A few hundred miles northwest, in Stuttgart… a man was sitting in the dark. It was the best place, they decided. It’s harder to find a Jew in the dark. He sat on his suitcase, waiting. How many days had it been now? He had eaten only the foul taste of his own hungry breath for what felt like weeks, and still, nothing. Occasionally voices wandered past and sometimes he longed for them to knuckle the door, to open it, to drag him out, into the unbearable light.
Death introduces Max Vandenburg, a Jewish living in the dark, starving, and waiting for a chance to escape. At times he wishes he would be found. As readers learn later, Max doesn’t want to die. As a fighter, he would rather openly oppose those who hate him. However, Max’s profound will to live can, at the moment, be best served by hiding and keeping silent.
With a clean-shaven face and lopsided yet neatly combed hair, he had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been.
Death recounts Max’s leaving his hiding place and moving on. He travels to a place of, hopefully, greater safety, but knows that in the course of getting there, he will be profoundly exposed. With just a shave and haircut, he becomes “disguised” as a German. Of course, he doesn’t stand out because he appears no different from any other German. Death comments on Max’s transformation from Jewish to German as a return to being German, making the point that Max’s religious heritage of Judaism doesn’t erase his birthright as a German.
Now he turned on to the side street, making his way to number thirty-three, resisting the urge to smile, resisting the urge to sob or even imagine the safety that might be awaiting him. He reminded himself that this was no time for hope. Certainly he could almost touch it. He could feel it, somewhere just out of reach. Instead of acknowledging it, he went about the business of deciding again what to do if he was caught at the last moment or if by some chance the wrong person awaited him inside.
Death explains Max’s emotional state as he approaches his safe house. Max does his best not to invest in hope that he’s found true safety. With the unknown loyalties of the people inside awaiting him, keeping his expectations low makes sense. But also, expecting the worst functions as a survival tactic. If he stays attuned to potential dangers at all times, he can fight them. Despite his exhaustion, Max remains determined to fight for his survival with whatever means he has available.
At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died… Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes, and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
Through Death’s narration, readers learn that Max lost his father when he was two and years later his uncle dies of cancer. After watching his uncle die, Max resolves to fight for his own life. Of course, events occurring during the war years repeatedly test his determination. Enduring such repeated tests explains why he leaves his family and hides. Max feels guilty leaving, but the guilt doesn’t trump his determination to live.
Altogether, over the next few years, Max Vandenburg and Walter Kugler fought thirteen times. Walter was always seeking revenge for that first victory Max took from him, and Max was always looking to emulate his moment of glory. In the end, the record stood at 10–3 for Walter. They fought each other until 1933, when they were seventeen. Grudging respect turned to genuine friendship, and the urge to fight left them.
As a naturally angry and tough kid, Max becomes a fighter. Death explains how, in repeatedly fighting each other, Max and Walter realize how much they have in common. After Hitler comes to power, Walter hides Max and eventually helps him get to a safer place, with the Hubermanns. From treating each other as enemies, Walter becomes Max’s greatest friend. Their relationship exemplifies the contradictory nature of humans that the narrator, Death, finds so confusing.
Max Vandenburg promised that he would never sleep in Liesel’s room again. What was he thinking of that first night? The very idea of it mortified him. He rationalized that he was so bewildered upon his arrival that he allowed such a thing. The basement was the only place for him as far as he was concerned. Forget the cold and the loneliness. He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival.
Death reveals why Max decides to sleep in the basement. Max feels guilty about being kept safe while his family remains unprotected. He refuses to put anyone else out and feels mortified that he allowed himself to sleep in someone else’s room, unhidden. Max doesn’t believe that being Jewish makes him worthless, rather, he understands the realities of the world he now lives in. He aims to survive without putting anyone else at risk.
He was twenty-four, but he could still fantasize. “In the blue corner,” he quietly commentated, “we have the champion of the world, the Aryan masterpiece—the Fuhrer.” He breathed and turned. “And in the red corner, we have the Jewish, rat-faced challenger—Max Vandenburg.” Around him, it all materialized.
In his basement hiding place, Max allows himself to envision fighting Hitler. The fantasy inspires him to work on getting physically fit again now that he has food provisions. However, even in Max’s fantasy, Hitler wins, not with physical strength, but by inciting the crowd’s support with racially charged rhetoric demonizing his Jewish opponent. Max’s fantasy devolves into a metaphorical understanding of his reality.
“I…” He struggled to answer. “When everything was quiet, I went up to the corridor and the curtain in the living room was open just a crack…. I could see outside. I watched, only for a few seconds.” He had not seen the outside world for twenty-two months…. Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. “There were stars,” he said. “They burned my eyes.”
During an evening air raid, when everyone else in the neighborhood flees to a shelter, Max takes the opportunity to sneak upstairs and look outside. Not having seen daylight in months, he finds the stars painfully bright. Max finds equally shocking the fact that stars still shine brightly despite war raging over the entire world. The universe remains unaffected by all the suffering on Earth.
Liesel searched them and it was not so much a recognition of facial features that gave Max Vandenburg away. It was how the face was acting—also studying the crowd. Fixed in concentration. Liesel felt herself pausing as she found the only face looking directly into the German spectators. It examined them with such purpose that people on either side of the book thief noticed and pointed him out. “What’s he looking at?” said a male voice at her side.
Death tells that as Liesel looks for Max in the parade of Jews, Max also looks for Liesel in the crowd of onlookers. Unlike all the other Jews, Max keeps his head raised, hinting that he has hope for something, arousing the curiosity of the observers. His lack of complete dejection appears so unusual, if not unique, that multiple onlookers can’t help but notice, thus helping Liesel see and recognize him.