He liked girls a lot, and he liked Liesel (hence, the snowball). In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a juvenile in its midst and mists. He’s the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, partly because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and he’s the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case Rudy Steiner had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger.
Death explains how Rudy’s lack of fear of girls reveals his unusual self-confidence and rebellious nature—he doesn’t follow the traditional rules for kids his age, and he knows what he wants. Rudy feels an initial interest in Liesel upon meeting her that, as readers learn, becomes unwavering, only deepening as he gets older. Rudy retains his traits of loyalty, rebelliousness, and self-confidence despite testing throughout the story. Rudy represents the ideal human.
Rudy panted, bending down and placing his hands on his knees. “I was being Jesse Owens.” He answered as though it was the most natural thing on earth to be doing. There was even something implicit in his tone that suggested something along the lines of, “What the hell does it look like?”
Rudy idolizes the U.S. Olympic track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As he explains to his father, he painted himself black to look like Owens as he runs. To most people in Nazi Germany, emulating a black person borders on unthinkable, but to Rudy, Owens’ skin color reflects no negative connotations. Rudy never internalizes the Aryan ethos, despite physically embodying the Aryan ideal himself.
He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.” Sister Maria. Was not impressed. She plonked her folder on the table in front of her and inspected Rudy with sighing disapproval. It was almost melancholic. Why, she lamented, did she have to put up with Rudy Steiner? He simply couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Why, God, why?
Death relates how Sister Maria tries to avoid having Liesel read in front of the class, because she knows that Liesel can’t read well. Yet Rudy, unaware of Liesel’s inability to read, simply notes and points out that Liesel missed her turn. Rudy’s actions reflect his innate sense of fairness—and that, although generally admirable, Rudy’s concern for justice may not always end up a positive thing for those around him.
“All those priests,” Rudy explained as they walked through town. “They’re all too fat anyway. They could do without a feed for a week or so.”… Rudy was carrying two buckets of cold water, or as he put it, two buckets of future ice…. Without any hesitation, he poured the water onto the road in the exact position where Otto would pedal around the corner.
Rudy hints at why he pours water in the road: He plans to rob a boy who brings a weekly food donation to some priests. Rudy hopes the boy’s bike slips on the ice, thus freeing the produce, which Rudy can then gather up. Rudy justifies the risk of injuring someone to right a wrong and get something to eat, as he is starving. The scheme shows Rudy’s lack of respect for traditional authority and his belief in fairness, as well as his cleverness—the ice works exactly as planned.
Which leaves us only with stupid act number three—skipping the Hitler Youth meetings. He didn’t stop going right away, purely to show Deutscher that he wasn’t afraid of him, but after another few weeks, Rudy ceased his involvement altogether. Dressed proudly in his uniform, he exited Himmel Street and kept walking, his loyal subject, Tommy, by his side. Instead of attending the Hitler Youth, they walked out of town… generally getting up to no good.
Rudy’s defense of Tommy Müller, a friend with hearing loss and thus poor marching skills, leads to conflict with the Hitler Youth leader, Franz Deutscher. Here, Death explains how Rudy stops attending Hitler Youth meetings. Rudy doesn’t fear Franz but he becomes fed up with the constant bullying. He rebels mostly for Tommy’s sake. On his own, Rudy could be a perfect Nazi specimen. Instead, Rudy instinctively hates bullies and defends the person who needs help.
“How about a kiss, Saumensch?” He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.
After Rudy retrieves Liesel’s precious book from the river, he asks for a reward. He knows that his heroism might actually win him a kiss from Liesel, something he frequently, fruitlessly requests. Death as narrator believes that realizing he might finally succeed makes Rudy hesitate getting out of the water. The kiss now feels far too important to him and he no longer wants a kiss as casual thanks. Instead, Rudy wants Liesel’s kiss to be freely given and thus truly meaningful.
There was nothing but a knowing smile and a slow walk that lolled him home. They never talked about it again… Perhaps three medals had shown what he wanted to show, or he was afraid to lose that final race. In the end, the only explanation she allowed herself to hear was an inner teenage voice. “Because he isn’t Jesse Owens.”
As Death explains, Rudy places first in three races, but then disqualifies in the fourth. Rudy explains to Liesel that he disqualified on purpose but never explains why. She believes that Rudy refused the fourth medal as a tribute to Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to Hitler’s dismay. Rudy’s act serves as a statement against the Nazis’ Aryan belief system.
“The best scores in the class,” said one of the monsters. Such depth and dryness. “Not to mention his athletic ability.” Damn it, why did he have to win all those races at the carnival?... Damn that Franz Deutscher! But then he understood. This was not Franz Deutscher’s fault, but his own. He’s wanted to show his past tormentor what he was capable of, but he also wanted to prove himself to everyone. Now everyone was in his kitchen.
Officials arrive to the Steiner home to try to recruit Rudy into an officer training school. One official lists reasons why Rudy would make the perfect officer. However, the Steiners have heard bad things about such schools and none of them want Rudy, only fourteen, to go. Rudy suddenly realizes the part he played in his unwelcome popularity with the regime: He made himself the perfect Aryan specimen—smart, strong, and fast. He might like to blame someone else, but he accepts that he can’t.
They pedaled ahead of the parade, toward Dachau, and stopped at an empty piece of road. Rudy passed Liesel the bag. “Take a handful”…. He slapped some bread into her palm…. How could she argue? It was worth a whipping. “If we’re fast, we won’t get caught.” He started distributing the bread. “So move it, Saumensch.”
After seeing Hans Hubermann spontaneously give a Jew some bread and get beaten for it, Rudy decides that he and Liesel should also give them bread—but anonymously, by leaving it along the road to the prison camp. Rudy’s rebellion against the Nazis stems in part as a reaction to their recruitment of his father, but more generally from a belief in the injustice of the regime. He does not have the personal connection with a Jew that Liesel has.