Tuesday, January 27, 2015

WW2 | The Book Thief–#1 Book - Courage in a German Village

In WW2, People Fell Like Dominoes.
This afternoon, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps by Soviet troops, Alice and I participated in a Book Discussion Group about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

The book, written in 2005, has a rating of about 4.4 out of 5 (ratings are updated every 5 minutes) on and ranks as the #1 book for Young Adults on World War II.  The Diary of Ann Frank ranks #2). My copy of The Book Thief was from its 34th printing.

Like other books among the top ten on this list, The Book Thief has a female heroine, is based in a small community (a fictional village outside of Munich), and brings World War II down to a manageable scale. Like many YA books, it is a general bestseller, not just for the YA market.

In my review of the discussion, I start with the general themes and then drill down to the individual characters in the book.

Courage. All of us liked the stories showing the courage shown by the heroine, a 13-year-old German girl, Liesel Meminger, and her closest friends. The discussion group spent some time asking whether today's generation would show such courage or be willing to make sacrifices of the kind that people made in World War II. Some said no. But one of us pointed out that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks she saw widespread signs of selflessness - driving up the East Coast the week of September 11, she found flags flying at half mast in every little town, out of respect for the dead at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. "Strangers were hugging each other in the street." "You don't know what people are made of until they are faced with the crisis." "Many people in World War II were reluctant heroes. Can you say no when the only person between someone else and certain death is you?"

How Could a Man Like Hitler Come to Power in an Educated Democracy? The group talked about how an evil, crazy man like Hitler could ever be elected in a democracy and command such an educated and traditionally tolerant country as Germany. I pointed out the special economic conditions in the years that Hitler came to power. Germany was devastated after World War I, and the Versailles Treaty imposed onerous reparations. Even so, the Nazis only got 2 percent of the vote in 1928. The following year the Crash of 1929 called into question of the reliability of democratic capitalism and made alternatives - Communism or Nazism - look like possible solutions. The Nazi Party got 18 percent of the vote in 1930 and twice that in 1932. When Paul von Hindenburg was reelected President in 1932, he invited Hitler (whom he despised) to help him form a government, and he made Hitler Chancellor as of January 1933. Within a few months von Hindenburg agreed to the Enabling Act that allowed Hitler and his Cabinet to pass laws. One day before von Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler went a step further (in violation of the Enabling Act) and dissolved the Office of the President, making himself the Führer. Democracy in Germany was then kaput.

How Could So Many Germans Become Nazis?  Someone brought up the blue-eyed vs. brown-eyed experiment that Jane Elliott tried in her third-grade class starting the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. The exercise showed how powerful and destructive it was to divide people up according to criteria that they could not control, and make some people inferior. It turns out to be  easy for those on the favored side to accept their privileged position. Once the rules are in place, it is hard for the unfavored group to fight their inferior status.

The Importance of Meaning to Life Beyond Work. A member of the group brought up the work of Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian Jewish doctor who had been involved in suicide-prevention work in Vienna before WW2 and the Holocaust. He spent much of the war in concentration camps and sought to find a common denominator to explain what kept some people in the camps alive longer than others. My mother used to tell me, based on stories from her relatives during and after the war, that those more likely to survive were people with a religion. Frankl generalized that to people who had meaning in their lives. In a beautiful piece of writing, he describes how he and another prisoner marching miles in the freezing cold held on to thoughts about their wives.
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us." That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.
After the war, Frankl coined the term "Sunday Neurosis" to describe people who suffer from the illness of having only one purpose in life, their job, arbeit.

The Heroine, Liesel. The discussion group focused on Liesel Meminger's determination to read, the importance to her of words, and the fact that she never would kiss the boy she loved. She is reluctant to put her love in words or express her feelings, except her passion to understand words.  She shows great love and loyalty for her brother who dies, her foster father, the Jewish man (Max) they hide from the Nazis, and her best friend, Rudy. She is fearless when confronted with bullying, and stands up to a bigger boy in a famous fist fight. Our group liked the fact that the heroine was a girl of 13-14, and was German. As one person said, "it shows that all Germans were not bad people".  Ironically, Liesel is obsessed with books but won't accept a book as a gift. She starts as a book thief when her brother dies and she steals The Grave Digger’s Handbook from the cemetery as a remembrance of her younger brother, who died - it was her only souvenir of his burial, of him, the only thing she could pick up as she was dragged away. Ironically, she stole something she couldn’t use, because she couldn’t read. Also, she usually wants to do the right thing, but the only way she wants to acquire new books is to steal them.

The Village. The group liked the fact that the story was told from the perspective of a small village, Molching, with its neighborhoods (Himmel Street was not the best part of town) and characters - the Nazi baker, the Hitler Youth enthusiasts, the Mayor and his wife. Interestingly, although the book is informed by strong religious allegories, there is no rabbi or priest.  At one point Jews march in a parade reminiscent of a Passion Play. Someone tries to help and a Nazi soldier responds by beating both the Jewish prisoner and the villager who shows compassion, in a scene that for me echoes Veronica's intervention in the Way of the Cross, or that of Simon of Cyrene, except that Simon was actually recruited by a  Roman soldier either as an act of mercy or to speed things up.

Death, The Narrator. The group liked the narration by Death, who comes across as a busy man at first and starts in by complaining about the exhaustion of his job in World War II, with so many souls to carry away. The narrator seems bored by most of the souls, and only a few get his attention; Liesel is one of the ones he finds most memorable. He sums up individual lives, even comments on the entire human race. Death states, “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both” (p. 491). Death is constantly admiring colors in the sky.

The Hubermanns.  Liesel's foster parents (misidentified by one commentator as adoptive parents, but they were paid by the state to take Liesel in) are in one way opposites. Rosa has a loud mouth and uses strong words, but the subtext can be kindly. When Rosa comes to Liesel's school she shouts to hide her true message. That scene is deeply moving. Hans Hubermann is more passive. But both are loving - Rosa, through her actions, and Hans though his decency, patience, empathy and generosity. Ironically, Hans’s life is saved first by his handwriting (paralleling Liesel’s inability to read), by a broken leg, and by someone pre-empting his seat. Hans is a house painter, but the only colors in use in the war are black (for the blackout blinds) and white (for Max to paint over pages of Mein Kampf). When Hans first finds The Grave Digger's Handbook he immediately understands why it means so much to Liesel, which shows his compassion for her own loss.

Max Vandenburg. Max is the son of a man that Hans Hubermann served with in the German military in World War I, Erik Vandenburg. Hans had never before met the son, but told Max's father that he would be available if ever needed, and Max was given that information by his father. Max was desperate because under the Nazi regime he was being hunted as a Jew. He was dependent on the Hubermanns for his life, his food, his shelter. He has a loving nature and a poetic spirit, and he is full of gratitude for being protected. But he feels he is a burden and is apologetic about it. Mein Kampf saves Max’s life and enables him to write.

Rudy Steiner.  Rudy, Liesel's love interest, is reckless, competitive, passionate and a good friend. The final scene where Liesel kisses him in death the author says was the hardest for him to write.

Mrs. Hermann. The Mayor's wife is desperate over the loss of her son, and shows compassion for Liesel.

The Book Thief costs $13 in hardcover and $8 in paperback, but you don't need to steal it because many used copies are available for under $2.