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The Book Thief


The Book Thief

This article is about the novel. For the film adaptation, see The Book Thief (film).

The Book Thief - By Markus Zusak
1st Edition front cover
Author Markus Zusak
Illustrator Trudy White
Cover artist Colin Anderson/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
Country Australia
Language English, German
Genre Novel-Historical Fiction
Publisher Picador, Australia; Knopf, USA
Publication date 14 March 2006
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 550
ISBN 978-0-375-84220-7
OCLC Number LC Classification PZ7.Z837 Boo 2007

The Book Thief is a novel by Australian author Markus Zusak.[1] Narrated by Death, the book is set in Nazi Germany, a place and time when the narrator notes he was extremely busy. It describes a young girl's relationship with her foster parents, the other residents of their neighborhood, and a Jewish fist-fighter who hides in her home during the escalation of World War II. First published in 2005, the book has won numerous awards and was listed on the The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks.[2]

Book Summary

Upon arriving at the home of her foster parents, housepainter Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa, Liesel finds it difficult to adjust. She is haunted by nightmares about her mother and dead brother. She eventually develops a bond with Hans, who comes to her every night and stays with her until she is able to fall sleep again, Hans, upon noticing The Grave Digger's Handbook tucked under Liesel's mattress, decides to take advantage of the sleepless hours he spends with Liesel each night by teaching her how to read and write. Rosa Hubermann, whose personality is much coarser than Hans', takes Liesel under her wing in her own way by having her help with her job of washing and delivering laundry for other households. Shortly after the start of World War II, Rosa makes it Liesel's job to pick up and deliver the laundry in the hopes that penny-pinched customers will feel guilty about telling a child they cannot afford to enlist her mother's services any longer.

For Christmas, Liesel is given two used books. The Hubermann's two adult children come to visit, and their son Hans Jr. gets in an argument with his father about the latter's failure to obtain membership in the Nazi Party (due to having painted over anti-Semitic graffiti on a Jewish shopkeeper's door). As Hans Jr. is storming out, he suggests that Liesel should be reading Mein Kampf rather than the sort of books that the Hubermanns have given her.

Meanwhile, Liesel befriends a neighborhood boy of the same age, Rudy, who often asks Liesel for kisses, only to be rejected each time. They eventually take to stealing as an occasional pastime, usually fueled by Rudy's constant hunger. At a rally on Hitler's birthday, 20 April 1940, during a public book burning, Liesel steals a second book. The only witness is the mayor's wife, who is a customer of Rosa Hubermann's laundry business. The mayor's wife then takes Liesel to the library, and Liesel is very amazed.

When Hans Hubermann is contacted by Max Vandenburg, the son of a Jew who saved his life in the First World War, he takes his son's advice and buys a copy of Mein Kampf. In it he hides the train tickets and forged documentation necessary to get Max to the Hubermann residence, arranging for him to arrive under cover of night. Max takes up residence in the Hubermanns' basement, hidden underneath the steps by draped sheets and stacked paint cans.

Having seen Liesel take the book at the rally, the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann, eventually invites Liesel to read from the books in her extensive library. Doing so with each pick-up and delivery, Liesel eventually learns of Ilsa's crippling self-pity over the death of her only son during the First World War.

Liesel quickly befriends Max. For having kept watch over the fugitive Jew for many nights as he recovered from his wearisome journey to find the Hubermanns, Max writes a short illustrated story, called "The Standover Man", for Liesel and gives it to her as a birthday gift. The title refers to the people in one's life who will stay comfortingly at one's bedside in times of need, just as Liesel has done for Max and as Hans for Liesel.

To not appear hypocritical after urging townspeople to be as economical as possible to support the war effort, the mayor and his wife discontinue their use of Rosa Hubermann's laundering services. As Ilsa Hermann gives Liesel a letter explaining that they will be doing their own washing from then on, Ilsa tells Liesel that she is still free to read from Ilsa's library at any time and gives her a book to take home with her. Knowing this will exacerbate her family's financial woes, Liesel reacts angrily, attacking Ilsa's state of self-pity for her son's death, informing her, "it's pathetic that you sit here shivering in your own house to suffer for it", as she throws the offered book at the woman's feet.

Liesel returns to the mayor's home later with Rudy and steals the book, by climbing in through the window. A short time later, the pair encounters a group of older boys who have a grudge against Rudy, and they throw Liesel's stolen book into a river. Always seeking ways to earn a kiss, Rudy retrieves the book from the ice-cold water.

Upon winter's arrival in 1942, Max falls gravely ill. Even more so than upon his first arrival at their home, Liesel keeps a relentless vigil over Max as he sleeps without waking for days stretching into weeks. Periodically she leaves small presents by his side – found trinkets, usually (such as ribbons, buttons and the like), and reads to him daily.

Max eventually wakes from his sickness and has no sooner gotten back to normal than the party sends a man without warning to check basements for suitability as bomb shelters. Max is miraculously able to hide in the basement right under the nose of the party man, who concludes that their basement is too shallow to serve as an adequate shelter.

The Hubermanns' fortunes improve with the growing danger of air raids, as Hans is employed to paint over windows so that bombers cannot see the lights on inside the homes. In the meantime, Liesel has continued to steal books from the Hermanns' library. One day, they find that a dictionary has been placed on the sill. Liesel steals it, and as they are leaving, looks back and sees Ilsa Hermann as she stands behind the window, raising her hand in a wave. The dictionary carries a letter, informing Liesel that the mayor's wife has known all along that they have been stealing books and that she only hopes Liesel will one day choose to knock on the front door rather than sneak through the window.

When the air raid sirens begin sounding with regularity, Liesel helps maintain calm in the designated shelter by reading to the others from her books. The Hubermanns' next-door neighbor, with whom Rosa has been feuding for years, proposes that Liesel read to her on a regular basis in exchange for her coffee ration, and the deal is struck.

Two weeks later, a group of Jews is marched through Molching toward Dachau. As they are paraded through the town in front of a crowd of onlookers, Hans Hubermann takes pity on an enfeebled old Jewish man and steps forward to hand him a piece of bread. A soldier takes notice and whips both Hans and the elderly Jew.

Regretting his actions because they will probably draw the Nazis' attention, Hans has Max leave for his own safety shortly after the incident. Before leaving, Max tells Liesel he has left a gift for her that she will only receive when she is ready. With each day that passes without a visit from the Gestapo, however, Hans begins to regret having sent Max away, believing he may have needlessly sent him away from a danger that wasn't coming. When two "coat men" finally approach the Hubermanns' house, Hans is relieved to think that he didn't send him away for nothing. In fact, they have come to the wrong house, looking for the Steiner residence. They want to take Rudy to a special Nazi-run school based on his academic and athletic performance. However, his parents reject the invitation.

The punishment that Hans Hubermann has been waiting for finally comes when he is conscripted for military service. Alex Steiner, Rudy's father, is also drafted for having refused to send Rudy to the special school. They leave by train, and that night Liesel wakes to discover Rosa Hubermann crying herself to sleep in the living room with Hans' accordion clutched to her chest, a nightly occurrence from then on.

Liesel and Rudy are upset with their parents' having been taken away, when another group of Jews is shepherded through Molching. They decide to run ahead of the group and drop pieces of bread on the road, and then hide in nearby trees. Liesel compromises her hiding spot while trying to tell if Max is among the group, and she is spotted after a soldier notices prisoners bending down to pick up pieces of bread. The children are chased through the woods but manage to escape.

Deciding that Liesel is ready for Max's parting gift, Rosa gives her a bundle of papers, not unlike that on which "The Standover Man" was written, hidden in her mattress. During his stay with the Hubermanns, Max had used the scraps of paper as a sort of journal and sketchbook to pass the time. The journal is titled "The Word Shaker", after its most significant entry, a short illustrated fable that serves as an allegory for Nazi Germany and the power of words.

Ignoring Ilsa Hermann's suggestion to use the front door, Liesel returns with Rudy to the mayor's home to steal again. This time she finds that a plate of now-stale cookies has been left on the desk, but Lisa appears before she can escape. Liesel takes comfort in the realization that the age of the cookies indicates that the library belongs to Ilsa. (Had her husband used the room, he would surely not have left cookies to go stale on the desk.) Liesel awkwardly reconciles with Ilsa and quickly takes her leave.

In early 1943, Liesel is greeted by a strange face when she makes her scheduled visit to read to her neighbour, Frau Holtzapfel. It is Holtzapfel's son, returned from Stalingrad where he lost three fingers, and where his brother was killed in action. After hearing the news of her second son's death, Frau Holtzapfel appears distant and depressed every time Liesel comes to read to her.

Hans is sent home from the Eastern Front after suffering a broken leg in a truck crash. Before he arrives, however, Molching receives another air raid warning. All but Frau Holtzapfel, who is still cripplingly depressed, make their way to the bomb shelter. Her son, Liesel, and Rosa all try to convince her to proceed to the shelter, but to no avail. Before leaving for the shelter, Liesel tells her that if she does not come, Liesel will stop reading to her and she will have lost her only friend. A short time after they arrive at the shelter, Frau Holtzapfel finally removes herself from her kitchen and joins them.

When the sirens signal that it is okay to leave the shelter, the townspeople discover a bomber plane that has crashed nearby. Rudy and Liesel are the first to arrive on the scene, where Rudy comforts the dying pilot. He places a teddy bear on the pilot's shoulder; he thanks Rudy with his dying breath.

Three months later, two more groups of Jews are marched through Molching and, like the last time, Liesel watches to see if Max is among them. She is unsure whether to hope that he is a part of the procession: if he is, he is still alive; if not, he might either be free or dead. Around the same time, Frau Holtzapfel's only surviving son hangs himself from the rafters of a local laundry, devastating her further.

A month later, more Jews are paraded by, and this time Max Vandenburg is among them. When Liesel runs in among the crowd of prisoners for a tearful reunion with her friend, they are pulled apart, and a soldier beats them both. Rudy runs to help Liesel and to get her off the street, but she breaks free and again runs toward the long line of Jews to find Max. Before she can do so, however, Rudy catches up to her and tackles her to the ground as Max is led away with the rest.

After keeping to herself for three days after the incident, Liesel finally tells Rudy everything about the Jew they'd been hiding in their basement after forcing Rudy to promise he would never tell anyone.

To cheer herself up, Liesel again sneaks into the Hermanns' library, but once there she becomes angry at what the power of words has done to Germany and tears up one of the books in frustration. Before leaving, she leaves an apologetic note of explanation for Ilsa Hermann, writing that she will no longer be returning there. Three days later, Ilsa arrives unexpectedly at Liesel's home and gives her a small black book of lined pages for writing in, saying that she wrote well in the letter she'd left in the library.

Over many weeks, Liesel writes of her experiences since arriving on Himmel Street, while sitting in the basement where she had first learned to read with her foster father and had later read with Max. A few nights afterward she finishes her story with the line, "I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right". As she rereads the book, Himmel Street is bombed without warning.

Despite having earlier been dismissed as unsuitable for a bomb shelter, the Hubermanns' shallow basement is the main factor that helps make Liesel the street's only survivor after the bombing. She is freed from the rubble by the rescue squad and is distraught by the scene of destruction. She finds Frau Holtzapfel's body first and then Rudy's, and after tearfully trying to revive his lifeless body, at last gives him the kiss he'd always asked her for. Next, she finds the bodies of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesel retrieves Hans' accordion for him and cries by their side until she is taken away by the emergency responders. Liesel's little black book of reminiscences, titled "The Book Thief", is picked up from the rubble and mistaken for trash. Death takes it off the back of a garbage truck as he passes with the souls of the residents of Himmel Street in hand.

After the bombing, the Hermanns adopt Liesel, and Alex Steiner returns from his military service and laments, "if only I'd let Rudy go to that school". Rudy's father reopens his tailoring business and Liesel passes the time by helping him in the store. After the war, Max is liberated from Dachau and returns to find Liesel at the store, where they share an emotional reunion.

Many years later, Death comes for Liesel in Sydney, and reveals to her that he has carried her little black book, "The Book Thief", with him for all these years. Astonished, she asks, "Could you understand it?", to which he simply notes, "I am haunted by humans".[3]


Main characters

Liesel Meminger (born February 1928)

The protagonist of the story. She is an adopted girl on the verge of adolescence, with blonde hair that "was a close enough brand of German blonde" and dangerous dark brown eyes. She is fostered by the Hubermanns when her father "abandons" their family and her mother is forced to give her up for adoption. Her brother Werner dies on the journey to the Hubermann household. She is very close to her foster father, Hans Hubermann, and has a rough but loving relationship with her foster mother, Rosa. She befriends Max, the Jew whom the Hubermanns are hiding, as well as the mayor's wife, who allows Liesel to read, borrow, and "steal" books from her home library. She also befriends the other children of Himmel Street, among them Rudy Steiner, who becomes her best friend. Despite her many refusals of Rudy's requests for a kiss, her love for him is clear, as seen by the lustful nature of some of her fantasies of him. Liesel finally grants Rudy's much-awaited kiss as he lies dead among the ruins of Himmel Street. Liesel eventually marries, moves to Australia, and has several children and grandchildren. Liesel died in Sydney, and at last united with Max.

Hans Hubermann

Liesel's foster father. He works as a painter and enjoys rolling and smoking cigarettes. He served in the German army during World War I. During that war, Hans became his company's only survivor when he was left behind because of a job, when they were sent on what became a suicide mission. In The Holocaust era, he does not agree with the Nazi party but is forced to join, and after being accepted into the Nazi party is drafted into the German army. He has silvery-grey eyes and is tall, although despite this he is described as being very capable of blending in with the crowd. He was taught the piano accordion by Max's father Erik Vandenburg, a friend from the army (who saved Hans' life), and he occasionally performs in pubs to make extra money. He becomes very close to Liesel, as he calms her after her nightmares of her brother's dying, and teaches her to read. However, he has a falling-out with his actual son, Hans Jr., because of his son's support of the Nazis. Hans Hubermann is killed in the Himmel Street bombing.

Rosa Hubermann

Liesel's foul-mouthed, often aggravating, foster mother. She is short, with a wrinkled face, brown-grey "elastic" hair often tied up in a bun, and "chlorinated" eyes. To supplement the household income, she does washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching. However, as the war causes economic problems, she loses her jobs one by one, the last being at the Hermann household. She has a quick temper, rules the household with an iron fist, and is known for straightening out previous foster children; however, though she often swears at Liesel, she cares very much for her. She has two children of her own, Trudy and Hans Jr. She is killed in the Himmel Street bombing.

Rudy Steiner (born June 1927)

Liesel's neighbor. He is eight months older than Liesel, has bony legs, sharp teeth, blue eyes, lemon-colored hair and like to mess with ladies. Despite being the German ideal (blond hair and blue eyes), he does not support the Nazis. As part of a household with six children, Rudy is habitually hungry. He is known throughout the neighborhood due to the "Jesse Owens incident" in which he painted himself with charcoal one night and ran one hundred meters at the local sporting field. He is academically and athletically gifted, which attracts the attention of Nazi Party officials, who try to recruit him; when he declines, they take his father, Alex Steiner. He also gets into trouble at the Hitler Youth due to his smart mouth and rebellious nature, and their vindictive group leader. Rudy becomes Liesel's best friend, often accompanying her on her adventures and talking her through her problems. He also teases her, regularly (though always unsuccessfully) asking her for a kiss mostly after he has helped her to accomplish something - for instance when one of Liesel's books (and most prized possession) is thrown into a river, he rescues it. Rudy is killed in the Himmel Street bombing; Liesel finally grants him a kiss as he lies dead in the street.

Max Vandenburg

A Jewish fist-fighter who hides in the Hubermanns' basement. He is the son of a WWI German soldier who fought with Hans Hubermann. He has feather-like hair and swampy brown eyes. Max's father saved Hans' life in WWI, and when he visiting his widow, Hans gave her his address and told her if she needed anything to contact him. Years later, during the Nazis' reign of terror, Max's mother calls upon Hans for help. Max's friend travels to Himmel Street to ask Hans to shelter Max, and Hans agrees to do so. After a tortuous journey to the Hubermanns' residence, Max finally regains his health, and befriends Liesel due to their shared affinity for nightmares and words. He writes two books for her and presents her with a sketchbook that contains his life story. He is taken away by the Gestapo to a concentration camp, but manages to return to Molching after the war and is united with Liesel at the end of the novel.

Tommy Müller

Another child on Himmel Street. A hearing problem, due to being stranded in the snow, caused him to have multiple ear surgeries. One surgery caused nerve damage that makes him twitch. As a result, he is frequently teased by his classmates and later punished by the head of the Hitler Youth, when he is unable to obey commands promptly. Tommy is killed in the Himmel Street bombing.

Ilsa Hermann

The wife of the mayor of Molching. They had a son, Johannes Hermann, who was killed in Russia. Rosa and Liesel do the Hermanns' washing and ironing for a time; eventually the bad economy forces the Hermanns to discontinue the arrangement, in reaction to which Liesel causes a scene. Despite this, Ilsa allows Liesel to continue visiting and read books in the large library in her home. Ilsa takes Liesel into her home after Liesel survives the Himmel Street bombing.

Frau Holtzapfel

A neighbor of the Hubermanns, whom Rosa initially hates because she always spits on the Hubermanns' door due to an old and now-baseless feud between the families. She eventually asks Liesel to read to her, stops her door-spitting, and pays Liesel for her service by giving her coffee ration to the Hubermanns. Of her two sons, Robert died on the battlefield, while his elder brother Michael committed suicide a few months later because of his guilt at "wanting to live". Frau Holtzapfel is killed in the Himmel Street bombing.


The narrator throughout the story, Death is sympathetic to humankind and dislikes all of the despair and destruction brought upon humans by War, contrary to the common assumption that Death and War are friends. He comments on the thoughts, morals, and actions of humanity throughout the story while keeping a close eye on Liesel, even though at the beginning of the story he states that it was stupid for him to follow her. At the end of the book, he takes Liesel's story and carries it with him everywhere. He frequently likes to describe the colours of things, and has sympathy with the humans whose souls he carries, as revealed in the book's final line, "I am haunted by humans". He does not seem to have any control over life and death, and frequently calls upon God with, "I don't understand", and answers himself with, "But it's not your job to". Death says that he has a "circular" heartbeat, making him immortal, though he says that he looks like a human and acts like a human most of the time. He is tired of his job and wants a vacation, but cannot take one because there would be nobody to replace him. While many people find Death devastating, he is surprisingly humorous

Hubermann Family

  • Hans (father)
  • Rosa (mother)
  • Liesel (foster daughter)
  • Hans Jr. (son)
  • Trudy (daughter)

Steiner Family

  • Alex (father)
  • Barbra (mother)
  • Kurt (son)
  • Rudy (son)
  • Annemarie (daughter)
  • Karin (daughter)
  • Emma (daughter)
  • Bettina (daughter)


  • 2006: Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific)
  • 2006: Horn Book Fanfare
  • 2006: Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award
  • 2006: School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • 2006: Daniel Elliott Peace Award
  • 2006: Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year
  • 2006: Booklist Children Editors' Choice
  • 2006: Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book [4]
  • 2007: ALA Best Books for Young Adults
  • 2007: Michael L. Printz Honor Book[5] The Printz award is given to the best book for teens, based only on the quality of the writing.
  • 2007: Book Sense Book of the Year
  • 2009: Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List[6]


Main article: The Book Thief (film)

Brian Percival has directed the film adaptation, which Michael Petroni scripted. A release date of November 15, 2013 has been set.[7] Much of the movie was filmed in Görlitz, Eastern Germany.[8][9] The film features Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson portraying the Hubermanns, Ben Schnetzer as Max Vandenburg, Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner, and French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse stars as Liesel Meminger. Noted film composer John Williams provided the music soundtrack.[10][11]


External links

  • The Book Thief on
  • The Book Thief study guide, quotes, themes, literary devices, teacher resources

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