The Book Thief – Markus Zusak | Book Review

What has my friend done to me? I read this book for her. It’s her favourite book, and I had already come across the title several times, so I thought ‘why not?’ And now, it has left me in tears. This book made me cry so many times, but it has also made me grateful for being alive. It’s one of the few books I will give five stars on GoodReads. This book is beautiful, and sad, devastating, and yet, hopeful. I have nothing to critique. I think it’s perfect as it is.

The book thief is set in a small Bavarian town in Nazi Germany, and is narrated by Death himself, who tells us the story of a young girl called Liesel. Liesel, after seeing her younger brother die on the train ride to Bavaria, gets adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann because her parents were Communists (the first victims of the Nazi regime). Her mother swears a lot (I have never met a German who used Saumensch that often; perhaps the word was more popular back then) and her father is a literal angel. Hans Huberman is the German Atticus (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’). He loves people, and when Max, a Jew, knocks on his door one night, he takes him in and hides him in their basement. Hans’s only crime was to give food to a Jew in public, and for that, he had to join the war, and Max had to leave. Liesel often plays with his schoolmate Rudy Steiner, who quickly develops a crush on her. They’re good friends, and when the war finally starts in Germany, they start stealing together; Rudy wants to steal food, Liesel wants to steal books. Her new Papa Hans taught her how to read, and books have helped her survive in those terrible times. She read a book to Max when he is on the verge of dying, and Max writes her several books for her kindness. At the end, she writes her own book ‘The Book Thief’.

I don’t want to give too much information. Just read it. Really. It will probably break your heart, but you will also feel more gratitude for your life. So often we forget how lucky we are. Most of us can’t even imagine what life must be like for people living in war. We take everything for granted and want more and more. When we’ve already got enough. More than enough. Those people often went to bed hungry, and didn’t know if they would still be alive the next day, week, month, or year. They all experienced terrible things. War is terrible. War should never happen. And even more terrible, I don’t think I need to say, is what the Nazis did to Jews. And I want to thank the author for showing the world that not every German was a Nazi. That there were good Germans. Germans like the Hubermanns, Steiners, and many more. Hate only fuels more hate. But some people keep the light; let love into their hearts. We are all people. There’s no fundamental difference but the differences we proclaim. And Markus Zusak conveyed that perfectly. Also, I have to give him kudos for representing Germans so authentically, himself being Australian. There were quite a few times I thought, ‘Oh yes, this is so German!’ He even made me learn a word of my own language. Watschen. Well, it’s a Bavarian word and I have never even set foot on their ground. I’m happy that ‘Watschen’ is no longer a tradition in Germany(Watschen means a smack in the face).

As a German myself, I often have a hard time reading books about the two World Wars. The first time I read a novel about what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany, I was only 12 years old, and I cried in bed, wishing I was never born. I couldn’t understand why I was alive when so many people were killed. I often walked the streets, thinking they were all stained red with the blood of people that were murdered. Ever since then I carried with me a huge amount of guilt (quite a national phenomenon, the German collective guilt). And none of that was my fault. Nor my parents, not even my grandparents who were only children when it happened. And still, I was born German, I don’t know any family member who wasn’t German. It took me ten to fifteen years to finally accept that I needn’t be ashamed of who I am. Travelling helped. When you grow up in Germany and learn about the atrocities Germany committed, you think every non-German hates you. But it’s quite the opposite. Yes, there are xenophobic people. People just like to hate other people, I will never understand why. But I personally have never had a bad experience with non-Germans, quite the opposite. It still surprises me – and I am grateful for these experiences and people. And yet, as I was reading The Book Thief, and even writing this book review right now, my eyes are glistening with tears because I am so sorry for all the people who have lost everything. It’s hard to believe how these people could just do that: Take everything from Jews and kill them; 6,000,000. Six million people were murdered for a stupid ideology. For what? Because they had the wrong religion? They were Germans, and many of them fought for Germany in World War 1. But suddenly they were public enemy number 1, on the same level as rats, below Germans who didn’t share their religion. In the 30s, many countries were anti-Simitic, but the Germans were the only people who actually tried to commit genocide. Fortunately, they failed. May this be a lesson for the rest of humanity. Hate is an illness. Don’t make other people suffer the consequences of your misguided and disturbing beliefs.

Much can be learned from The Book Thief. It is beautifully written, the characters come alive on the page, and the story is simple, true to its core, and poignant. Even Death has a heart and sympathy for humans here. And the reader also feels sympathy for him, especially during those days, he must have worked tirelessly. I also liked the text-in-text; The stories Max wrote for Liesel, accompanied with illustrations.

I’ll never forget the Jew boxing Hitler in the basement. In the end, he won. Hate will never win.


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