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    Void of Blame in The Book Thief

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    “In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves the ten percent who didn’t” (63), and this ten percent includes the Hubermanns because they combat the bigotry against Jews. Therefore, absolving them in any blame for Germany’s actions in the war. In the novel The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, the protagonist Liesel Meminger navigates the harsh landscape of World War II in Molching, Germany. During the years of 1939-1942, Adolf Hitler is rounding up and sending Jews to concentration camps. In response, other countries are bombing areas of Germany causing many citizens to flee to bunkers.

    This novel revolves around one family called the Hubermanns. The parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, take in a foster child named Liesel Meminger whose mother abandoned her. The Hubermanns are void of blame for Germany’s actions in the war because they have taken tangible action to combat the discrimination of the Jews. This action includes: the Hubermanns taking in a fleeing Jew, Hans Hubermann offering a Jew sustenance, Liesel Meminger befriending Max—a Jew, and Liesel emulating her foster father and handing out bread to malnourished Jews.

    Discrimination is prevalent throughout Nazi Germany, and by using propaganda, citizens are influenced to support Nazi ideals. In the 1940s, Nazi ideals spread like wildfire throughout Germany. Hitler creates laws to propagate his beliefs that Jews are hurting Germany and that they are the cause of Germany’s economic downfall. In many of Hitler’s speeches and addresses he tries to convince German citizens that if the Jews are killed or sent out, then the nation will bounce back to the world-wide powerhouse it once was. Hitler stages many public demonstrations of power including what was famously known as book burnings, in which Nazis gather and set to flames any artwork, literature, or expressive creation that opposes their hateful message against the Jews. After her Hitler Youth meeting, Liesel witnesses one such book burning.

    A Nazi speaker educates the crowd about the horrors of the Jewish people. Liesel listens on as a Nazi explains what the German citizens should accomplish: “…to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the motherland with its deplorable ways” (110). Zusak explains what discrimination is and what the Nazis’ believe through speeches during book burnings, speeches, and rallies. The Nazis use public demonstrations of their beliefs to assert their own power and superiority. If the Nazis publicly show citizens how powerful they are, then the citizens are less likely to rebel. In addition, the Nazis use words to spread their ideas. Words cause mental harm, spreading fear and hatred against a people. By using words in public demonstrations of power, the Nazis cause mental harm which can turn to physical harm if citizens choose to take actions on the words. “Destroy the evil machinations,” (110) is an example of indirect characterization of the Jews as machines.

    By using indirect characterization, Zusak reveals the prejudice against Jews and how citizens go along with discrimination without questioning it. This tool is extremely powerful, and it makes the reader understand characters in a new and interesting way. In addition, Zusak asserts that propaganda is an essential way to foster discrimination. Frau Holtzapfel is a neighbor who consistently spits on the Hubermann’s door. Later, after Liesel reads to people in the bomb shelter, Frau Holtzapfel makes an agreement with the Hubermanns: that if Liesel reads to her then she will stop spitting on their door. Accordingly, Liesel reads to Frau Holtzapfel and exposes her to a method of resisting propaganda.

    Frau Holtzapfel struggles between listening to her heart and opposing propaganda or safely supporting Nazi ideals. The narrator, Death, explains Frau Holzapfel’s dilemma of the conscience: “Frau Holtzapfel was proud and afraid. Two sons in Russia. ‘Heil Hitler’” (388). The Nazi regime uses propaganda to influence their citizens into accepting the prejudice against the Jews. Frau Holtzapfel is subjected to propaganda, nevertheless, by using words, Liesel tears through this disinformation and helps Frau Holtzapfel by exposing her to new ideas. Liesel provides Frau Holtzapfel with power by giving her access to words, providing hope and inspiration for Frau Holtzapfel to reject propaganda.

    “Heil Hitler,” is an example of the propaganda that the Nazis use. By using this simple, repetitive phrase, Nazis utilize uniformity causing citizens to take pride in the hateful words. The words “Heil Hitler,” give comradery and a sense of power to citizens. As many citizens do, Frau Holtzapfel struggles with her allegiance to the Nazi party, given her “two sons in Russia” (388), and her ability to reject propaganda because Liesel reads her novels that challenge Nazi Germany’s ideals. The dilemma between loyalty to the country and loyalty to justice is referenced many times throughout this novel: from Hans’ decision about entering the Nazi Party and the Hubermanns decision to take in Max—a runway Jew. In this novel, characters struggle with staying safe and speaking out against the injustice towards the Jews. Discrimination and propaganda are wide-spread in Germany, however what matters is when people—like the Hubermanns—step up and combat this discrimination.

    Hans and Rosa Hubermann combat discrimination of the Jews through their actions. In WWI, Hans Hubermann serves with a man named Eric Vandenburg. One day, the unit commander orders someone to volunteer to write letters instead of going into battle. No one responds, so Eric volunteers Hans, which ultimately helps him to safely evade battle, saving his life. Hans always feels indebted to Eric, even carrying around the accordion that Eric taught him to use. Consequently, after the war ends, Hans travels to the Vandenburg home and offers a favor: that if she needed anything to ask him.

    Almost twenty years later, Hans fulfills this favor by letting Max, Eric’s son and a persecuted Jew, to seek asylum in his household. Hans allows Max to seek protection in his home: “Max made his way to Munich and Molching, and now he sat in a stranger’s kitchen, asking for the help he craved” (196). Hans rejects the propaganda and discrimination that Nazi Germany propagates. Instead, he allows a Jew to hide in his home, possibly endangering himself and his family.

    The Hubermanns are strangers to Max and they do not know if they can trust him. Despite that, they still decide to take a risk to combat the discrimination of the Jews. By allowing a sought-out and persecuted Jew to stay in their home, the Hubermanns take a stance against bigotry. The Hubermanns welcome in an oppressed Jew, therefore, proving with their actions, that they resist the discrimination of the Jews. Furthermore, Hans not only rejects the discrimination of the Jews once, he publicly dismisses the prejudice against the Jews many times over. As a demonstration of Nazi power, Jews are led through town to a concentration camp. These Jews are herded like cattle while onlookers watch, most not doing anything. Hans tries to feed a starving Jew: “Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic” (394). Hans shows his rejection of the discrimination against the Jews by risking his own safety to feed a starving Jew.

    His good deed is “like magic” (394) because most onlookers simply do not acknowledge discrimination while Hans actively tries to combat it. Zusak uses similes—for example, “like magic”—to convey the feelings of the characters in a way that catches the readers’ eye. In addition, having Death as the narrator gives an unbiased view of the situation. The reader is exposed to the true desperation of the starving Jews and the heroic nature of Hans’ actions. Death urges the reader to sympathize with Hans by making creating a dismal tone of hopelessness. Hans shows the world his beliefs, demonstrating bravery and valor. This demonstration of tolerance and solidarity towards Jews exempts Hans from blame in Germany’s crimes.

    By instilling ideas and beliefs in Liesel Meminger, the Hubermanns continue to combat discrimination. Max—a German Jew—is welcomed into the Hubermann’s home. At first, Max scares Liesel. Nevertheless, as time passes, they begin to bond. Suddenly, Max falls ill and the Hubermanns rally around him, hoping for his survival. Rosa and Hans Hubermann discuss what to do with Max’s body if he dies. They show concern towards Max’s well-being, for example, Rosa travels to Liesel’s school to tell her the good news that Max is alive. To try to heal Max, Liesel reads and delivers presents to him. Death explains Liesel’s commitment to Max: “It must have been one of the few moments when the girl was not there with him” (317). Zusak’s strategy of foreboding dialogue is evident through this quote.

    This literary device is an enthralling way to reveal new evidence to the reader. Foreboding language keeps the reader on their toes and engaged in the novel. By showing concern and empathy for Max, the Hubermanns teach Liesel to be tolerant and accepting of Jews; thus, encouraging Liesel’s friendship with Max. Hans sets a good example for Liesel by standing up for his moral beliefs. Liesel learns and grows into loving Max, even going so far as to spend almost every minute with him saying, “It was one of the few moments when the girl was not there with him,” (317). Liesel reflects the Hubermanns most intimate ideals and beliefs.

    By encouraging and developing Liesel’s moral beliefs, the Hubermanns are void of blame in Germany’s actions during the war. Additionally, Liesel learns and applies the actions of the Hubermanns to her own life. Earlier in the novel, Hans attempts to help a starving Jew by offering him bread. Acting in like manner, Liesel and Rudy hide in the bushes away from the sights of Nazi guards, handing out bread to passing Jewish prisoners. Liesel and Rudy try to help ravishing Jews, “There was a trace of a grin on her face as she and Rudy Steiner, her best friend, handed out the pieces of bread on the road,” (440). This quote conveys irony in the novel; Zusak points out the Hubermanns divergent thinking by depicting them helping Jews where most of the citizens ignore Jewish suffering.

    The literary device of irony is extremely prevalent throughout the novel and it adds a tone of humor to an overall sorrowful topic. As Liesel witnesses Hans attempting to help the starving Jew, she learns how to stand up for what she believes in. Words are forms of power in Nazi Germany; they can determine beliefs for a group of people or be used as propaganda for a political agenda. Liesel gains power from words, which helps her learn and improve on the strategy Hans previously employed to provide aid for the Jews. By setting a good example for Liesel, and by Liesel acting on the knowledge she absorbs from Hans’ actions, the Hubermanns combat discrimination. Consequently, the Hubermanns are absolved from all blame in Germany’s crimes because they teach their daughter tolerance and equity of people

    The Hubermanns are exonerated from any blame for the actions of Germany during the war. The discrimination and prejudice against Jews are defined by Nazis causing harm to their mental and physical well-being. Hans and Rosa Hubermann combat this discrimination with actions that provide aid to Jews. In addition, the Hubermanns raise Liesel to discern the wrongful intolerance of the Jews. This is an effect of the Hubermanns divergent thinking towards the Nazi ideals. Liesel discovers Max in a crowd of detained Jews: “Never had a heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest,” (509). The Hubermanns gain contentment from resisting the discrimination of the Jews; it’s comparable to the old English proverb, you only get what you give. By evidently opposing the erroneous actions of the Nazis, the Hubermanns are void of blame for Germany’s actions in the war.

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