Liesel was sure her mother carried the memory of him, slung over her shoulder. She dropped him. She saw his feet and legs and body slap the platform. How could that woman walk? How could she move? That’s the sort of thing I’ll never know, or comprehend—what humans are capable of.
The narrator, Death, recounts Liesel’s memory of watching her mother carry her dead brother. Death, in all of his power, struggles to understand how humans bear such burdens. Death recognizes that, even in her profound suffering, Liesel’s mother carried on with what she needed to do, as most suffering people do every day. Despite feeling amazed and impressed, he remains uncomprehending, which he ascribes to not being a human. Ironically, many humans also wonder how other suffering humans perform such feats.
The human child—so much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.
Death comments that children often possess sharper insight than adults, especially when it comes to recognizing another person’s true nature. In this specific instance, he observes that Liesel immediately recognized the kindly nature and general worthiness of Hans Hubermann, a man most people tended to overlook. Readers note that many of the same people who ignore Hans at the same time worship Hitler and otherwise support the Nazi regime. “Stupefyingly ponderous” seems like a relatively mild insult under those circumstances.
The mayor’s wife was just one of a worldwide brigade. You have seen her before, I’m certain. . . . They’re everywhere, so why not here? . . . Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it.
Ilsa Hermann lost her son in the fighting in World War I. Even though his death occurred over twenty years ago, Death reveals that she still suffers from intense grief. She chooses to keep her grief fresh by constantly thinking about her son, and also chooses to make herself suffer, as she believes he suffered, by keeping her room as cold as possible. Instead of moving on and living life, she lives as little as possible. Death recognizes that many people take this approach to grief. Neither he nor Liesel seem to think this approach makes much sense.
Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.
Death tells of the incident where Rudy successfully schemes to make a boy on his bicycle lose the basket of food he was delivering to some priests. As the boy falls to the ground, dazed, Rudy and Liesel take guilty amusement from his spill. Death finds contradictory the fact that Rudy steals bread on this occasion and later gives bread to helpless Jews. Rudy might argue that both acts served justice. He stole from priests when he was starving because they had more than enough, but he gave bread those who had even less than himself.
I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race…. I wanted to ask how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.
The narrator, Death, ruminates on an answer to Liesel, who asks whether he understood her book about her life during the war. Death’s short answer to her question is “no.” He does not understand how human beings can be so contradictory both as a species and even within one individual. He finds humans to be both far better and far worse than makes any reasonable sense. War brings out the worst in people but can also allow some to show their best selves, so a story about war would naturally showcase both extremes.