In the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters of The Book Thief, Liesel witness’s her father’s heartbreak and then experiences some of her own as well. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CH 17: HITLER’S BIRTHDAY, 1940
Against all hopelessness, Liesel still checked the mailbox each afternoon, throughout March and well into April. This was despite a Hans-requested visit from Frau Heinrich, who explained to the Hubermanns that the foster care office had lost contact completely with Paula Meminger. Still, the girl persisted, and as you might expect, each day, when she searched the mail, there was nothing.
I was actually kind of surprised that Liesel persisted in this routine, given the end of the last chapter, since I felt that Liesel had finally gotten some emotional closure on the idea that her mother was never coming back. But she’s got a fickle, hopeful heart, and I mean that as a compliment. Liesel is quick to forgive and even quicker to forget. That’s why what happens in this chapter and the next are even harder to tolerate.
Molching is the scene of a dazzling and unsettling display of propaganda power when Hitler’s birthday arrives in the spring of this small German town. Further building on the idea presented earlier, the German obsession with fire will play a large part in this parade honoring the Führer’s birthday in 1940. As soon as death mentioned that men and women were knocking on doors to see if residents had anything “they felt should be done away with or destroyed,” I knew we were about to come to the second time that Liesel would steal a book: at a public burning. The local paper confirms this, that there would be a “celebratory fire” in the center of town, not only to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, but to further the propaganda of the Nazi party by burning materials associated with the enemy.
As we’ve progressed through The Book Thief, Zusak certainly hasn’t avoided discussing the realities of the non-fictional world this fictional account is set in. However, I feel that chapters seventeen and eighteen are the first time that the setting becomes so much more blatant. I think it’s sort of unavoidable at this point, so I’m not saying this as a criticism of where this story is going at all. But the reality of living in Nazi Germany during World War II is painfully evident here, and I certainly didn’t expect how much it would play into shaping Liesel’s life.
“They’ll come for us,” Mama warned her husband. “They’ll come and take us away.” They. “We have to find it!”
I like that Zusak expands yet again on this idea that some unnamed “they” has power in Liesel’s life and I enjoy it even more that he doesn’t make her fully knowledgeable at her age about what’s going on around her. It’s far more realistic to me that she maintains that there’s some sort of entity working against her in this case. Sadly, though, she soon begins to discover that this is not really the case.
Very late in the book, we’re finally introduced to the Hubermanns’s other kids in a much more comprehensive way. Trudy takes after Rosa in physical appearance, but Death describes her as having “a quiet voice,” which she surely got from her father. Hans Junior, on the other hand, is much more like her mother in terms of his righteous anger and fury, and it’s the first chance we get to see someone besides Frau Diller who is completely consumed by Nazi propaganda. Well…I don’t want to resort to reducing the entire history to something that simple, that people simply “bought” propaganda, because there were certainly so many more reasons why a person followed Hitler or, at the very least, obeyed what was going on in the country.
What’s also fascinating is that Hans himself is very open about the fact that he is not a Nazi supporter at all and how that contrasts with how vocal and frightening his son is. We see that contrast pretty blatantly in Death’s bolded aside about the two Hans’, as Death says:
Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to paint over slurs written a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.
Which puts the earlier scene of Liesel going through that part of town into an entirely new (and entirely terrifying) context. It doesn’t seem like Liesel actually knows this herself, but I’m interested to learn more about the “story” Death refers to about Hans was “on the verge of joining the party.” What broke Hans, who is so defiant here?
“Well, have you even tried again? You can’t just sit around waiting for the new world to take it with you. You have to go out and be part of it—despite your past mistakes.”
Thanks for the brooding condescension, Hans Junior. It’s truly stunning.
He looked now for some reason at the girl. With her three books standing upright on the table, as if in conversation, Liesel was silently mouthing the words as she read from one of them. “And what trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf.”
Well, Hans Junior sure is subtle, isn’t he?
But Hans Junior wasn’t finished. He stepped closer and said, “You’re either for the Führer or against him—and I can see that you’re against him. You always have been.” Liesel watched Hans Junior in the face, fixated on the thinness of his lips and the rocky line of his bottom teeth. “It’s pathetic—how a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great.”
Which takes this from an uncomfortable, presumptuous conversation to one filled with fright, for everyone involved. The silence that Death describes here feels so palpable, beyond awkwardness into the kind of fear you hope to never experience in a family setting like this. I was completely floored (and not in the good way) that Hans Junior was the first to respond to this unbelievable confrontation.
He calls Hans Hubermann a coward. Hans is incredulous at the accusation and chases his son out of the house, but the event is still scarred onto Liesel’s mind. Still, Death can’t resist giving us a bit of the future:
Yes, the boy was gone, and I wish I could tell you that everything worked out for the younger Hans Hubermann, but it didn’t.
When he vanished from Himmel Street that day in the name of the Führer, he would hurtle through the events of another story, each step leading tragically to Russia.
You know what this style feels like? It’s as if Death is literally sitting on the other side of a dining room table, slightly drunk, relating this story as chronologically as he can, but taking brief trips down tangents and laying groundwork for thoughts and avenues to travel down later. That’s what this feels like to me.
When he appeared inside, Mama fixed her gaze on him, but no words were exchanged. She didn’t admonish him at all, which, as you know, was highly unusual. Perhaps she decided he was injured enough, having been labeled a coward by his only son.
Just simply heartbreaking. I found it even sadder that after dealing with his shame about his cowardice during World War I and the realization that his son may never come home again, he tells Liesel to forget the incident and then tells her to get ready for the Hitler Youth parade. He knows in his heart this is wrong, but the fear and oppression are just too much for him to resist.
CH 18: 100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT
I don’t think Liesel truly understands what just happened to her, though she knows it upset her father. But Zusak continues in the theme of taking Liesel through life and losing her naivete, time after time, and her own heartbreak follows that of her foster father’s.
Chapter eighteen is all about the parade of Nazi youth on Hitler’s birthday, a deeply serious event aimed at celebrating the Führer. There’s a small hint towards the future here, when Tommy Müller accidentally walks into the boy marching in front of him, ruining the otherwise flawless march:
“I’m sorry,” said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. “I couldn’t hear.” It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.
Ok, is someone else going to mess up? Or is Death referring to something else. (Clearly, do not tell me the answer to this.)
The parade ends and the youth scatter about the square; Liesel loses sight of Rudy, but the prospect of the upcoming public burning is far too exciting to her to care that much. I don’t believe that she even thought once about stealing a book. Rather, she just wanted to see the spectacle.
She couldn’t help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.
The scene is absolutely chilling and it’s hard for me to understand it or fathom it in any realistic way. I can’t relate, I can’t conceive of it, and it’s really kind of scary. But Zusak writes about the rally with an unsettling tone. He contrasts the ferocity of the rally and the speaker’s voice with Liesel’s desperate attempt to find someone recognizable. It speaks volumes to what is going on in these two worlds, the man on the podium and Liesel in the crowd. And then Liesel’s world is completely destroyed.
Halfway through the speech, Liesel surrendered. As the word communist seized her, the remainder of the Nazi recital swept by, either side, lost somewhere in the German feet around her. Waterfalls of words. A girl treading water. She thought it again. Kommunisten.
And in that moment, Liesel gets a much better idea of what is happening to her and what has happened to her and her family.
She saw it all so clearly.
Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.
Her dead brother.
“And now we say goodbye to this trash, this poison.”
Just before Liesel Meminger pivoted with nausea to exit the crowd, the shiny, brown-shirted creature walked from the podium. He received a torch from an accomplice and lit the mound, which dwarfed him in all its culpability. “Heil Hitler!”
One of the best written bits in this book, complete in its terror and the realization by Liesel that this movement and possibly this leader may have been the one to take her parents away from her.
GUTTING. THIS BOOK IS GUTTING.
There is a small moment of hope and beauty amidst the horror of this scene. Ludwig Schmeikl finds Liesel, his ankle crushed by the crowd, and the two help each other to safety at the steps of a church:
Sitting down, he held his ankle and found Liesel Meminger’s face. “Thanks,” he said, to her mouth rather than her eyes. More slabs of breath. “And…” They both watched images of school-yard antics, followed by a school-yard beating. “I’m sorry—for, you know.
Liesel heard it again.
She chose, however, to focus on Ludwig Schmeikl. “Me too.”
Ugh, just amazing. I’m so happy that they had this chance, despite the horrifying situation. What’s happening around them is so scary, yet they can still find a chance to forgive each other. Goddamn I love this book.