Racism and Political Hatred
Hitler's campaign to exterminate anyone with Jewish blood in Germany is one of history's extreme cases of racism and genocide. This is a young-adult historical fiction, with Zusak focusing on the story of one German girl, Liesel, and her experience of how racism and persecution tear her world apart. Her family is destroyed because the parents, although Aryan Germans, belong to the wrong party, the communists. Once she is adopted by the Hubermanns, Liesel has a chance to be accepted as a regular German loyal to Hitler. She declines this dubious honor, not only because of what Hitler did to her family, but because of her friendship with Max, a Jew. All the Hitler Youth Group training cannot convince the young Liesel that she is a member of a superior race and therefore must denounce others. Liesel and Rudy are resistant to the propaganda aimed at turning them into another Franz Deutscher, the little Nazi bully. They are intelligent and honest children. They can put two and two together and see a moral dimension to life that is stronger than fear. Rudy, for instance, paints himself black because his hero is the black athlete, Jesse Owens. He refuses to hate someone he looks up to, though he is told it is his duty. Liesel watches the Jews marched toward Dachau, the concentration camp down the road and sees “faces” “stretched with torture” (p. 392). They look at the crowd watching, and not one person will try to help them. Liesel hopes those Jews who look at her face see her sorrow for them. She wants to tell them she is hiding one of them in her basement. Rudy and his family say No to Rudy becoming an elite Nazi. Rudy has humanitarian instincts, as when he gives his teddy bear to the dying enemy pilot. Zusak intends to show that ordinary German people of this time, even young people, had the moral courage to reject racism.
Friendship and Love
What shines through this tale of Nazi horror is the love and friendship among the characters. Hans Hubermann is an ordinary lower-class German, with a huge heart. He takes the destroyed child, Liesel, and saves her life, physically and emotionally. He becomes her Papa and never leaves her. He protects her with his wisdom, sweetness, and his music. He understands what she wants and teaches her to read. Though Hans is poor, Liesel understands that here is someone who loves her and will do anything he can to make her happy. It is reason enough to live.
Rudy also becomes very dear and close to Liesel over the years. He is the boy next door, and they go to school and play soccer together. Though Rudy is competitive and thoughtless in the beginning, he learns to respect Liesel's strength and integrity. They become companions in their games and in their thieving expeditions for food and books. Rudy changes because of Liesel to a caring and morally awake person. When he witnesses the acts of courage shown by Hans and Liesel as they try to help the Jewish prisoners on the way to Dachau, he too tries to find a way to give them bread and support. He feels sorrow for the death of the pilot, not thinking of what side he may be on.
The friendship between Max and Liesel is the point of the whole book. They belong to opposite sides, according to the world's politics, but they are on the same human side, caught up in an incomprehensible war. Max and Liesel may be of different races and upbringing, but they are alike in their emotions, needs, their orphan status, their tragic family losses, and they understand the power of self-expression to set them free. The books that Max writes for Liesel save them both because they remind them of the power of love over hate. Liesel recites Max's book for him as he marches to Dachau, and they understand together that love wins. Perhaps their love was so strong it brought them together again after the war, for they were able to survive while millions died.
The Mixed Quality of Human Life
Death is a perfect narrator for such a story. He is not human but perplexed by the humans he must interact with. He sees how they live, and especially how they die. He knows their memories and thoughts. He tries not to get too involved, but he fails. In his curiosity about the survivors, he cannot help but be attracted by the book thief. How is it she is able to survive and triumph in this nightmare? He says that he carries Liesel's book with him because it is an “immense leap of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it” (p. 15). In one place, Death notes that the world is just a factory for death. Since everyone is going to die, why do they even try? There are some characters who do give up, such as Michael Holtzapfel who hangs himself, and his mother, who would not go the bomb shelter but eagerly awaits Death's visit. Max and Liesel, on the other hand, in the most terrible circumstances, find enough joy to live on. Max is at the end point many times after living for four years in a dark confined space, but he tells his friend, “Often I wish this would all be over, Liesel, but then you do something like walk down the basement steps with a snowman in your hands” (p. 313). Death says, “I wanted to ask her [the book thief] how the same thing [human life] could be so ugly and so glorious . . . I am haunted by humans” (p. 550). The darkness of the war is punctuated by light and color. Liesel and Max and Rudy and Hans are blessed by seeing and creating beauty wherever they go. They are the ones who amaze Death, the ones whose souls sit up to meet him, as he says.
The Power of Words
Books save Liesel's life. She cannot even read when she first arrives on Himmel Street, yet she clings to books as if they have a magic secret. Words are written on walls and letters on sandpaper as Papa finds ways to help Liesel become literate. Books are so important, she is willing to steal them. The content does not matter to her. She reads a grave-digger's manual or a murder mystery with as much delight as a fairy tale. When she reads at the mayor's house, “she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence” (p. 147). Words, she understands, are alive with the being of the speaker. When Max tells the Hubermann family stories of his life, Liesel “could see the burning light on Max's eggshell face and even taste the human flavor of his words” (p. 218). He gives pieces of himself to others through his words. This becomes even more apparent in the two books he writes for Liesel, saving himself from the Nazis through putting his words and mind on paper.
The Nazis also understand the power of words. They burn what they call subversive books to keep the enemy from “reaching into our minds” (p. 110). Max and Liesel conduct their friendship through images and words, sharing their perceptions, thoughts, and mutual hatred of Hitler and the war. This is the period of Liesel's intoxication with words. Later, when Max is taken to the concentration camp she begins to doubt that language can do anything about evil. She understands that Hitler holds his power because of the evil use of words. This theme of the power of words culminates in Max's book, The Word Shaker, a myth about Hitler sowing words of evil, and Liesel, the Word Shaker, sowing different and more powerful words of love and friendship. The last line of Liesel's own book, The Book Thief, is “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right” (p. 528). She has learned that words can pass on the mixed quality of life itself.