Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I’m frugal with my five-star ratings, but any book that can make me cry deserves all the stars.

When I first read The Book Thief at sixteen, I didn’t see what the fuss was all about.  It was good, but not great.  I liked the writing, the story, and enjoyed the characters well enough, but it didn’t make an impression.

This time around, the book absolutely wrecked me.

I picked it up for one of my summer grad school classes and it was love from page one.  I opted for the audiobook and soaked in every minute of my daily commute.  Zusak’s writing is incredible.  The characters are well-formed, with realistic development and motivations. The book’s themes about the power of words and the inconsistency of humanity are so well-implemented, I can’t get them out of my head.  It’s taken me a month to sit and write out this review because there’s just so much to think about.

Reading The Book Thief as an adult was also a very personal experience.  I’ve recently experienced several deaths and this book helped me grieve.  I finished the same day I learned one of my favorite library patrons had died and the last fifteen minutes of the audiobook had me sobbing uncontrollably on my way home from work.  I was a total traffic hazard.  For someone who doesn’t cry often, this kind reaction is noteworthy.  I haven’t connected with a story on this a visceral level like this in a long time.

Overall, this is the kind of book that you can’t look away from.  It’s the kind of story that haunts you for years after reading and keeps bringing you back for more.  It’s the kind of story that worms its way into your being.  It sounds strange, but I feel a more complete person after reading this book.

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Nuremberg and the Nazis

I didn’t know that history could be so… heavy.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived in Nuremberg and, after briefly settling into my hostel, hit the city.  As the sun began to set, I wandered around the old town, soaking in ancient churches, marketplaces, and the beautiful castle.

Then I did my research.

I knew that Nuremberg was an important city for the Nazis, but not much beyond that.  Before going to bed last night, I found some old photos that were uncanny.  They depicted Hitler, flanked by crowds of swastika-waving supporters, parading through the streets.  What bothered me wasn’t necessarily the pomp–I’ve studied history and have seen such photos before.  What bothered me was that the churches, marketplaces, and even the castle gleaming in the background of the photos were the same ones I had been admiring only a few hours before.

I dedicated my day to seeing Nazi-related sites.  My main stop was the Documentation Centre, a museum dedicated to the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.  I spent hours in the museum, going from room to room.  The entire exhibit was in German, but thanks to an audio guide, I was able to follow along in English.  I encountered the Third Reich in a way I never have before.  In American schools, they don’t explain all the steps that lead to Hitler’s rise in power.

Until today, Nazi Germany was just lines in a textbook or scenes in a movie.  It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I understand now.  I understand the political tactics Hitler took on his route to dictatorship–well, not all of them, but enough to appreciate his cunning.  I understand the fear-mongering.  I understand the purpose of the rallies–to whip up the people into an emotional fervor that keeps them from rationally realizing they’re being manipulated.  I understand the indoctrination of young people.  I understand the appeal of a unified country with a single, shared identity.  I understand the dehumanization of entire classes of people.

I understand… and I feel the weight upon my shoulders.  So many times as I walked through the exhibit, I wanted to break down weeping.  For the second time in my life, I feel like I encountered pure evil.

Pure evil is intelligent. It tells lies, it manipulates, it preys on fears, takes advantage of ignorance, and silences any voices other than its own.  The most dangerous thing about evil is that it disguises itself as truth.

And, God, the consequences.

The museum didn’t shy away from the Holocaust.  It hit it straight on, explaining in detail the different concentration camps, what they were used for, who went there, and how many people lost their lives to starvation, forced labor, biological experiments, and the gas chambers.  Millions of human lives exterminated, slaughtered, killed like animals.  I don’t know if I will ever forget the photos of the malnourished naked corpses piled in the dirt and grime.

Of all the Nazi’s actions, what disturbs me most is probably dehumanization.  I believe that people are made in the image of God, therefore the simple act of being human deserves dignity and respect.  Our humanity is what links us together–we differ in language, culture, and appearance, but at the end of the day, we are all human.  To deprive a person of their dignity is disgusting.  To strip away their humanity is disturbing.  But to slaughter millions of people… horrifying.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials took place after World War II ended.  For some reason, it was closed today.  But I did spend a few hours wandering around the grounds where the Nazis had their rallies.  The once-grand structures have fallen into decay–a remnant of history that Germany doesn’t care to preserve.  As I stood on the balcony where Hitler delivered some of his greatest speeches, I could imagine the scene: Banners waving, people cheering, thousands of soldiers in perfect regiments raising their arms.

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The platform from which Adolf Hitler gave some of his most stirring speeches at the annual Nazi Party Rallies.

I’ve loved my time in Nuremberg.  It’s a beautiful city.  I’ve loved wandering its historic streets and meditating in its grand churches.  What more, I’ve entered into–no–I’ve been sucked into history here.  I’ve encountered the past in a way that is so much deeper than storing away facts intellectually.  My emotions and deeper being have been touched.  It’s not often that I’m moved in this way and to experience it here has been incredible.

I’m so glad I came here.  Tomorrow, my adventures in Germany continue as I head south to the town of Konstanz near the Swiss border.  I’ve got an early bus and need to pull away from the blog so I can pack my bags…