In the thirtieth through thirty-second chapters of The Book Thief, Max Vandenburg arrives at the Hubermann household. Death gives us a brief backstory on how Max came to arrive in this particular house (from Max’s point of view) and Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents becomes a little bit confusing. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
The pace for The Book Thief seems to have rapidly increased with the arrival of Max Vandenburg. I wasn’t going to say it, but….HAS SHIT STARTED TO GET REAL? I mean…this surely is going to be the main thrust of the novel, isn’t it? I feel like Zusak could take this in so many directions; it’s only 1940 and we’ve got a lot of story to tell until the second time Hans Hubermann avoids Death in 1943. But to start things off, we focus on Liesel Meminger.
CH. 30: A GOOD GIRL
In November 1940, when Max Vandenburg arrived in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, he was twenty-four years old.
Ok, yes, that actually makes sense considering when Erik died, but HOLY SHIT I THOUGHT MAX WAS MUCH, MUCH OLDER THAN ME. Jesus christ, how did he end up this way?
What’s initially apparent is how unbearably overwhelming this is for max, that the sheer idea of surviving what he’s gone through, to make it to Hans’s house and find that Hans is indeed real and willing to take him in. I can’t even fathom that concept. It’s entirely alien to me.
Hans checked that the curtains were properly closed. Not a crack could be showing. As he did so, Max could no longer bear it. He crouched down and clasped his hands.
The darkness stroked him.
His fingers smelled of suitcase, metal, Mein Kampf, and survival.
Frightening. So I imagine that now we’re going to deal with Max being hidden in the basement of the Hubermann household. But there might be a complication: Liesel. Max’s attention is instantly drawn to the sight of her, and it’s not explained why he seems so bothered by the fact that Liesel exists. Is he worried about the peripheral damage he might cause her by being in the Hubermann house?
“Don’t be afraid,” she heard Papa whisper. “She’s a good girl.”
Well, shit, could Max be worried less about hurting Liesel than in Liesel turning Max in? This book sure got uncomfortable real fast.
CH. 31: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE JEWISH FIGHTER
I didn’t expect this so soon, but Zusak further fills in the narrative gaps of what has happened to bring Max to the Hubermann household, this time focusing on the perspective of the scrawny German Jew. And oh boy, what a tragic, depressing story this is.
Zusak calls Max the “Jewish fighter” for a reason: from an early age, Max was drawn to the physicality and brutality of fighting. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t understand this because I was always drawn to the opposite. I mean this in the least judgmental way possible. It’s just not who I am, but I get that it is for other people. (I actually had a conversation about this recently, on a side note. I have literally never been in a fight and I’ve always assumed I’d be awful, but what if I am secretly like the most badass fighter of all time and I don’t know it. Well, I’d rather not be in a situation where I have to test that out, honestly.)
Not many people who came from his neighborhood were fighters, and if they were, they didn’t do it with their fists. In those days, they said the Jews preferred to simply stand and take things. Take the abuse quietly and then work their way back to the top. Obviously, every Jew is not the same.
I like that distinction made at the end. I think it’s a good thing to state often, to avoid overgeneralization and erasure, and I like that it’s included here to work both ways: Max was not like other Jews and other Jews were not like Max. There are an innumerable amount of things to be, behaviors to act out, things to believe, and so on, and just being Jewish doesn’t mean that your life will be lived out by a cookie-cutter set of rules or stereotypes.
For Max, life wasn’t ever easy, and maybe that’s why he was so drawn to fighting. Losing his father at age two, moving in with his uncle after his mother couldn’t handle things on her own, and being forced to deal with six very violent cousins helped shaped what we’ll come to learn is Max’s personality.
At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.
As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hothead like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He kept to himself and sacrificed everything for his family—and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.
I don’t think Zusak is going to a literal description here, and what he spells out in the next page or so is what caused Max to completely develop the violent, forceful, and confident physicality that would make up the bulk of his life. Max Vandenburg watches his uncle go out of this world without a fight. And Zusak never takes Max to a point that is entirely absurd, but acknowledges that Max was young when his uncle died, and perhaps the tragedy of this occurring in his youth certainly brought him to a much more extreme conclusion:
Of course, at thirteen, he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.
Max resolves that his life at that point will not end as his uncle’s did. As he puts it:
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
I like that a lot.
Max’s life isn’t simplified by this dedication to violence, and I wouldn’t want to paint the story that Zusak is telling here as something overly childish or simplistic. We only get just a piece of Max’s life, and the one Zusak feels is most relevant to how he ends up at the Hubermann household. What is given is a the contrast we need later. Max loves to fight:
He enjoyed the tight circles and the unknown.
The bittersweetness of uncertainty:
To win or to lose.
It was a feeling in the stomach that would be stirred around until he thought he could no longer tolerate it. The only remedy was to move forward and throw punches. Max was not the type of boy to die thinking about it.
And all of this is incredibly relevant. We read about Max’s fighting, his ferocity, his impatience and impulsive nature, his desire to be active and forceful, the union and beauty he finds in these acts of physicality. And we learn that through these fights, Max meets Walter Kugler. And fights him. He calls it Fight Number Five. He’s shorter than Walter, nowhere near as skilled, and far too jittery to seem like any sort of threat. But it’s this first fight that builds the future between these two. Here, in their first confrontation, Max shocks everyone:
Kugler, suddenly blinded, shuffled back, and Max seized his chance. He followed him over to the right and jabbed him once more and opened him up with a punch that reached into his ribs. The right hand that ended him landed on his chin. Walter Kugler was on the ground, his blond hair peppered with dirt. His legs were parted in a V. Tears like crystal floated down his skin, despite the fact that he was not crying. The tears had been bashed out of him.
That’s a great start to a friendship, right???
Despite that Walter and Max start off on this foot, they become friends, and their friendship is tested by a lot of things: Time. Distance. Heritage. The rise of Hitler. Chance. They always stayed in touch, but now we’re getting much closer to the present.
Then came November 9. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass.
It was the very incident that destroyed so many of his fellow Jews, but it proved to be Max Vandenburg’s moment of escape. He was twenty-two.
I guess I never considered that this was how Max came into the care of Walter Kugler; I’d assumed their pact of hiding was made as strangers, maybe acquaintences, but Zusak seems to drip everything in tragedy. Well….this is history. Fictionalized, yes, but I know that this happened to people, maybe not in this exact order with the exact names in the exact places, but the Jewish diaspora was very real during this time. So this isn’t like reading other books, because the tragedy isn’t an invention. It’s history.
And Max’s history involves an impossible chance on November 9, 1938. The Nazis come for Max’s family, and Max himself is shocked to discover that the Nazi party member at his door is Walter Kugler. Walter offers him the chance to escape; Max is initially resistant to the idea, refusing to leave the rest of his family behind, but he obliges once his family is on board with the plan:
When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn’t want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he?
Consumed by guilt at feeling relieved that he might survive, Max takes a piece of paper from his mother, who says that, “This could be your last hope.” We know what that is. Hans Hubermann. And that’s how things are set in motion.
We find out for sure that Max was stuck in hiding in the building where Walter worked for two years. TWO YEARS. And maybe that’s why I thought Max was so much older than he was. But Max suffers through two years of solitude and waiting. And this is why I think it’s important that Zusak frames this flashback in the way that he does. We learn that Max is a violent, active, and physical man, and then he is put in this situation that is the polar opposite of that. There’s no violence, there’s no force, and he simply waits. He waits. And he waits. He learns his family has disappeared. And he waits.
As the situation becomes more dire and terrifying, both Walter and Max turn to that final resort: the name on the scrap of paper that Max’s mother gave to him. Walter lays out the plan: He’ll visit Hans Hubermann. If he’s a Nazi, he’ll turn back and forget the plan entirely. What’s there to lose?
When Walter returns, we get a bit more insight into why Max was so concerned about Liesel:
“He’s fairly poor, he’s married, and there’s a kid.”
This sparked Max’s attention even further. “How old?”
“Ten. You can’t have everything.”
“Yes. Kids have big mouths.”
“We’re lucky as it is.”
So Max is concerned that Liesel is going to…I almost typed “tattle” Which is really not the best word for this situation. But Liesel isn’t the person to be worried about.
CH. 32: THE WRATH OF ROSA
I didn’t even like the mere title of this chapter, because I was so concerned for Max. Would Rosa stand for this?
After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.
Mama was grave.
Her plump figure glowed with worry.
WHAT. So….wait. Why is Rosa acting this way?
Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.
When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.
Look, I’m not going to venture the idea that Rosa is acting out of character, as we haven’t gotten a full back story on her, but….WHAT THE FUCK. We have literally never seen her act even REMOTELY this affectionate or caring over the course of the entire book. WHAT THE HELL.
Even when Max throws up the soup after eating it too quickly, she is not quick to insult and berate him. She just orders him to move out of the way and cleans up the mess he made.
When she was finished, she found the young man at the kitchen table, utterly morose. Hans was sitting opposite, his hands cupped above the sheet of wood.
Liesel, from the hallway, could see the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it, the worried expression scribbled like a mess onto Mama.
She looked at both her foster parents.
Who were these people?
Oh boy, this book is getting so real. MUST READ MORE BRB.