Ilsa Hermann makes a first impression on Liesel with her odd, anti-social behavior. Ilsa spends most of her time at home in her pajamas rather than out in society. When she invites Liesel into her library, the window is always open, and the fire is never lit. Ilsa subjects herself to the isolation and discomforts of the weather on purpose. We learn, both from rumors and from Ilsa herself, that Ilsa lives like this because she has struggled with depression for decades after her son, Johann, died in World War I. Ilsa says she punishes herself for failing him as a mother, even though his death was entirely out of her control. Like many people Liesel meets in Molching, Ilsa must live after loss. Her approach to that loss is to permanently sequester herself inside of it.

After Ilsa catches Liesel stealing a book from the bonfire, we see there is more to Ilsa than her reclusive sorrow. As the mayor’s wife, Ilsa could easily cast dangerous suspicion on Liesel and the Hubermanns by revealing Liesel’s theft. Instead, Ilsa invites Liesel into her own home to read from her personal library. Ilsa sees Liesel’s desperation for knowledge and words, and she gives her access to more. Although Ilsa is convinced of her own guilt, she looks past Liesel’s incriminating actions and sees something worth nurturing in the young girl. When Liesel tells Ilsa she will stop stealing books and time in the library as punishment for destroying one of Ilsa’s books, Ilsa tells Liesel, “Don’t punish yourself . . . Don’t be like me.” Although Ilsa has been limited in learning how to heal through her own trauma, she is insightful enough to give Liesel tools to heal from hers.

In many quiet ways, Ilsa leverages her abundant privilege for Liesel’s sake. Ilsa lets Liesel into her library, giving Liesel a taste of the wider world through words. When Liesel needs more than books to process her emotions, Ilsa gives her the materials and encouragement to write her own story. Eventually, Ilsa even gives Liesel a place in her home. Liesel writes about the effect people like Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and Max have on her life, but she is only able to do so because of the gifts of Ilsa Hermann.