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Humanity is always engaged in an eternal power struggle between good and evil, and the well being of society often hangs in the balance when such forces collide. This presence of good and evil of humanity is a central theme in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Liesel Meminger is a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II; she lives with a foster family in a poor area of Munich. Throughout the novel, Liesel sees the great horrors of life in Germany during World War II, but she also finds herself among very empathetic and kind people, as demonstrated by three incidents in the book that illustrate good persevering over evil. First, Liesel and Max’s bond over the trauma they have experienced exemplifies good in the face of tremendous evil they have experienced. Second, Han’s relentless goodwill towards the Jews of Germany shows kindness in spite of the evils of Nazi Germany. Last, Rudy’s extraordinary efforts to aid and comfort those in need further exemplifies good over evil.
The relationship between Liesel and Max demonstrates true friendship whilst in hardship. Furthermore, Liesel and Max bond in an incredible fashion while being extremely different personalities and under a great deal of stress. Max gave Liesel a handmade book as a belated birthday gift, which Liesel was very pleased with as she loves books. Liesel read the book and then went to the basement to thank Max. “The first part of him she saw was his shoulder, and through the slender gap she slowly, painfully, inched her hand in until it rested there. His clothing was cool. He did not wake. She could feel his breathing and his shoulder moving up and down ever so slightly. For a while, she watched him. Then she sat and leaned back. Sleepy air seemed to have followed her. The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder. They breathed. German and Jewish lungs. Next to the wall the The Standover Man sat, numb and gratified, like a beautiful itch at Liesel Meminger’s feet” (Zusak 238). Liesel shows her growing bond with this gesture towards Max. Despite being polar opposites within their shared society, their bond through literature circumvents the oppression thrust upon them by Nazism. The Standover Man, the book that Max made for Liesel, is a metaphor for what is going on within Germany during World War II. The book was made out of pages from Mein Kampf painted over in white paint, and then filled with the story of Max’s struggle. The creation of this book symbolizes the changing of something evil into something good.
Moreover, Max and Liesel also bond over the trauma that has been inflicted upon them by the society they inhabit. Liesel witnessed the death of her brother on a cold winter night at a train yard and constantly experiences nightmares due to this. Similarly Max has nightmares about fighting Adolf Hitler. On a night shortly after the arrival of Max at Liesel’s house, this dialogue occurs: “The girl: ‘Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?’ The Jew: ”… I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.: The girl: ” I also have nightmares. ”The Jew: ”What do you see?” The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.” The Jew: Your brother?” The girl: “He died on when I moved here on the way.” The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja –yes.””(Zusak 220). Both Liesel and Max have had an immense amount of emotional trauma inflicted upon them by others. The trauma that has been inflicted upon Max and Liesel hangs over them throughout the book, and has a very negative effect on their lives. Due to Max and Liesel discussing what haunts them during the night, Liesel became able to get through nightmares without the aid of her foster father. At this point, the nightmares start to have a lesser effect on Liesel and she begins to sleep for longer periods. Liesel’s bond with Max over their trauma turns a horrible experience into a deep personal bond. Although many unfortunate events fall upon Liesel and Max, together they are able to use the evil around them to create a lasting friendship.
Secondly, on multiple occasions Hans Hubermann has shown a great deal of empathy and kindness to Jewish people within the harsh societal climate of Nazi Germany. One of these occasions was when Jews were marched through Hans’s neighbourhood in Munich. Despite facing harsh punishment if caught, Hans gave bread to an old, weakly Jewish man as they marched by. “The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.” (Zusak 394). This simple act from Hans shows a great deal of empathy for his fellow man despite later facing intense punishment and scrutiny for this action. Hans takes the evil of the holocaust and makes an example of how fellow humans should be treated.
Hans also shows empathy and kindness towards Jews by taking Max Vandenburg into his home. Max is the son of a Jewish man who sacrificed himself to save Hans in World War I. Due to this history, Hans takes it upon himself to hide Max in his home for the duration of the war. “He was not a well-educated man or political, but if nothing else, he was a man who appreciated fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a party that antagonized people in such a way. Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the hatred could last, and it was a conscious decision not to follow Hitler. On many levels, it was a disastrous one”(Zusak 180). Hans felt indebted to Max because his father saved Hans’s life. Hans is able to see past the religion of people and judges them on their strength of character and morals rather than labeling them. Due to this, Hans takes it upon himself to help Max in his time of need despite the hardship of hiding him, and the great punishment if Hans is found to be assisting Max in any way. Han’s actions in risking his life to save Max exemplifies the rise of good over evil in Nazi Germany.
Similarly, Rudy Steiner also treats people below him with the utmost respect and dignity they deserve in the face of the horrors of war and human cruelty. After a bombing of Munich, Rudy and Liesel discover a crashed plane with an english speaking pilot still inside. Rudy rushed to comfort the dying man, and placed his teddy bear on the pilot’s shoulder. “Carefully, he climbed to the dying man. He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot’s shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat. The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In english, he said, “Thank you””(Zusak 490-491). Despite the pilot being from the enemy forces and terrorizing Munich, Rudy treats the dying pilot with respect in his final moments in the face of the horrors of war.
Another example of treating people with respect and dignity in the face of unimaginable evil arises when Rudy shows dignity to Tommy Müller in Hitler’s Youth. Tommy has a hearing impairment and is constantly berated by the officers in Hitler’s Youth. Rudy routinely attempts to help Tommy as well as stand up for him. “That was when Rudy stepped forward. He faced Franz Deutscher looking up at him. “He’s got a problem sir–” “I can see that!” “With his ears,” Rudy finished. “He can’t–” “Right that’s it.” Deutscher rubbed his hands together. “Both of you — six laps of the grounds.” They obeyed but not fast enough. “Schnell!” His voice chased them” (Zusak 259). Rudy could not stand the inhuman manner in which Tommy was being treated, so Rudy did something about it by speaking out in defense of Tommy. There was no motive beyond helping someone, to aid Tommy and put himself at risk of punishment to defend a helpless person. Rudy constantly demonstrates his will to aid and ease people despite his surroundings.
The great evils of humanity are ever present in war time Nazi Germany, but human kindness and empathy still manage to shine through. Hans’s continued goodwill towards the Jews in the helpless environment of Nazi Germany, Liesel’s bond with Max over the trauma they both were put through and Rudy’s will to help Tommy Müller with his disability as well as comforting the dying pilot in his final hour exemplifies the good that humanity is capable of. The Book Thief teaches a very important lesson of being true to yourself and your values in the face of harsh opposition, for it is better to stand alone for what you believe in then to fall in line with what you do not.
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