Representation of Holocaust and World War II in The Book Thief

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Zusak’s novel ‘The Book Thief’, based on real events, represents the Holocaust by having details that accurately depict the events of that time, the emotions that were forced upon people and reasons for the decisions they made. Having an accurate novel gives the feeling of a genuine representation that feels true to events that occurred. The authenticity and emotion of the Holocaust has been shown effectively through Zusak’s narrative character of Death. Zusak has also made his book have great effect by using stylistic techniques such as euphemism, imagery and humour. These techniques also work well with Zusak’s focus on abundant detail of a scene. This makes a situation feel more real and gives the reader a genuine connection to the novel. Zusak has interwoven real events and realistic actions of people from the Holocaust throughout the plot of ‘The Book Thief’, making it easier for the reader to connect with the book. Zusak further engages the reader through the use of setting. The novel is written into a realistic and personal setting that engages the reader in every situation.

Death with an inverted and flipped personality, places a different kind of character in the readers mind. This portrays a different set of feelings to what is typically felt with a standardised Death. Death in this new way can effectively show the sorrow and desperation brought by the devastating events of the Holocaust. Zusak has used his unique version of Death to show how serious the effects and emotions are through a character that deals with people dying all the time. Zusak shows through the character of Death the immense impact of the Holocaust when Death himself feels bad for the humans that are left behind without a loved one.

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The character of Death has been an effective component in creating a genuine and engaging book due to Zusak’s innovative narrative device, depicting the character of Death as one that cares. Death being normally such a serious character, and one that is typically attached to the idea of a malevolent, fearsome personality, strongly contrasts with Zusak’s re-imagined, benevolent and colour-noticing Death. This shows the reader a uniquely tailored emotional representation of what Death thinks of these things, making the reader feel in a similar way.

While the character of Death sits benignly in the background of the story, the character of Liesel is central to the plot of The Book Thief. Essentially Liesel is a normal kind girl, without any amazing talents, looks or intelligence. In this way Zusak has made the character relatable to the reader by making her average. In addition, Liesel’s sad, unfortunate family background encourages the reader to feel genuine empathy for her, as it is very easy to imagine the devastation of losing your own family. This makes the reader connect with the story even more.

There are various stylistic techniques used in The Book Thief to engage the reader. The technique of euphemism is used to effectively portray an authentic and engaging text that feels genuine and true. Euphemism is used by Death when talking about people dying. By using euphemism Death appears to the reader as a gentler, kinder character. When Death talks about something that may be a horrendous event in a softer and more delicate manner, it displays how he isn’t heartless and same as your typical Death character. Death is also described to be collecting their souls in a very peaceful and respectful manner, physically showing care and respect for the dead. On page 359 Death is shown to say that many people died due to the bombing in a much milder and gentle way. In this quote Death is talking about being very gentle and careful with the children’s souls as he collects them. “Five hundred souls. I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.”

Another stylistic device that Zusak uses to connect with the reader is through his use of colour imagery. While very few people would have experienced the horrors and atrocities such as those seen during the Holocaust, most people understand colours and the ideas and feelings that colours can evoke. Zusak uses colours to show emotions. This helps to engage the reader by associating a certain scene with specific emotions using colour. The author first shows this through the character of Death, his gentle nature depicted through his love and attention to colours. Death takes notice of all the colours throughout a day and remembers what colours were there when different people died. Colours are an important part of Death, and generally taking notice of something that is in everyday life shows a careful and mindful character. Zusak goes onto to use colour imagery when Death describes the colours he sees with as much detail as to give the perfect image of an event and its emotions. Death’s notice of colours is seen when he says “I do, however, try to enjoy every colour I see - the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavours, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on.” (Pg. 4)

The humorous style of writing that Zusak employs, such as subtle humour and jokes, appears to make light of the serious and horrendous events even when it might seem inappropriate. Although it may seem out of place, humour is used by people all the time when they find themselves in a difficult situation. Zusak is using a style that almost wouldn’t normally fit with a horrendous event such as the Holocaust, but it adds another level of engagement by entertaining the idea that people sometimes cope by trying to make light of dark situation. This sense of realism through humour adds another level of authenticity to the novel. An example of humour can be shown in the book on page where Death makes his usual humorous remark such as; “Whoever named Himmel Street has a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn't. But it sure wasn't heaven, either.” And “You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity.” (Pg. 26 and 319)

The authenticity of Zusak’s text is further shown through the focus he gives to a moment. Zusak gives a genuine effect in a scene by using the oddly focused and more human like thought process, showing details that would normally be left out. This gives a more personal and truer showing of an event. The focus on details gives the text an accurate and seemingly more genuine emotive presence. ‘The Book Thief’ focuses on small and regularly over-looked aspects of an event or conversation through the closely written details, objects and emotive aspects that are displayed. This helps the reader to feel as if the character lived through the event. Most people can recall a significant or even traumatic event in their life where they can remember some small or irrelevant detail such as what they were wearing, or what they were eating. Likewise, Zusak’s focus on these little details makes the story more believable as it enhances the historical retelling of the Holocaust which generally focuses on big or major details. The detail Zusak uses gives the story more of an authentic and realistic feel, reinstating the theme of an engaging and authentic novel.

‘The Book Thief’ is a believable and genuine plot in the way Zusak has closely followed the real events of the Holocaust. This gives you a clear idea of the events of the time, placing the reader in the scene and helps to show how genuine the people’s actions and thoughts are. Zusak’s use of a unique story line and an interesting structure keeps the reader engaged by having the story uniquely narrated by Death and presenting a very different take on concealing later secrets of the plot and building up the mystery of a situation. The plot of ‘The Book Thief’ was a carefully and cleverly constructed representation of what happened during the Holocaust and an interesting piece of literature. Without the mention and accuracy of the events that occurred during this time.

The setting of the story in a real town, Molching, adds to the authenticity and genuine feeling of the novel by describing in detail, aspects of the location and town. Molching is also located near Dachau, an infamous concentration camp of the Holocaust, providing a believable backdrop to the story. The use of the Hubermann family home, gives as a more realistic setting, creating a genuine feel of which is not difficult to picture during a mid-holocaust house of a poorer family, one that is falling apart in places. Zusak providing a clear description of the domestic setting shows the reader an engaging text with a detailed holocaust house description.

Overall Zusak has produced a novel that describes life during the Holocaust both on a large and personal scale, in doing so has created an authentic and engaging book using multiple stylistic techniques such as euphemism, humour and imagery. Zusak’s use of an inserting plot, realistic and captivating setting as well as his detailed focus on scenes and character draws the reader into the world of the holocaust and the peoples efforts and emotions of that time.

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Representation of Holocaust and World War II in The Book Thief. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from
“Representation of Holocaust and World War II in The Book Thief.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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