Winston Churchill once commented on the Holocaust, “There is no doubt in my mind that we are in the presence of one of the greatest and most horrible crimes ever committed.” During the historical period of the 1930s to 40s, Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) regime exterminate the Jews of Europe through brutal ways in order to cater to German racism, anti-Semitism, and economic factors. The estimated death of Jews during the Holocaust was tremendous: “while an exact number of those murdered is impossible to determine, the best estimates settle at a figure around 6 million Jews” (Bartrop 1). It is undeniable that the Holocaust was an appalling act of ethnic cleansing and one of the most notorious atrocities in human history. The genocide issue embodied in The Book Thief is almost indistinguishable from the real situation in the period of the 1930s to 1940s in Europe. The majority of German who lived in Nazi Germany supported the Holocaust with their radical ideas, whereas certain groups of people refused to uphold it. By studying the historical issue of the Holocaust and the historical context of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, readers can obtain profound understandings of the idea that the Holocaust is a combination of human violence and racial discrimination, which is the thought that Markus Zusak tried to convey through his novel, The Book Thief. Zusak utilizes the themes of human kindness against dehumanization and indelible courage towards adversity to show how a society can turn against people in inhuman ways.
Through literary works, the authors express their intentions on the issue and highlight the historical features of the problem by using literary aspects. The Book Thief, a novel written by Markus Zusak, with the setting in a fictional town in Nazi Germany, narrates the plot of Liesel’s experiences with her foster parents and friends in a society that was full of inhuman massacre and racial prejudice. To show the extremes of human nature, Zusak sets the Death as the third-person narrator to illustrate the malign side of humanity through the contrast of behaviors that “how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant” (Zusak 550). The opposition between “ugly” and “glorious” suggests two features of humanity that the ugliness of those people who harm others against the brilliance of those who are kind to save a life. Furthermore, the difference between “damning” and “brilliant” words pointed out the vicious character of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which destroyed the lives of Jews, against Liesel’s virtuous writings that inspired people with hope. By displaying the human nature observed by the Death, Zusak highlights the theme of humanity to praises the excellent character of moral good and kindness, but also reveals the vicious aspects of mankind in a civilization of dehumanization and emphasizes the malevolence of the Holocaust.
Holocaust was an outrageous issue in human history during which innocent Jews were embroiled. The racial discrimination, invasion, and genocide had inexorably become the ultimate outcomes due to the classification of Jews as inferior and contemptible races under the Nazi racism, which influenced the ideological atmosphere of German society with hatred and hostility toward Jews. As a result, including the elderly, women, and children, Jews fell victim to Nazi racist doctrines and attacked by the Nazis and German public. The extreme malice and fanatical racial ideology in human nature have been realized by means of violence, taking the lives of countless Jewish people, and “2.6 million murdered in concentration and extermination camps, 700,000 murdered in individually in ghettos or forced-labor camps” (Pohl 7).
The Initial Stage of the Holocaust formed in the 1930s, along with the rise and prevalence of anti-Semitism. The Nuremberg Laws enacted by Nazi regime in 1935 withdrew the Jews’ privilege of German citizenship and officially confirmed racial restrictions in which provide specific indications of Nazi Germany’s position, opinion, and political tendency on racism and anti-Semitism, as stated that “A Jew cannot be a citizen of the Reich” (Nuremberg Laws 2). Blatant discrimination and prejudice towards Jews had become legal and enacted by factories and other places, a large number of Jews were dismissed without a proper reason. Because the Nazi classification was not by faith, but by blood. According to the Laws, people with “two full-Jewish grandparents” and “who married to a Jew” (Nuremberg Laws 2) are defined as a Jew. The Nuremberg Laws institutionalized Nazism, and allowed The Nazi to enact the theory of racial inferiority, aggravated the formation of racism by conveying the definition of racial hierarchy to descent Jews, and provided the legal framework for the persecution of Jews, marking the initiation of anti-Jewish in Germany and laying the foundation of the Holocaust. The same situation is described in the novel that “Both held jobs until Max was sacked with the rest of the Jews at the Jedermann Engineering Factory in ’35” (Zusak 191). Zusak elaborate on Max’s transformation from a German worker to a Jewish refugee when the rights of German citizenship was deprived, points out that Max’s Jewish heritage caused him to lose the rights of being a German, and indicates the loss of viability and human rights for Jewish people was the result of the enactment of the law.
The Early stage of the Holocaust had grown with the spread of anti-Semitism, conflicts were unavoidable as the pent-up mood of the German people was stirred up by the Nazi party, and the force rushed to the Jews. Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938, was an forcible event orchestrated by the Nazi in which large numbers of Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized, “when the violence ended, 90 Jews lay dead and over 30,000 Jewish men were taken into ‘protective custody’ at labor camps or prisons” (Newman 1). The situation of Jews was not optimistic as they were facing difficulties and dangers from the nation and society.
The severity of the fierce destructions is depicted in the diction “surgically” in the novel, as described that “Many Jewish establishments were being surgically smashed and looted” (Zusak 192), underscoring the destructive and subversive nature of this catastrophe. The outburst triggers the escape of Max that “When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity… he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up” (Zusak 193). This depicts the hazards of the situation in which the characters live, and shows the crisis against the Jews in the time when they were facing threats and pressure from the society with their helpless and miserable responses. When Marx was saved, his inner excitement was replaced by guilt, which shows that his goodness that cannot bear to make the choice to leave his family in a time of crisis, but he can only helplessly face the dehumanized reality. The sentiment of guilt was the difference between Max and those fanatical adherents, stressing the kind humanity but also reflecting the racist behavior of others in that time.
The enduring stage of the Holocaust arrived as the launch of Global Conflict. The Nazis arrested Jews who lived in occupied Poland or other regions wantonly as the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Arrested Jews were sent to concentration camps among Europe, the place where they persecuted and terrorized by the Nazis, starved and deprived of all medical care. The essence of the Holocaust was an insult to Jewish culture and discrimination against Jews by means of violence, that “army units recruited Jews at random for forced labor… not only were the Jews mistreated, but their work was specifically chosen to degrade them. Jews were subject to beatings and harassment like the cutting of their beards” (Rodriguez 1). The basic human rights of Jews were denied by the populace once the label of inferior has been attached, and caused them to became the public enemy that everyone could attack. Meanwhile, the situation is no better in elsewhere. Those Jewish people who escaped from the Nazi had to live in dark corners, and Max’s situation was a perfect illustration that “He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival” (Zusak 207). This reveals Max’s awareness, which the existence of a Jew will bring the outcome of Liesel and Hubermanns’ death, is the reason why he moved to the basement. His concern for the safety of others and the courage to survive in a hostile environment is displayed through his decision.
Numerous Jews were arrested, killed, and tortured in concentration camps as time passes. The Nazis used the industrial production line method to carry out the inhuman butchery of Jews that “forcing the victims themselves to dig their own mass graves, and then shooting them to death” (Bartrop 2). But this approach would not only provoke Jewish resistance, but it was extremely ineffective. With the demand for efficiency, the method of “mobile gas vans using carbon monoxide poisoning” were largely employed by the Nazis. The results were prominent that “It is estimated that between 1941 and 1943 the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the death of more than 1 million Jews” (Bartrop 2). These statistics provide detailed information of estimated death in actual numbers and the methods of killing that were employed, offer insights into the Holocaust, and allow the issue to be observed visually from an interdisciplinary lens, instead of a brief description. This source would provide more accessible understandings and reflects the profound impacts of the Holocaust if actual cases can be added.
Literature can reflects the seriousness of historical problems in an emotive approach, sometimes it is more powerful than objective statistics. In The Book Thief, Hans Hubermann’s action of helping a Jew with a piece of bread displays his kindness and courage, who dares to help a Jewish man that was suffering from hunger, to fight against unjust laws and actions, and to show his resistance publicly, as mentioned that “but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread…” (Zusak 394).The scene followed was a juxtaposition of two extremes of human behavior, which “…a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime…The Jew was whipped six times…Hans Hubermann was whipped on the street” (Zusak 394). Nazi soldier represents the dehumanized society and the public, which were mercilessly hurting their compatriots in violent methods, whereas Hans represents people with consciences who dare to stand up and help those who are suffering. This scene is an epitome of the fanatical society, presenting a historical picture of cruelty and injustice. The weak were persecuted by the strong ascribe to the race, and the sympathetic deeds of others can only be callously suppressed. The reality is interwoven with the theme of the novel, which deeply depicts the historical background and conveys the message: the maniac politics and the fanatical racial ideology have shaped a society that betrayed humanity, where deceptions became truth, brutality was justice, and good people were incapable of resisting. Even so, the glory of humanity still cannot be covered by the shadow of The Times.
In conclusion, with the defeat of Nazi Germany in the WWII, the allied forces took control over Germany’s occupied territories and liberated concentration camps, marking the end of the Holocaust. Through the comprehension of the situations when Jews were facing inhuman torments by the Nazis, readers can review the historical context and understand that the theme of The Book Thief contains the author’s appreciation to the moral adherence of human nature and the courage of resisting external pressure bravely in a hostile circumstance. Although the Holocaust differs for the two cases, the ultimate message they both conveyed is that the Holocaust is a mixture of ruthlessly violent acts and outright racial discriminations. Eventually, the victims from the Holocaust would rely on their kindness, knowledge, and courage to seek a path of salvation.