To most people, Hans Huberman was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I’m sure you’ve met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background…. He was always just there>. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable.
Death as narrator describes Hans’s personal qualities without appreciation, but readers come to know Hans as a tremendous and special man. Liesel realizes the truth about Hans right away. His excellent qualities of kindness and sympathy don’t help a person stand out in their society. At the same time, his ability to blend in allows him perhaps to get away with more than someone else might. Hans’s greatest asset is invisibility, a skill likely cultivated over a lifetime.
He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed—a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, “Shhh, I’m here, it’s all right.” After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Huberman would always appear midscream, and he would not leave…. Each morning, he was a few feet away from her, crumpled, almost halved, in the chair.
Through Death’s narration, readers learn of Liesel’s nightly nightmares, and that every night Hans comes in to look after her. With profound sensitivity to what Liesel needs, he only gradually gets physically close to her as they come to know each other better. Realizing that Hans’s presence can be relied upon after each nightmare allows Liesel feel like she has a parent she can trust, which in turn allows her to begin healing from the trauma she has already suffered.
“You’re either for the Führer or against him—and I can see that you’re against him. You always have been…. It’s pathetic—how a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great…. You coward.”
Hans’s son Hans Junior speaks these words to him when visiting on Hitler’s birthday. He correctly observes that his father stands against the Führer. Hans Junior views his father’s lack of action in the Führer’s cause as cowardice, suggesting that ethnic cleansing represents an act of patriotism. However, protecting “the garbage,” as Hans does, stands as the truly courageous act. Abusing people of Jewish faith takes no courage at all in Nazi Germany.
Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to do? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?
He clenched his eyes. Then opened them. He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.
“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.
After Liesel publicly declares that she hates the Führer, Hans reacts protectively, although his actions seem to contradict that purpose. Having already developed great trust in Hans, Liesel expects a sympathetic reaction to her outburst, but gets the opposite. She eventually realizes, however, that Hans’s reaction serves as a screen, serving outward appearance only. Hans doesn’t mind her hating the Führer privately, but knows that being heard expressing that sentiment in public could lead to her own death. His concern focuses on her long-term survival.
The majority of young men in his platoon were eager to fight. Hans wasn’t so sure. I had taken a few of them along the way, but you could say I never even came close to touching Hans Hubermann… In the army, he didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and could shoot straight enough not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight at me.
Death describes Hans’s actions in the platoon. Hans knows that he doesn’t want to die in the fighting, but that he also shouldn’t attract the negative attention of those in command. So, he chooses the best course for ultimate survival—don’t attract attention to yourself. Readers already understand that Hans tends not to stand out, and Death hints that Hans lacks drive to excel. Yet in this scenario, blending in seems more like a strategy, either intentional or instinctive.
It was a man a year older than himself—a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg—who taught him to play the accordion. The two of them gradually became friends due to the fact that neither of them was terribly interested in fighting. They preferred rolling cigarettes to rolling in snow and mud. They preferred shooting craps to shooting bullets. A firm friendship was built on gambling, smoking, and music, not to mention a shared desire for survival.
Through Death’s narration, readers learn how Hans and Erik, Max’s father, became friends during World War I. Death appreciates the irony that this friendship, which would be tested in the most extreme ways and would stand firm past death and into the next generation, formed on such a seemingly frivolous foundation. The reader recognizes a lack of interest in fighting was in fact a rare and beautiful quality for the two men to share.
It was the accordion that most likely spared him from total ostracism. Painters there were, from all over Munich, but under the brief tutorage of Eric Vandenburg and nearly two decades of steady practice, there was no one in Molching who could play exactly like him. It was a style not of perfection, but warmth. Even mistakes had a good feeling about them.
As Hans never joins the Nazi Party, he struggles finding work as a painter even though he paints well—the Nazi Party discourages people from hiring nonmembers. Here, Death explains how his accordion playing brings in much-needed money. As with many aspects of Hans’s personality, his accordion playing exists as imperfect but sincere and charming, and people enjoy his music even when they know that, officially, they should not.
Many times, on the way home, women with nothing but kids and poverty would come running out and plead with him to paint their blinds.
“Frau Hallah, I’m sorry, I have no black paint left,” he would say, but a little farther down the road, he would always break…. “Tomorrow,” he’d promise, “first thing,” and when the next morning dawned, there he was, painting those blinds for nothing or for a cookie or a warm cup of tea. The previous evening, he’d have found another way to turn blue or green or beige to black.
After citizens learn they must black out their windows to deter the Allies’ bombs, Hans suddenly finds a lot of work again. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the money to pay him. But knowing the life-or-death reality of the situation, Hans finds a way to paint for these people too. This choice shows both Hans’s kindness and his skill as a painter—especially given the lack of normal ingredients for the paint.
Well, Hubermann. Looks like you’ve got away with it, doesn’t it?... You’ll rest up. They’ll ask me what we should do with you. I’ll tell them you did a great job… And I think I’ll tell them you’re not fit for the LSE anymore and you should be sent back to Munich to work in an office job or do whatever cleaning up needs doing there…. You’re lucky I like you Hubermann. You’re lucky you’re a good man, and generous with the cigarettes.
Hans’s boss explains why he’s decided to recommend Hans be sent back to Munich. Earlier, Hans was deployed to help put out fires and find bodies in the firebombing, as punishment for feeding a Jew. But he served as a good worker and colleague. So when he breaks his leg in a truck accident, his boss rewards him by sending him home. Hans’s reward can be seen as the natural result of his goodness, but luck does play a role in the fact that his boss ended up being a kind man.