1. When it came down to it, one of them called the shots. The other did what he was told. The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?”
This quote comes close to the beginning of Part One, right after Liesel’s brother dies on the train. In that scene, it literally refers to two pairs of people: the pair of guards that take Liesel and her mother off the train, and the pair of gravediggers that bury Liesel’s brother’s body. In both instances, one member of the pair gives directions and the other member follows them without question. The directions seem fairly banal, and there is no apparent reason the other member of the pair shouldn’t comply. In a larger sense, though, the quote sets up one of the enduring questions of the book: why did so many people go along with the Holocaust and why didn’t more people act to stop it? When the quote asks what would happen if “a lot more than one” simply followed orders, it refers to the many Germans who just did as they were told and didn’t question their instructions. The Holocaust, it implies, resulted from this servile obedience and complacency.
2. “I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.”
Death makes this observation near the end of Part Two, right before the bonfire of banned books is lit as part of the celebration of Hitler’s birthday. The quote shows Death struggling to understand the crowd’s frenzied desire for destruction and also suggests that it is human nature to destroy things. More notably, it foreshadows the coming destruction that will sweep across Europe as the war intensifies. In the quote Death suggests that the war arose out of the same desire that leads people to enjoy seeing sandcastles demolished and books burned. This desire, Death implies, may even be benign when it stays on the scale of sandcastles and houses of cards. The trouble comes when people are no longer satisfied with small, harmless acts of destruction and crave bigger, more dramatic demonstrations. In other words, the trouble starts when things escalate, and here that escalation clearly indicates the coming war. When Death calls the capacity to escalate a skill, he is clearly being sardonic. Instead, Death is mocking humanity and its appetite for destruction.
3. “You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy. She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg. Certainly, her brother had practically died in her arms. Her mother abandoned her. But anything was better than being a Jew.”
This quote appears near the end of Part Three, right after Max has made his successful escape from Stuttgart to Molching, with false papers and a copy of MKPF. At this point, Max has just become a significant character in the book, and the Jewish perspective is just beginning to emerge. The quote acts to place the plot and the concerns of the main characters in a broader context, and to serve as reminder that no matter how hard things got for characters like Liesel and Hans, their lives were much safer and easier than those of many others during this period. Instead Death tells us that our pity for Liesel should be mitigated by the knowledge that she was not the only one who suffered under Hitler, and that many people suffered a great deal more simply because they were Jewish. Although Liesel lost her mother and brother, the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe often lost as much and more.
4. “They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.”
Part Six ends with this quote, which comes just after Death has interrupted his story of Liesel to show the situation across Europe, where Jews are dying in the gas chambers of concentration camps. Up to this point the narrative has mainly concerned non-Jewish Germans in Liesel’s neighborhood, with a few references to the war outside Germany. Liesel is still leading a relatively untroubled life, playing soccer and running around with her friends. But Death deviates from Liesel’s story specifically to remind the reader that these atrocities were occurring, indicating that it’s necessary not to forget these horrors were occurring even if Liesel’s life was carrying on normally at the time. Moreover, by telling the reader that the people dying in the concentration camps were “you,” meaning the reader, he makes clear that they were no different from the reader. The technique implicates the reader in their suffering, even though it occurred in a different time and place, and in doing so makes that suffering feel urgent and immediate rather than distant.
5. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
This quote comes near the end of Part Nine, after Rudy and Liesel find the enemy fighter pilot in his crashed plane and Rudy gives the pilot the teddy bear as he dies. Death has previously seemed practically human because of his sympathy for the people in his story and how personable he seems, but here he establishes himself as being apart from humanity. He refers to the fact that people are mortal, saying the human heart is a “line,” which means it has a beginning and end, whereas his is a “circle.” What he means is that he is immortal, and in standing outside of humanity he has a different perspective on it than people do. That perspective allows him to see people perhaps more objectively than people can see themselves, but that clarity leaves him confused since he can’t reconcile how people can be both so good and evil. In that sense the quote speaks directly to two of the dominant themes of the book, the dualities of Nazi-era Germany and the extreme kindness and cruelty of which people are capable. In fact, the quote comes near the conclusion of the book, and over the previous pages the reader, through Death’s narration, has seen both the best and worst of humanity.