As a writer, I want to present realistic and genuine characters to my audience. I write historical fiction with very few exceptions. It has always been my favorite genre to read and history was my favorite school subject growing up. I firmly believe you can learn many lessons applicable to the present day by knowing what happened in the past. But it is also very important that these characters not only feel real and genuine to my modern audience, but they need to be rooted in the time period in which they live. Zusak did an incredible job in making the varying characters in The Book Thief real people in Nazi Germany.
Hans Hubermann, the main character Liesel’s foster father, disagrees with the Nazis, but he is afraid of them and what they might to do his family. Publicly he tries to appear complacent and passive; he does not want to anger the Nazis and bring them down about his head. That said, he has a difficult time standing by while the Jews are being degraded and persecuted. He paints over slurs graffitied onto Jewish homes and businesses even as their owners' urge him to go away for his own safety. This results in his application to join the Nazi party to be stalled; leaving him in a sometimes precarious position. The root of Hans’s intolerance for the persecution of the Jews stems from when a Jewish man saved his life during World War I. When, in the course of the story, that man’s son asks Hans to hide him Hans agrees. It is not only a debt he feels honor bound to repay somehow, but he knows it is the right thing to do. Even as he agrees to shelter Max, he is terrified of being caught. There are several more instances I would mention, but, for the sake of those who have not read the book or seen the film adaption, I will refrain. (As a quick side note, I would like to mention how much I loved Geoffrey Rush’s performance of Hans in the film. He was brilliant.)
What about Hans, however, makes him so real? Is it his insistence on helping the Jews? How greatly he loves Liesel? The way he plays his beloved accordion? I think it is how very human Hans Hubermann is. He lives during Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the Nazi regime. He does not agree with the Nazis, but he is too scared to be vocal about it. But no matter how scared he is of being punished, he continually commits acts to assist the Jews. He’s scared and he won’t speak out loudly, but he still acts because he knows it is the right thing. Liesel is a lot like her foster father in this aspect. It is something that knits them closer together. If we lived in Nazi Germany, we would want to be someone like Hans or Liesel. We would want to be able to do the right thing, but we would be terrified of being punished and persecuted by the Nazis. Hans Hubermann, the outwardly unobtrusive and ordinary sign painter, is the sort of person we want to be. We identify with him and his fear. It is people like him that somehow bring us hope.