The Book Thief

by: Markus Zusak

Ilsa Hermann

The shadow’s hands were in its coat pockets. It had fluffy hair. If it had a face, the expression on it would have been one of injury. “Gottverdammt,” Liesel said, only loud enough for herself. “Goddamn it.”

After Liesel takes a book from a bonfire celebrating Hitler’s birthday, she realizes someone witnessed her action. As the bonfire consisted of books considered subversive, such as those by Jewish writers, she believes she will get in trouble, especially as the “fluffy hair” reveals that the witness was no other than the Mayor’s wife. However, Frau Hermann’s reaction ends up being the opposite of condemnation. Frau Hermann’s refusal to turn in Liesel represents her personal form of rebellion.

When she came and stood with an impossibly frail steadfastness, she was holding a tower of books against her stomach, from her navel to the beginnings of her breasts. She looked so vulnerable in the monstrous doorway. Long, light eyelashes and just the slightest twinge of expression. A suggestion. Come and see, it said.

Death explains the moment Liesel realizes she won’t be punished for taking the book from the Nazi bonfire. Liesel knows that Frau Hermann saw her take the book, and she expects to be denounced for her action. Instead, Frau Hermann silently appears with a large stack of books—to date, the largest number of books Liesel has seen at one time. Frau Hermann identifies a fellow book lover and, because she barely speaks, she instead shows the books in order to entice Liesel to the real attraction—the Hermann’s library.

The woman’s face did not alter, yet somehow she managed to speak. “He is nothing now in this world,” she explained. “He was my….” “Apart from everything else,” she said, “he froze to death.” For a moment, she played with her hand, and she said it again. “He froze to death, I’m sure of it.”

Frau Hermann utters these lines to Liesel after she finds the name Johann Hermann in a book in Frau Hermann’s library. Although she never says his name, readers learn through the narrator Death that he was her son and he died in World War I. His loss explains Frau Hermann’s constant air of sadness, and her belief that he froze to death explains why she always keeps the window open in the library—she want to share his suffering as she believes he suffered.

I was glad that you took what was rightfully yours. I then made the mistake of thinking that would be the end of it. When you came back, I should have been angry, but I wasn’t. I could hear you the last time, but I decided to leave you alone. You only ever take one book, and it will take a thousand visits till all of them are gone. My only hope is that one day you will knock on the front door and enter the library in the more civilized manner.

In a letter, Frau Hermann lets Liesel know that she’s noticed Liesel’s thievery, but that she doesn’t really mind. Frau Hermann feels happy that someone appreciates the books as much as she did when she shared the library with her son. Liesel brings back some of that enjoyment. However, at this point Liesel still feels angry with the Hermanns for firing her foster mother Rosa and believes the couple only deserves to be stolen from.

She reached into her bag and pulled out a small black book. Inside was not a story, but lined paper. “I thought if you’re not going to read any more of my books, you might like to write one instead. Your letter, it was…” She handed the book to Liesel with both hands. “You can certainly write. You write well…. And please,” Ilsa Hermann advised her, “don’t punish yourself, like you said you would. Don’t be like me, Liesel.”

After Liesel leaves a letter saying she will not return to the Hermann’s library, Frau Hermann comes to the Hubermanns house and gives Liesel two gifts, a blank notebook and a compliment on her writing. Frau Hermann does not want Liesel, in her anger and disappointment at the world, to limit her own life, as she herself has been doing. Thanks to Frau Hermann’s advice, Liesel begins writing her life story, which literally saves her life.