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Max arrives at the Hubermann household and is greeted by Hans. The story flashes back to World War I, when Hans was a 22-year-old soldier fighting in France. He befriended a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg who played the accordion. Erik taught Hans to play. One morning Erik volunteered Hans for the task of writing letters for the captain. While Hans wrote the letters, the rest of the men in his platoon went into battle. All of the men were killed, including Erik. Feeling he owed Erik his life, Hans carried Erik’s accordion for the duration of the war, then tracked down Erik’s widow and young son to return the instrument when the war was over. Erik’s widow told him he could keep the accordion. He told Erik’s widow that if she ever needed anything, she should look him up. Later, as Hitler rose to power and began persecuting Jews, Hans remembered his Jewish friend, and how he’d saved Hans’s life. But after years of losing business because of his sympathy towards Jews, Hans relented and applied to join the Nazi party. But on the way home from turning in his application, he saw men throwing bricks into the window of a Jewish clothing shop and writing “Jewish filth” on the door. He returned to the Nazi headquarters, broke the window with his fist, and said he could no longer join the Party. He was placed on the waiting list, and because he was a good housepainter and accordionist, he was generally left alone and not forced to confront his conscience, until a man stopped him in the street and asked if he would keep his promise to help the Vandenburg family.
Back in the present, Max, who is Erik’s son and now 24, is let in to the Hubermanns’ house. The story flashes back once again, to tell the history of Max Vandenburg. Like Liesel, he grew up unafraid to use his fists, and fought regularly with whoever would take him on. He frequently fought a boy named Walter Kugler, and over the years they became close friends. On the night of November 9, 1939, Nazi soldiers stormed the streets of Germany, breaking windows and looting Jewish businesses in a nationwide attack that would be known as Kristallnacht (“the night of broken glass”). Walter, dressed in a Nazi uniform, arrived at Max’s house and told him he had to leave immediately to escape arrest. Max said goodbye to his mother and the rest of his family, and followed Walter to the empty storeroom where he would hide for the next two years until Walter brought him the copy of MKPF with the false identity card, the map, and the key to Hans Hubermann’s house. When Max arrives at the Hubermanns’, Rosa feeds him soup and puts him to bed in Liesel’s room. The next day, Hans takes Liesel to the basement and explains his connection to Max and reminds her of her promise to keep a secret. Max sleeps for three days, and when he wakes he moves to the basement.
The household gradually adjusts to Max’s presence, as Rosa, Hans, and Liesel take turns bringing him food. As winter arrives, it becomes too cold for Max to sleep in the basement, so he begins sleeping in the house at night, then returning to the basement during the day. At night, Liesel continues having nightmares about her dead brother, while Max has nightmares about Hitler and the family he left behind. They compare nightmares, and Liesel decides she is old enough to cope with hers without Hans staying with her anymore. She begins stealing newspapers from trash bins to bring to Max, searching for ones with the crossword still blank. Liesel turns twelve, and Hans and Rosa give her a book, but Max has no present for her. For a week, she is forbidden from entering the basement. At the end of the week, Max gives Liesel her birthday present. He has removed pages of MKPF, painted over the words with Hans’s white house paint, and written his own illustrated story on the white pages. The story is called The Standover Man and describes the different people who have stood over Max in his life, ending with Liesel, who stood over him as he slept and became his friend.
The perspective continues to widen in this section as Hans’s backstory is explored and we learn more about why Hans is so willing to take risks to help Jews. During the first World War, the situation was very different for German Jews, and they fought alongside their non-Jewish countrymen. That was how Hans and Erik Vandenburg, a Jewish German, developed their friendship. Because of what Erik did for Hans by volunteering Hans for letter-writing duty, Hans felt he owed a tremendous debt to Erik. Erik saved his life, but he essentially had no way of repaying him since Erik died and then Erik’s family didn’t need any help at the time. Instead, Hans seems to have carried that sense of debt with him and tried to repay it in other ways. One way was continuing to play Erik’s accordion, and another was helping the Jews around him who needed help as they started to be persecuted under the Nazis.
Hans’s backstory sets up a stark contrast with the present, where Jews are widely hated. As we learn of Hans’s history and his friendship with Erik Vandenburg, we see Erik as a typical German soldier. Like many others of his generation, he fought, and ultimately died, for his country. At the time it seems nobody thought anything of his being Jewish and he was treated as anyone else would be. In the story’s present, however, Jews are considered practically subhuman by many Germans, and the son of a man who gave his life in service of his country now finds himself regarded as a public enemy. Hans, simply by not hating Jews and feeling sympathy for them as he would for anyone else, has become something of a rebel as this change has occurred.
Obviously Hans’s decision to hide Max affects people other than himself, and we see how the rest of the Hubermann family and Max himself respond. When Walter tells Max he’s found Hans, Max asks if Hans was angry. He understands that Hans is probably less than thrilled by the idea of hiding a Jew. It will put him and his family in grave danger, and be an inconvenience to their daily lives. Max arrives feeling a great deal of guilt for putting the Hubermanns in this position, and it’s clear he wants to minimize his intrusion into their lives as much as possible. He seems almost horrified that he slept in Liesel’s bed when he first arrives, for instance, and swears he will remain in the basement going forward. In Max’s first few days with the Hubermanns, Liesel is actually quite wary of the new resident. He is dirty, hungry, and almost incoherent with grief and guilt, and while she is curious about him, she’s also hesitant to approach him. Surprisingly, it’s the normally gruff Rosa who embraces Max immediately, stuffing him with her pea soup and accepting him into the home without question. Rosa, the book tells us, is good in a crisis, and the opportunity for action brings out her best qualities.
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