Markus Zusak is an Australian author best known for writing The Book Thief. The Book Thief is narrated by Death and is the story of Liesel Meminger, a nine year old German girl who goes to live with her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann in Molching. The Book Thief takes place in 1939, right before the beginning of World War 2. One of the many themes shown in The Book Thief is the theme of identity and belonging. The book portrays the struggles the characters go through to find their sense of belonging.
After Liesel loses her parents to “communism” and her brother to sickness, she finds herself in a foster home very lost and alone. Being a Jewish person during World War 2 meant that you were an outcast. Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man, had to keep his identity a secret when he was hiding. Being caught up in hiding his identity, Max lost his who he is and could not find a place where he truly belonged. Hans also struggles with his sense of belonging in a place where no one agrees with his views. He plays a big part in helping Max and Liesel find their sense of belonging again.
All these characters endure many struggles and these struggles cause them to lose their sense of self and in order to find their identity again, they need to find a place where they belong in the world. Liesel is one of the main characters that struggle with this sense of belonging, especially in the beginning of the book when she is left all alone. In the very beginning of the book, she is given up for adoption and her brother dies, leaving her all alone when she goes to live with her foster family.
Since Liesel no longer has a “family” of her own, she probably feels like an outcast, especially in this new home. At first, she is very hesitant in joining the Hubermanns. When she first arrives she “would not get out of the car… a gang of tears trudged from her eyes as she held on and refused to go inside” (Zusak 28). As the book progresses, both Hans and Rosa start to warm up to Liesel in their own way; Rosa doesn’t swear as much and starts to show more physical affection – in the basement during the raid, Rosa held Liesel’s hand so tight that Liesel had to ask her to let go.
Hans helps her calm down after she has a nightmare and he is extremely patient with her when she is learning to read. Liesel finds love and safety with Hans and she begins to feel like she belongs in their home. After Liesel steals her first book, she brings it along with her as a reminder of her brother and mother, even though she does not know how to read. Hans teaches Liesel how to read and unknowingly help kickstart this new identity of a ‘thief for Liesel. Hans gives her a gift in the form of words that help Leisel find herself again. The narrator describes Liesel as “the book thief without words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel will hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain” (80). It describes how words will give Liesel the confidence and courage to stand tall and brave in the world as she learns to find her voice. When Max shows up in the Hubermanns lives’, Liesel is able to see the world through his perspective. Hans and Rosa are able to teach Liesel many important lessons that shape the way she views the world and her new ‘identity’ in Molching.
When Max shows up, Hans and Rosa accept him, and “despite this iridescent fear glowing as it did in the dark, they somehow managed to resist the urge for hysteria” (199-200). Hans and Rosa show Liesel how to be kind and accepting during these dark times. Liesel has already found her sense of belonging with the Hubermanns, but when she meets Max and hears about how Hitler is using his power to hurt people like Max, she realizes that the words that gave her so much happiness, could also be very toxic to those around her.
Meeting Max helped connect Liesel to him and enabled her to view the world in this new outlook where she realizes that language could also be used as a weapon. With this broadened view of the world, Liesel starts to mature and become more aware of the propaganda in Germany. She uses that voice that Hans helped her find to go against what the Nazis want. When Rudy suggested feeding the Jews, she remembered how Hans did it and thought “it was worth a whipping” (440). Liesel looks up to Hans because he was the main influence on her when she needed to find herself again, he helped build her character.
Even though she is still a child, Liesel creates a new moral system for herself because she is driven by this sense of justice she got from Hans. Instead of following the crowd, Liesel decides to stand on her own and do the unthinkable: feed a Jew. Throughout the book, Liesel went from a lost powerless character to a strong character who is able to do what she thinks is right instead of mindlessly following someone else’s orders. She found her sense of belonging from people she met and the events she experienced. Max is just like Liesel in the sense that they are both introduced in the story as ‘lost characters.
Max is discriminated against because of who he is. Death has says that even though Liesel’s “brother practically died in her arms and her mother abandoned her. But anything was better than being a Jew” (161) to emphasize how ‘horrible’ is was to be Jewish during this time period. Because Max had to deal with this oppression, he was forced to isolate himself. Max most likely lost himself because of all the horrible things that were happening to Jewish people, he lost his sense of belonging because he had to hide the real him out of fear.
After Max leaves his family in hopes of surviving under the Hubermanns roof, Max finds belonging in their household. They accept him because of the promise Hans makes and later on, Max develops a connection with Liesel. The two of them have a lot in common such as books, fighting, nightmares, and their loneliness. They all love Max for who he is. With this love, acceptance, and connection, he is able to find himself again. Despite Max being portrayed as weak, he is a fighter. He is extremely courageous because of the obstacles he has defeated.
When Liesel asks Max who he is fighting with all alone in a dark room, he replies with “The Fuhrer. That’s why I’m in training” (255). When she asked who wins he originally wants to say no one, but then he sees the paint cans, newspapers, drop sheets, and everything else that reminds him of his time in Himmel Street and answers with “I do”. Now that Max finds this sense of belonging with the Hubermanns, he has gained more confidence in himself. Finding his sense of belonging helped him envision himself as someone who would defeat Hitler, and he believes that he can overcome all the obstacles Hitler has created.
Near the end of the book, Max starts to think that the Hubermanns have done enough for him, so he leaves the safety of their home and goes off on his own. He leaves a note that has “The last words of Max Vandenburg: you’ve done enough” (398). Max has found himself again and he is comfortable with leaving the Hubermanns because now that he knows who he is, he’s able to move on with his life even if he is still in hiding. He is grateful for what Hans, Liesel and Rosa have done for him, but now he thinks he has to find his own way of surviving without putting others in danger.
These experiences allow him to venture out alone. During Max’s quest for a sense of belonging, he ends up finding his sense of self again and sets out for another journey of survival on his own. Hans is a different case from Liesel and Max. Hans knows who he is and he is able to stay true to who he is. Instead Hans helps Liesel and Max find their way while also struggling with fitting in a place where people don’t have the same views as him. Hans cares very deeply for Liesel and Max so he does everything in his power to help them feel at home after everything they have been through.
Hans is aware of the vulnerability Liesel and Max are experiencing so he tries to help them feel more welcomed when they show up at his doorstep. Hans is extremely kind to Liesel when he comforts her after a nightmare and he helps her learn to read even though he is “not such a good reader himself” (65). When Max arrived, he asked Hans “do you still play the accordion? ” to which Hans replied with “of course I do” (173-174). When Max asked this, he really meant if Hans would still keep his promise of helping him hide, and he did.
Ever since Hans survived the war, he felt like he lacked a sense of accomplishment when Erik Vandenburg, Max’s father, inadvertently saved his life. So he helps Max out in order to pay back a debt to his dear friend. When he went to see Eriks’ wife, he told her that “if there’s anything you ever need’. He slid a piece of paper with his name and address on it across the table. I’m a painter by trade. I’ll paint your apartment for free whenever you like. ” Even though it seemed like a “useless compensation, he offered it anyway. ” (179).
When Max first got introduced to Hans as a kid, he started talking to a dead Erik and said “you never told me you had a son” (179). Hans probably felt guilty that Erik had died in his place, especially since during that time, Erik had a child and Hans did not. Hans risks his life to help Max out when he is older as a courageous payback. Since Max lost his father at a young age, Hans plays an important fatherly role in Max (and Liesel’s) life. The view Hitler has created about Jewish people has affected Hans a lot because it created a divide in his family: “the young man [Hans Junior] was a Nazi, his father was not” (104).
One of the few things Hans struggles with is his views being drastically different from the majority of his country. When Rosa and Hans’ kids visit, Hans Junior picks a fight over the way Hans is living his life and called him a coward because Hans “never cared about this country” (105). After being called a coward, Hans starts to think, “was he really a coward?… Certainly in World War 1, he considered himself one” (106). After this heated argument, Hans Junior left. Hans being split up from his family probably causes him to feel like he does not belong there.
Even though Hans knows who he is, he struggles with his differences while also trying to help Liesel and Max find their way again. The trauma a person goes through could affect their sense of self, they could end up feeling like they do not belong anywhere. The characters in The Book Thief have been on this quest to find their belonging and this quest has helped shape their character. Liesel has been through the horrible trauma of losing both her mother and brother and them getting thrown into this brand new environment all alone.
Even though she starts out powerless and lost, with the help of Max, Hans, and even Rose, she is able to find her belonging and sense of self. Max has the most obvious problem in this he book: being Jewish. He struggled with leaving his family to find safety, freedom, and his sense of self. When he moves in with the Hubermanns, he is able to regain his sense of self with Liesel and Hans. Hans acts as a sort of guide for Liesel and Max. He has his own struggles, but he was still able to guide Liesel and Max out of the darkness they were in.
Everyone has gone through a time where they felt disconnected from themse or they feel like they do not belong. Regardless of whether you have experienced this or not, with they way the character development is written, you can still empathize with these amazing and complex characters. In the television/book series “Game of Thrones”, George R. R. Martin wrote “never forget what you are for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. ” Liesel and Max found this strength when they found their sense of belonging, and Hans helped them. In the end, they were able to stand strong again.