I absolutely loved “The Book Thief” – a story about the Second World War, about the killing of Jews and concentration camps, about death and fatherhood and a little girl.
I re-read my favourite passage from the book – the day before the Jews marched towards the death camp – the last day of peace on the street:
Now more than ever, 33 Himmel Street was a place of silence, and it did not go unnoticed that the Duden Dictionary was completely and utterly mistaken, especially with its related words.
Silence was not quiet or calm, and it was not peace.
I’m not Jewish, so I don’t have any personal family history that relates to the Holocaust, and I certainly haven’t gone through anything even remotely similar to this. So I’m left feeling like an outsider, reading about the procession of misery that’s paraded down Himmel Street, and I can’t even say I’m like the Germans who watch them. I’m not.
Death is affectionately detached throughout the narration here, able to convey sadness and disappointment at this specific parade of Jewish souls, yet completely un-involved at the same time.
I climbed through the windshield of the truck, found the diseased man, and jumped out the back. His soul was skinny. His beard was a ball and chain. My feet landed loudly in the gravel, though not a sound was heard by a soldier or prisoner. But they could all smell me.
Recollection tells me that there were many wishes in the back of that truck. Inner voices called out to me.
Why him and not me?
Thank God it isn’t me.
One of the many, many unsettling details in this chapter is the method in which Zusak describes the sound of the approaching Jewish prisoners who are on their way to Dachau:
Everyone turned toward the sound of shuffling feet and regimented voices as they made their way closer.
“Is that a herd of cows?” Rudy asked. “It can’t be. It never sounds quite like that, does it?”
I know Rudy has no idea of what the subtext of this could mean, but it’s still horrifying. The Jews are cattle to the soldiers leading them to Dachau.
On Munich Street, they watched.
Others moved in around and in front of them.
They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalog of colors. That wasn’t how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that’s exactly what they were, for many of them would die. They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.
The horrifying display here on Munich Street is incredibly hard to read, and Zusak doesn’t avoid spending a few pages describing the agonizing details:
When they arrived in full, the noise of their feet throbbed on top of the road. Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls. And the dirt. The dirt was molded to them. Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands—a few wayward steps of forced running before the slow return to a malnourished walk.
What Zusak also describes here is less a physical description and more of an emotional one. As the Jews march down the street, he tells us how quite a few of them look to those watching them and, as he says:
…pleading not so much for help—they were beyond that—but for an explanation. Just something to subdue the confusion.
Liesel watches them, too, noticing how each person reacts differently to being watched as well:
Hunger ate them as they continued forward, some of them watching the ground to avoid the people on the side of the road. Some looked appealingly at those who had come to observe their humiliation, this prelude to their deaths. Others pleaded for someone, anyone, to step forward and catch them in their arms.
No one did.
Whether they watched this parade with pride, temerity, or shame, nobody came forward to interrupt it. Not yet.
And who would? Who would risk the attention by the entire neighborhood? Unless it was for a negative reason, I thought, no one would be foolish enough to interrupt. So that’s what idea got planted into my head: Someone would abuse or insult one of the parade Jews and interrupt it all.
I have one of you in my basement! She wanted to say. We built a snowman together! I gave him thirteen presents when he was sick!
Liesel said nothing at all.
What good would it be?
She understood that she was utterly worthless to these people. They could not be saved, and in a few minutes, she would see what would happen to those who might try to help them.
Ok, not only is this heartbreaking, as Liesel realizes what a miniscule part in the world she holds, but now I know that we’re not going to see someone do something negative to interrupt the parade. I instantly became set on edge at the idea. What was going to happen?
One specific man triggers it. This man keeps falling, the “side of his face…flattened against the road,” and every single time, a soldier tells him to stand up. He does so, shuffle forward as best as he can, and then falls again. It becomes clear to everyone that this man is in his final moments of life:
He was dead
The man was dead.
Just give him five more mnutes and he would surely fall into the German gutter and die. They would all let him, and they would all watch.
Then, one human.
I am proud of Hans, and of course, it makes sense that if anyone would do something so fearless and beautiful, it would be him, but upon reading his name here, I just stopped. I had to. For a second, I thought it would just be better if I didn’t read what he did. But I pressed on:
Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out. He made his way though the people, onto the road.
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.
I just stared at the page, a mixture of horror and joy swimming through me, knowing that this simple act was both a death sentence and a blessing. Bless you, Hans Hubermann, but WHAT ARE YOU DOING????
Other Jews walked past, all of them watching this small, futile miracle. They streamed by, like human water. That day, a few would reach the ocean. They would be handed a white cap.
Wading through, a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and he looked at the crowd. After another moment’s thought, he took the whip from his belt and began.
Oh god, I can’t. This is probably the only scene so far in the whole book that I cannot read a second time. I don’t even want to type out Hans’s whipping. It hurts to read it and I can’t even comprehend that an act so altruistic and gorgeous can make me feel such dread. The worst part?
Silver eyes were pelted then.
A cart was turned over and paint flowed onto the street.
They called him a Jew lover.
Others were silent, helping him back to safety.
I don’t know what this means anymore. I don’t know what to think or expect, and I certainly could never have guessed that this is what would be the undoing of all of their lives. And it has to be, right?
Hans Hubermann leaned forward, arms outstretched against a house wall. He was suddenly overwhelmed by what had just happened.
There was an image, fast and hot.
33 Himmel Street—its basement.
NO. NO NO NO NO NO. I HAD FORGOTTEN ABOUT THIS ENTIRELY. Oh my god, everything has to unravel now, doesn’t it?
“What was I thinking?” His eyes closed tighter and opened again. His overalls creased. There was paint and blood on his hands. And bread crumbs. How different from the bread of summer. “Oh my god, Liesel, what have I done?”
I must agree.
What had Papa done?