Nazi party – in fact, Hans has been known to paint over slurs graffitied on Jewish shops. Tonight Hans Junior’s anger is piqued by Liesel, who is reading a novel. He yells that she should be reading Hitler’s biography, Mein Kampf. Later, Liesel dresses in her Hitler Youth uniform and goes to join a birthday rally, where a book burning is taking place. The crowd at the rally is violently excited and Liesel is scared. She realizes the “they” who took her mother are the Nazis. She steals a smoldering book from the ashy remains of the book pyre. It is called The Shoulder Shrug and under her coat it burns her skin.
From its opening pages, The Book Thief is concerned with the power of reading, writing, and words to make the personal political and the political, personal. For Liesel, books are intensely personal: the first book she steals is a talisman that connects her with the memory of her dead brother and vanished mother. Over the course of the novel, Liesel will read books alone, and with others. She will have books written for her and she will write her own books. She will find that words have the power to articulate, and release, hidden and painful feelings. She will use words and literature to connect with other people in her life who are in the depths of grief or in mortal danger.
But The Book Thief is not a story that is afraid of nuance and ambiguity, and Zusak is quick to remind the reader that, just as words can be redemptive, they can also be harmful. Literature, for Liesel, awakens empathy and compassion; readers of Hitler’s biography Mein Kampf, however, are fed on words of fear and hate. Whether they are good or bad, in The Book Thief, words and stories are always potent.
Complicity and courage intertwine in this story of wartime German life
As the book progresses, Liesel keeps stealing, though thanks to wartime rationing, she is more interested in stealing food than books – after all, she can’t eat books. Liesel and Rudy begin to hang around at the edges of a gang of older kids who steal food from farmers and the pair supplement the meager rations they receive at home with juicy purloined apples. But a hunger for books and reading gnaws at Liesel still, along with her actual hunger. Liesel begins visiting the mayor’s wife at her home, under the pretext of picking up her washing and mending to take to Rosa, and spending afternoons in their magnificent library. And she and Hans read her stolen book, The Shoulder Shrug, together at night – the book’s Jewish protagonist is the reason the Nazis tried to burn it.
It is at this point in the book that a new character – a Jewish one, this time – enters the narrative. We first meet Max as he sits, starving and cramped, in a dark hiding space in a house in Stuttgart, waiting for fake – fake as in Aryan – identification papers to materialize. They are handed to him concealed in a book, and not just any book, but Mein Kampf, along with a map directing him to a house on Himmel Strasse, in Munich.
Max, it transpires, is the 24 year old son of Erik Vandenburg, a German Jew who served alongside Hans in the first World War. One day, as the troop prepared for battle in France, Hans’s captain requested that one soldier stay behind in the trenches, to help the Captain prepare his correspondence. Erik volunteered Hans to stay behind. The rest of the men went to battle and all, Erik included, died. Ever since, Hans has felt that he owed Erik his life. Now, it is time for Hans to pay his debts to Erik, by sheltering his son.
At this point in the story, we travel back in time to learn a little more about Max. Like Liesel, he grew up poor, and without a father. He was a tenacious child, never afraid to back down from a fight. And fighting – more specifically boxing – grew to be his passion. As a teen, he joined a circle of boys that met to hold bare knuckle boxing matches in the backstreets of Stuttgart. His greatest enemy in the ring was a boy named Walter Kugler, who would grow to be his greatest friend outside the ring. As the Nazi government’s antisemitic policies took hold, Walter, a gentile, and Max found themselves on different paths – Walter finds work and opportunities easily. Life for Max is a constant struggle. But though the two drift apart, their bond doesn’t weaken. It is Walter who hides Max from the Nazis and arranges his fake papers.
Max sleeps in the Hubermann’s house at night and in the daytime steals away to the basement, so the neighbor’s don’t see him. Liesel and Max both suffer nightmares and in the insomniac small hours, begin to talk and become friends. For Liesel’s birthday, Max gifts her a book: it is the copy of Mein Kampf he read on the train, but he has painted over the text with Hans’s house paint and written and illustrated a story of his own, called The Standover Man. It tells of all the friends who have protected him through his life. The last friend is Liesel.
Germany invades Russia. As the war intensifies, life on Himmel Strasse gets harder. Max fantasizes about going head to head with Hitler in a boxing match. The gang of food-stealing thieves Rudy and Liesel have fallen in with turn meaner and more cutthroat. And Rudy is tormented by a sadistic Hitler Youth leader who makes him do push-ups in cow manure in the freezing cold. It is at this point in the story that Death interjects, informing the reader that Rudy has less than two years to live. How his life will end, however, remains unclear.
In the story of the Hubermanns, and Max Vandenburg, the Jewish prisoner they take in, The Book Thief highlights the courage displayed by ordinary people during the horrors of the second world war – Max’s courage in resisting capture, and the Hubermann’s courage in knowingly sheltering a Jew. And yet, this is not a straightforward story of resistance: Zusak shows how the Hubermanns are both brave and compliant. We see Hans giving the Nazi salute on the street, the pair hang a Nazi flag from their window. They do this in part to avoid drawing attention to themselves and, by extension, to Max. Nevertheless, they are willing participants in some elements of the Nazi regime, even while they boldly resist it. Rudy, too, is shown as a rebellious, yet clever enough to know that refusing to participate in the Hitler Youth, even though he hates it, would place his safety at risk. Of course, many other characters, like the Hubermanns’ son Hans Junior, enthusiastically embrace Nazism. The book is a chilling yet sensitively drawn portrayal of how easily ordinary citizens can find themselves willing participants in a fascist system.
War comes close to home on Himmel Strasse
It is Winter, 1942, and Max cannot get warm. No matter how many press-ups he does, his hands stay numb. He shivers constantly. He is gravely ill. Soon he falls into a coma. Liesel is stricken. She brings Max offerings from outside – a pinecone, a feather – hoping that they will bring him back into the waking world. She wishes she could bring him a beautiful cloud she sees in the sky, but settles for writing a description of it and leaving it beside his bed, an exercise that awakens her interest in writing down the things she sees. Liesel also steals another book, this time from the Mayor’s library. It is called The Dream Catcher and she reads it to Max while he lies unconscious.
Eventually Max wakes up, but while his health recovers, his situation remains perilous, and grows even more so when Nazi troops move from house to house, inspecting each dwelling’s basement, to see if it could serve as a makeshift bomb shelter. Liesel sees the soldiers approaching and warns Max, but he only has time to hide, not to escape. Luckily, he hides well, and the soldiers don’t notice the presence of a fugitive Jew in the basement on Himmel Strasse.
Liesel’s career as a book thief continues. The next book she steals from the mayor’s library is called A Song in the Dark. The book after that, though, practically asks to be stolen. It has been propped in the open library window. When Liesel takes it she sees that it is a dictionary. She sees, too, that a note has been tucked inside. The note is from Frau Herrmann, the mayor’s wife, and it tells Liesel she is welcome to take as many books as she likes, though one day, Frau Herrmann hopes, Liesel will feel free to enter the library by knocking at the front door.
Rudy, meanwhile, trains for the Hitler Youth athletics carnival. Rudy is a gifted athlete and wins three of the four events he competes in, but is disqualified from the last race after making a series of false starts. Later he confesses to Liesel that he made the false starts on purpose, revealing his conflicted feelings towards the Hitler Youth.
When the first bombs fall on Himmel Strasse, all the street’s residents shelter in a makeshift basement air raid. Max, however, must remain in hiding. To pass the time Liesel reads aloud from a book. A neighbor, Frau Holzapfel, asks if Liesel will read to her in the afternoons in exchange for coffee.
When a group of Jewish prisoners, bound for the concentration camp of Dachau, are marched by, one of the group, an elderly man, falls down. Hans is moved to offer him a piece of bread. The soldiers leading the prisoners beat Hans and he gets a reputation as a Jew-lover. Hans’ compassionate gesture ironically places Max in danger – Hans is now regarded as suspect and it is no longer safe for Max to continue hiding in his home. Max leaves, with a promise to meet Hans again in four days, but when Hans arrives at the appointed spot there is only a letter waiting for him. The letter consists of one sentence: You’ve done enough.
Hans, and Rudy’s father Alex, are both conscripted into the German army. Rudy and Liesel come close to kissing but pull away at the last minute. Bombs continue to fall. Jews are paraded again and again through the streets. Rosa gives Liesel a book Max has left for her – like The Standover Man, he has written it himself. It tells a story called “The Wordhskaers” about words growing on trees, and one girl who plants the seed of a word with a tear, then helps it grow into the tallest of trees. In this story, nothing can destroy the girls’ tree, not even the soldiers who try and chop it down with their axes.
For Liesel, Max, Rudy, and all the others on Himmel Strasse, World War II literally comes to their doorstep, both through the bombs that fall from the sky and the parades of Jewish prisoners that are led through the streets. Through the danger and suffering, though, words continue to connect and unify – Liesel develops a relationship with the hitherto stand-offish Frau Holzapfel through reading, comes to an understanding of sorts with Frau Herrmann regarding her library, and is surprised and touched by the story Max creates for her. “The Wordshaker”, the story-within-the-story about words that grow into trees, sums up Max’s feeling about words and story – deployed well, words are more powerful even than violence and hatred.
An ending that highlights the random workings of fate
The war drags on and all the men of Himmel Strasse who are fit for service have been drafted into the German army. Each man meets a different, random fate. Frau Holzapfel’s two sons, Michael and Robert, are sent to Stalingrad where Robert dies and Michael lives. Michael, badly injured and trauma-stricken, makes his way back to Himmel Strasse. So does Hans, who narrowly escapes death for the second time – he is traveling by truck back to camp when the truck crashes. The man sitting next to him is instantly killed. Hans suffers a broken leg but survives. He, too, returns to Himmel Strasse. But Hans’ and Rosa’s son, Hans Junior, does not. He dies in battle on the Eastern Front.
Bombs continue to fall on Himmel Strasse and its residents become quite used to passing the night in their underground shelter – though Frau Holzapfel, overcome with grief, needs to be persuaded to join the others there, instead of sitting at her kitchen table and waiting to die. After one especially violent bombing, Liesel and Rudy emerge from the shelter to find a wounded British pilot lying in the wreckage of his plane. They arrive at the man’s side at just the same time as Death does. Rudy has time to offer the man a teddy bear, for which the pilot faintly thanks him, before Death carries his soul away.
Then comes a lull. Apart from the regular parades of Jewish prisoners through the streets, this area of Munich is relatively calm. The bombs fall less often. Life settles into a rhythm. That rhythm is broken by the death of Michael Holzapfel, who hangs himself. He leaves a note telling his mother he is going to join his brother in heaven – he writes that, whatever the church says, he knows there must be a place in Heaven for people who have been to the places he was forced to go. Death recalls that Michael is one of the many people, during that time, who went running after them, begging Death to take them with him.
Liesel scans each passing parade of Jewish prisoners, hoping to see Max’s face among them. And one warm day in August, she does. Unlike his fellow prisoners, Max does not look down at the road or blankly into the middle distance. He looks hopefully into the faces of the people on the street. His eyes meet Liesel’s. He tells Liesel she has grown, and shares that he was captured by Nazis halfway to Stuttgart. Liesel breaks through the troops that guard the prisoners to embrace Max. Together, they quote the story of the Word Shaker that Max wrote for her.
Rudy pulls Liesel away, though not before the soldiers have beaten her. They stand, in an awkward embrace, in the street, and once again come close to kissing, but don’t.
Max is bound for Dachau. Later, after the war, he will find Liesel working in Rudy’s father’s tailoring shop. He will be overjoyed to see her – the horrors of what he certainly endured at Dachau are never shared.
After seeing Max, Liesel tears all the pages from a book titled The Last Human Stranger. What good are words, she wonders, when they have done nothing to save Max from capture and almost certain death? And yet, Liesel also begins to creep down in the basement that was formerly his hiding place every night. Here, she begins to write her own book, the book of her life.
Here, the story of Himmel Strasse comes to an abrupt end. Allied forces feign a move from Munich to Stuttgart, but a handful of planes remain in the skies over Munich. The bombs fall before the sirens can sound. Death is everywhere on Himmel Strasse when the bombs begin to shell the street. He is in Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen, where the bereaved mother seems to welcome him. He is in the Steiner’s house, where he takes the children one by one, finishing with Rudy who is sharing a bed with his sister Bettina. He is in the Hubermann’s house, where Hans and Rosa lie asleep. Only Liesel, writing in the basement, escapes Death this night.
Liesel returns, in the months after the bombing, to look for her manuscript, but Death has pocketed it. He will return it to her, decades later, when she is an old woman living in Australia. Death takes Liesel’s soul at last on a silver colored afternoon. The two take a walk around the football pitch near her house. Liesel tells Death she has had a long, and good, life, but she still grieves for Hans and Rosa, Rudy and Max, her brother and her parents, and everyone else the war took from her. Death has questions for Liesel, but he doesn’t ask them – he wishes she could explain to him how humans can be so glorious and so brutal. He finishes the story by confessing that he is haunted by humans.
From the start of the story, Death has been upfront: there is no sense or system to the way he operates. Fate is random, and death is doled out unpredictably, in ways that can often seem callous and cruel. And the climactic scenes of The Book Thief feel very cruel indeed. Nearly all the residents of Himmel Strasse are violently killed in an explosion. The few who are left behind struggle to comprehend the enormity of their loss – for Liesel, the loss of her entire adoptive family, as well as her best friend. But while the book shows, over and over, humans wondering at the machinations of death, ultimately it is Death himself who cannot comprehend humanity. As he watches the unspeakable cruelties of the Second World War unfold he is left with the same question that lingers in the minds of The Book Thief’s readers: how can humans possibly act like this?
The Book Thief is the haunting, yet inventive, tale of one German girls’ experience of World War II. Through the lives of Liesel, her parents Hans and Rosa, and the other residents of the street where she lives, we see the courage, cowardice, and cruelty of ordinary Germans in this period. The book’s enduring theme is of the power of words and stories to spark connection even in the darkest times.
About the Author
History, Society, Culture
The Book Thief: A Historical Novel about Love, Loss and Resilience in Nazi Germany by Markus Zusak is a book that tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is sent to live with a foster family in a small town near Munich during World War II. Liesel develops a passion for books and steals them from various sources, such as Nazi book burnings, the mayor’s library, and a Jewish man hiding in her basement. Through her books, Liesel learns about the power of words, the beauty of life, and the horror of war.
The book is narrated by Death, who is fascinated by Liesel and her courage. Death follows Liesel’s life from 1939 to 1943, witnessing her joys and sorrows, her friendships and losses, her hopes and fears. Death also provides insights into the historical context and the fate of the other characters, such as Liesel’s foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her best friend Rudy Steiner, her Jewish friend Max Vandenburg, and her nemesis Frau Hermann.
The book explores themes such as the value of literature, the impact of war, the nature of death, the role of guilt, and the meaning of friendship. The book also uses various symbols and motifs, such as colors, books, music, dreams, and stars. The book is written in a poetic and lyrical style, with frequent use of metaphors, similes, personification, and imagery.
The Book Thief: A Historical Novel about Love, Loss and Resilience in Nazi Germany by Markus Zusak is a remarkable and captivating book that offers a unique perspective on one of the most tragic periods in human history. The book combines historical facts with fictional elements to create a realistic and compelling story that touches the heart and mind of the reader.
The book is well-written and well-structured, with each chapter having a clear purpose, main points, summaries, and action steps. The book is also interactive and engaging, as it invites you to reflect on your own situations, challenges, and goals, and to try out the exercises and tools it suggests. The book is suitable for both beginners and experienced project managers, as it covers both the basics and the advanced aspects of project management.
The book is not a theoretical or academic treatise on project management, but rather a practical and hands-on guide that shows you how to apply the LFA method to real-world scenarios. The book does not assume any prior knowledge or experience in project management, but rather explains everything in a simple and understandable way. The book also does not prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for every project, but rather encourages you to customize and adapt the LFA method to fit your specific needs and context.
One of the most striking features of the book is the choice of Death as the narrator. Death is not portrayed as a cruel or evil force, but rather as a sympathetic and curious observer who has a sense of humor and compassion. Death also adds an element of suspense and irony to the story, as he reveals some events before they happen or comments on them after they happen.
The book also creates memorable and realistic characters that make you care about their fate. Liesel is a strong and brave heroine who grows from an illiterate orphan to a literate rebel. Hans is a gentle and kind father figure who teaches Liesel how to read and play the accordion. Rosa is a harsh but loving mother figure who keeps the family together. Rudy is a loyal and adventurous friend who loves Liesel unconditionally. Max is a courageous and creative friend who shares his stories and drawings with Liesel.
The book also depicts the harsh realities of living in Nazi Germany during World War II. The book shows how people suffered from hunger, fear, violence, oppression, discrimination, and death. The book also shows how people resisted or coped with these conditions in different ways. Some people joined or supported the Nazi party out of fear or ambition. Some people hid or helped Jews out of compassion or guilt. Some people stole or traded goods out of necessity or greed. Some people read or wrote books out of curiosity or defiance.
Overall, The Book Thief: A Historical Novel about Love, Loss and Resilience in Nazi Germany by Markus Zusak is an excellent book that can inspire you to appreciate the power of words and the resilience of the human spirit. The book can also challenge you to think about your own values and choices in life. The book is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction or wants to learn more about World War II from a different angle.