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Imagining History through Fiction – The Book Thief

SPOILER WARNING: Unlike my essay on The Help that mainly talked about the themes of the movie, this essay DOES contain spoilers for The Book Thief. If you haven’t read the book and/or watched the movie, I highly recommend that you do so prior to reading this essay.

A common angle used in fiction set during World War II is that of the privileged helping the marginalized survive or escape the system that attempted to annihilate them. We see this in many forms such as Schindler’s List, The Book Thief and Girl in the Blue Coat. I’ve never read or watched Schindler’s List, and I’ve only read Girl in the Blue Coat once, so the discussion today will be primarily based on The Book Thief.

Source: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Book-Thief-Markus-Zusak-x/dp/0552773891

In The Book Thief, there are many references to the ways that Jewish people were weeded out from society in subtle and blatant ways. Some of the more subtle examples would be the descriptions of Jewish establishments getting their doors painted with The Star of David, and the mass sackings of Jewish workers. The more blatant examples would include Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), and of course, the marching of the Jews to Dachau Concentration Camp. Max Vandenburg, the Jew that the main character befriends, manages to survive all these forms of persecution. Unfortunately, many Jews in Nazi Germany weren’t as lucky.

Anti-semitism wasn’t a brand new concept in Europe when Hitler gained popularity. It seems that anti-semitism, at its core, had been around since the 1300s (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.). Between the end of the First World War and the second, there were anti-semitic sentiments that were circulating due to the belief that the Jews were the reason why Germany lost in World War I (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.). The version of anti-semitism that was popularised by Hitler and the Nazis revolved around the “cleansing” of Germany by removing anyone that would be considered a “liability” to the country. In this case, Jews weren’t the only ones who were discriminated against, but they did make up a large population of the group. Other people who were discriminated against include the handicapped, homosexuals, Roma and people of African descent (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.).

The emphasis placed on physical appearance is a recurring theme in the book. Liesel’s hair was “a close enough brand of German-blonde”. Her dark brown eyes were “dangerous eyes”. Rudy has “beautiful blonde hair and big, safe blue eyes”. He was told that he couldn’t “go around painting himself black”. This isn’t due to vanity. The Nazis were highly suspicious and one of the easiest way to avert their suspicion was to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Whether or not they were actually guilty of a crime, it was always better to “look safe”.

If you looked safe, you weren’t suspected on sight. That was an advantage that many Germans used to help Jews hide from or escape persecution. In The Book Thief, Walter Kugler helped Max hide in an empty storeroom, then later brought him to Hans Hubermann. Hans Hubermann, though already under a lot of suspicion by the Nazis due to his public acts of sympathy towards a few Jews, manages to hide Max in his basement. In real life, there are far more examples of such people who risked their own safety to help Jews such as Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler. If you’re interested in reading about these heroes, you can do so here.

The stakes were high for anyone caught hiding Jews. Yet, many people in Nazi Germany still chose to do it. It’s a heroic act that should be celebrated whether in real life or through their fictional counterparts. However, let’s not fail to recognise that a huge part of the reason that these people were able to perform these noble acts was the privileged that they had compared to the marginalised groups they tried desperately to protect. It wasn’t their fault that they were favoured, but it’s safe to assume that they were only able to do what they did because they weren’t immediately condemned by the system. Marginalised groups shouldn’t need to be defended by those who the law has chosen to prefer in order to feel safe. Their safety should be guaranteed regardless of their connections.

Discrimination based on anything that an individual isn’t able to control isn’t something that should be emulated today. After all, most of the things that people have been able to accomplish didn’t happen in isolation, but in collaboration. To condemn any particular group in its entirety is also to reject all of the contributions made by any of them that we continue to benefit from today. Even if we’re not active participants in discrimination, we should never ignore these issues. Until everyone is treated fairly at least in the eyes of the law, we cannot afford to delude ourselves into thinking that it’s absolutely impossible for the horrors of yesterday to reoccur tomorrow.

References:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved from Antisemitism in History: World War I: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007166
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from Antisemitism in History: The Early Modern Era, 1300-1800: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007172
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved from NAZI RACISM: https://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007679

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