World War II is a very interesting subject for me, living in Britain this is a subject which I have heard about, read about and spoken about for as long as I can remember. I have visited museums, read books and written essays about World War II, about the brave men who fought for our independence, the ones who returned and the ones who did not. We have celebrated the anniversary of VE Day by way of street parties and barbecues all of my life. My Nan, my paternal grandmother, who was just a young girl at the time, has told me of her experiences living in the City of Liverpool at the time war broke out, about buildings exploding in her neighbourhood and the competitions she would have with her friends to see who would be first to find the shell. She has spoken fondly of her memories of being a young evacuee in the Welsh countryside and about the people she met and the wonderful experiences she had. I have learned about the struggles on The Home Front, the women bringing up the babies and looking after the home, driving buses and ambulances, building weapons and ammunition in our factories whilst desperately waiting to hear news of their sweetheart.
Every November 11th I proudly place my money in the tins that line the checkout of every supermarket and street corner and I pin a blood red poppy to my lapel. At 11am this day, the nation falls silent. So silent you could hear a pin drop. Everybody, whether or old or young takes two minutes to reflect on the events of all those years ago. Young children who catch a glimpse of their friends, eyes twinkling with nervous laughter and feel the corners of their own mouths twitching as they desperately try to stifle the bubble of inappropriate laughter threatening to escape too young and innocent yet to truly understand what this moment stands for. Old men, with weathered faces and hands, hands that worked hard and eyes that have known love, laughter and tragedy, silent tears streaking down their ragged faces as they remember their experiences, their comrades who made it home and those who will remain forever young on the battlefields of war. These men are like my Grandfather, a man whose experiences from 1939 to 1945 were so harrowing that, although the pain and memories were etched all over his face, he never spoke of them for the rest of his life.
But what about that one forbidden question? The one our history teacher would rebuke and would refuse to enter into discussion about. What of the enemy, the Germans? By this I don’t mean Hitler and his Nazis, we all know what happened to them. I mean the the regular working class Germans, and their children, living under Hitlers regime. Innocent victims of the Nazis, other than those who died in the concentration camps.
I studied a poem many years ago when I was working towards my GCSE in English, it was about an English lady working away in her kitchen one peaceful afternoon listening to the merry chirp of birdsong, the sounds of war seeming a million miles away, when she hears an almighty crash coming from the woods behind her home. She throws down her apron and takes off to investigate. What she comes across is an enemy plane lying wrecked among the bluebells, with the Swastika glaring out at her from among the wreckage she turns to walk away when a hand reaches out to grab hers. She looks into the eyes of the soldier who is no older than her own son, as the life ebbs away from him he takes a ragged breath and clings to her hand as he whispers “Muta”, the German word for mother. I remember clearly, the tears pooling in my eyes as I thought about that young man, dying scared and alone in a strange country, fighting for a cause he most likely never believed in in the first place. What was it about him that was really any different from our own young men, dying scared and alone all over the world? Now, I could talk about this forever the brutalities of war, the politics, the rights, wrongs, ins and outs but this not a history paper or a political discussion and I am not the kind of person who looks at things like that anyway. I like to think of people, of how intrinsically we are all the same. I wish I could remember the name of that poem, such was the profound effect it had on me at that time.
Marketed as Children’s Fiction”, The Book Thief is much more than that. This is a clever book. An important book. The subject matter is one I have been interested in for a long time; the Nazification of Germany. I believe that as human beings, to truly understand our history and more importantly, to learn from it, we need to hear both sides of the story and sometimes, a fictional interpretation is exactly what we need to gain a true understanding of historical events and the human emotion surrounding those events.
The Book Thief is not a gory story about the atrocities of war, quite the contrary. It is a story that follows the day to day lives of the inhabitants of a small German town from a time when war seems to be a million miles away until the very moment it arrives, unannounced and deeply unwelcome, to their front doors. Narrated by Death, we follow the story of Liesel, a young girl who has been placed with foster parents in Munich following the death of her younger brother. Throughout the course of the story we are introduced to a myriad of characters, including Liesels foster family The Hubermanns. Mr. Hubermann is a wonderful character, a man of great strength and unwavering kindness who displays the kind of bravery and integrity that most of us could only ever dream of possessing. His wife Rosa, we come to learn is much softer than she first appears. For me, the character I most fell in love with was Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s friend. We first meet Rudy as an impetuous young boy, painting his face black and taking off around the local running track pretending to be Jesse Owens, when his father drags him home and warns him not to pretend to be black or Jewish because of the Nazis. It is made clear to us that whilst Mr. Steiner is a member of the Nazi Party, he is not a racist, just a man who is prepared to do anything in order to protect and provide for his family. Throughout the novel we see Rudy’s character grow up and become more hardened toward the cold realities of death and war.
However, it is with the introduction of Max Vanderburg, a 23 year old Jew who takes shelter from the Nazis in the Hubermann’s basement, that we witness some truly harrowing scenes. As we see the friendship between Max and Liesel grow, Max is forced to leave the safety of the Hubermann’s basement and is later seen by Liesel among a procession of Jews being marched to Dachau Concentration Camp. What the author achieves is to give us a gut wrenching empathy for these characters, struggling with the dilemma as to whether they should help the Jews, as they know they should, or to turn their backs in order to protect themselves and their children from the wrath of the Nazis. We witness also, the reluctance of the Jewish characters to accept help from their friends and neighbours for a fear of endangering their lives. Mr. Hubermann, witnessing a procession of malnourished Jews, throws them a scrap of bread, as a Jewish prisoner falls at Mr. Hubermann’s feet crying and thanking him, he and Mr. Hubermann are whipped by the soldiers. We witness the heartbreaking account of a mother, woken in the middle of the night by the Nazis banging down her front door in order to recruit her young son and finding herself powerless to stop them.
The novel plods along at something of a meandering pace at first, much like the lives of its characters at a time when you they would have been hard pressed to believe that there was a raging battle taking place not far from your own, comfortable little world. Until, with the arrival of Max and the Nazis on their front doorsteps, we begin to understand a little about the people struggling through the Nazi regime and striving to hold their lives together.
“Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?”
Whilst all of the characters we meet are citizens of a nation in the process of killing millions of innocent people, Death and the readers alike, wonder just how culpable our characters are for the ongoing Holocaust when some, like Hans and Rosa, have quietly defied Hitler by protecting a Jew, and others, only children who could not possibly be held responsible for crimes planned by Hitler, before they were even born.
Marcus Zusak was born to an Austrian father and a German mother, and as such grew up hearing stories of wartime Munich and Vienna and it was these stories that inspired him to write The Book Thief. His writing is fluid and his characters strong and likable and what results is a book which made me cry, ponder and debate with myself. This is an eloquently written novel which tells of how our lives can alter in merely the blink of an eye. This is a portrait of resilience, of hope and of the strength of the human spirit and I would implore you to read it.