The Book Thief

by: Markus Zusak

Symbols

Liesel’s Relationship to Books

Liesel’s development from a powerless girl to a more mature, empowered young woman is symbolized by her relationship to books. In other words, it’s not the books themselves that are symbolic, but how Liesel relates to them. Her first encounter with a book, for instance, comes just after her brother dies, as she is on her way to be delivered to a foster family. She is essentially powerless at this moment, and accordingly she is unable to read the book she picks up. A bit later, she struggles to read in front of the class and is mocked by Ludwig Schmeikl, and the incident again leaves her feeling powerless. But as Liesel begins to learn how to read and write, and thus begins to gain power over books, her character also develops. She starts to mature emotionally and to be kinder and more understanding of those around her. This change is highlighted by her friendship with Max. She becomes his caretaker, and again we see this role symbolized by her relationship with books: She often reads to him, using books as a way to comfort him. On the other hand, when Frau Hermann stops using Rosa to do her washing and Liesel feels powerless to do anything, she begins stealing books from the Hermann library as a way of reclaiming the power she feels was taken from her and her family.

Ultimately books become a refuge for Liesel and a way for her to exercise some control of her own in the midst of the highly controlling Nazi regime and the chaos of war. Max sums up Liesel’s use of books as a refuge in the story he leaves for her, “The Word Shaker.” In it, words are transformed into seeds, which Hitler uses to create a forest that fills people with Nazi ideology. Liesel, however, grows her own tree and takes shelter in it. Nobody can chop it down, but Max is able to climb it and take shelter there with her. The story dramatizes the way Liesel has used words and books to create a refuge in the midst of Nazi Germany, and how she’s invited Max into that refuge. In addition, Liesel begins using books to comfort the people in the shelter by reading to them. It’s a notable change, as the girl who could hardly read in front of her class and then attacked Ludwig Schmeikl and Tommy Müller becomes the person who uses books to comfort her neighbors. Of course, books can’t always protect her from everything. Overwhelmed by the pain of seeing Max on his way to the concentration camp, she rips the pages out of a book in Frau Hermann’s library, making the connection in her mind between words and the current state of the world. At the end of the story, however, it’s her book that in an indirect way saves her life, since she was in the basement working on it when the bombs fell on Himmel Street. It’s that book that Death finds, and that gives Liesel her voice in the world.

Hans’s Accordion

Hans’s accordion represents his debt to Erik Vandenburg, the friend who saved his life, and the responsibility he feels to live because Erik didn’t. Hans inherited the accordion after Erik died in the battle that Erik got him out of, and he learned to play it as a way of honoring Erik’s memory. In that way it always reminds him of Erik, and in fact when Max, who is Erik’s son, shows up at the Hubermann’s door, one of his first questions to Hans is whether he still plays the accordion. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but with that question he reminds Hans of the debt he owes to Erik and suggests that Hans can repay that debt by helping to hide him from the Nazis. Hans also uses the accordion to earn extra money in order to help his family survive financially. In other words, he essentially uses it to keep living.

Bread

Giving bread is an act of selflessness in the novel, and it represents the kindness that people are capable of. When Max is hiding in the storeroom, his friend brings him bread to help keep him alive. The fact that it’s a challenge for them to do so, because as we know if they were caught it would mean severe punishment and likely death, indicates that giving Max the bread puts his needs above their own. That same logic applies when Hans gives the Jewish prisoner the bread as the Jews are marched through town to Dachau. Hans and his family have little to eat, so giving bread to the man is a sacrifice in that regard. It’s a much bigger sacrifice in the sense that Hans knows he will be severely punished for it, and in fact he’s badly whipped as a result. He did it despite knowing he would be punished in an act of extraordinary kindness and selflessness. Later, Liesel and Rudy also give bread to the Jewish prisoners being marched through town. Rudy’s family already doesn’t have enough to eat, so giving away bread is a significant sacrifice on his part. As Death tells us, it marks Rudy’s transition from one who steals bread to one who gives it to others, symbolizing his maturation from selfishness to empathy.