“Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world. ”
– Gautama Buddha
Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively as words of encouragement, or destructively as words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble. Words are the strongest weapon if used properly. They have the power to influence, manipulate and control people and situations. Words are very powerful and sometimes the words we use offend people. Words create various impressions, images and expectations. They built many psychological connections. They influence and effect how we think. Words can fall on many ears, they can be read by many eyes, and they can spare actions that can add value to the world or set it on fire. Words have power. Their meaning crystallizes perceptions that shape our beliefs, drive our behaviour, and ultimately, create our world. Their power arises from our emotional responses when we read, speak, or hear them. Words create filters through which people view the world around them. A single word can make the difference between liking a person and disliking that person. Words, however, are the reason that one person lives a life of abundance while another person lives a life of lack. Words can open doorways that hands cannot. They can break down invisible boundaries. A few words can destroy life or breathe new life into a withering one. Words can fill a person full of happiness or fill them full of despair. Words can build up a person’s confidence, or take it crashing to the ground. As most people do not value their words, they misuse them, which allow the power of their words to work against them. They want to go in one direction, but their words push them in another.
Eighty years ago, the words of a German dictator fed the pride, hatred and intolerance that sparked a World War. But words can change the world for the better. The influence of words can also reach millions of hearts and minds, and change lives and the fate of nations. Gandhi’s non-violent acts and remarkable words gave a country its independence, and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. still ring in the minds of American people. President John F. Kennedy, in making Winston Churchill an Honorary Citizen of the United States in April 1963, said of him:
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
In his speeches, books, and newspaper and magazine articles, he expressed his feelings and laid out his vision for the future. Nazi Germany is a place where the use of the immense power of combined letters is perfected. In ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusak, the impact of words and language is felt throughout the novel.
Marcus Zusak was born in 1975 in Sydney, Australia, the youngest of four children of immigrant German and Austrian parents. Neither parent could read or write English when they first arrived in Australia, but they wanted their children to master the language and strongly encouraged them to read and communicate in English from an early age. Zusak began writing fiction at age 16 and pursued a degree in teaching. Before becoming a professional author, Zusak worked briefly as a house painter, a janitor and a high school English teacher. In 1999, Marcus Zusak’s first novel, The Underdog, was published after many initial rejections. It is the first book in a trilogy narrated by Cameron, the youngest child in the working class Wolfe family. Cameron is the underdog of the title, and the narrative follows his struggle to define himself within his family and society. Cameron and his brother and best friend Ruben were loosely based on Zusak and his own brother. The sequel, ‘Fighting Ruben Wolfe’, tells of the brother’s participation in an illegal boxing ring as a means of supporting their family. The final book in the trilogy, ‘When Dog’s Cry’ examines the complications of loss, death and falling in love. Zusak’s second and third novels received numerous awards and honors, including the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults for ‘Fighting Ruben Wolfe’ and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction for ‘When Dog’s Cry’.
Zusak followed the Wolfe brothers’ trilogy with ‘The Messenger’ in 2002. ‘The Book Thief’ followed in 2006 and was met with even more critical and popular success. A sympathetically drawn Death narrates the story of an orphan girl, Liesel Meminger, who finds friendship and a new family in a small town in Germany during World War II. She also discovers the power of words and books as Hitler’s Nazi agenda threatens to destroy everything she has come to love. Zusak chose the subject matter in part to share the stories his parent’s told him about growing up in Austria and Germany during the war. In an interview Zusak had said about the inventiveness of the plot:
“There are a few reasons, but the main one is that those are the stories I knew. My mom is German and my father is Austrian. I grew up hearing those stories. One of my mum’s stories was about something that happened when she was six. She heard a noise that sounded like cattle being herded down the street. It was people being herded to a concentration camp. There was an old man who couldn’t keep up, and a boy gave him a piece of bread. They were both whipped, one for giving the bread, one for taking it. When you see a soldier chase a boy down and beat him to the ground for being kind to somebody, when you see that when you’re six, what could you possibly make of that? I knew about my dad “jigging” as we say in Australia the Hitler Youth meetings, because he had a friend who suffered at the hands of the leaders. So they just said, “We’re not going. We’re going to go to the river instead and get dirty enough to fool our parents.” Another story I knew was about Hitler’s birthday, and my mother’s foster father refused to fly the Nazi flag. His wife said to him, “You’re going to fly the flag or else they’re going to come for us.” These are the stories I knew, and I thought, I haven’t seen that on all the documentaries. I’m going to use these because this hasn’t necessarily been done a lot.” That’s how the book starts to come together.
‘The Book Thief’ was published as a novel for adults in Australia and as a Young Adult novel in the United States, but Zusak doesn’t draw such distinctions.
“What I wanted to do, what I’ve always wanted to do was write someone’s favorite book”, rather than write for a specific audience, Zusak revealed in an interview. Author John Green reviewed the book in the New York Times, hailing it as “brilliant” and “achingly sad” and said of the heroine “the hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence”.
In a very unique way, “The Book Thief”, by Marcus Zusak, tells us a story that takes a completely unexpected perspective. This time, it is Death’s perspective, the narrator. Personified as human being, it comes to the reader’s surprise when Death revels human qualities and emotions. It is the story of Liesel Meminger. A nine-year-old German girl who give up her mother to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the small town of Molching in 1939, shortly before World War II. On their way to Molching, Liesel’s younger brother Werner dies, and she is traumatized, experiencing nightmares about him for months. Hans is a gentle man who brings her comfort and helps her learn to read, starting from a book Liesel took from the cemetery where her brother was buried. Liesel befriends a neighborhood boy, Rudy Steiner, who falls in love with her. At a book burning, Liesel realizes that her father was persecuted for being a Communist, and that her mother has likely killed by the Nazis for the same crime. She is seen stealing a book from the burning by the Mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann, who later invites Liesel to read in her library. Keeping a promise he made to the man who saved his life, Hans agrees to hide a Jew named Max Vandenburg in his basement. Liesel and Max become close friends, and Max writes Liesel two stories about their friendship, both of which are reproduced in the novel. When Hans publicly gives bread to an old Jew being sent to a concentration camp, Max must leave, and Hans is drafted into the military at a time when air raids over major German cities were escalating in terms of frequency and fatality. Liesel next sees Max being marched towards the concentration camp at Dachau. Liesel loses hope and begins to disdain the written word, having learnt that Hitler’s propaganda is to blame for the war and the Holocaust and the death of her biological family, but Ilsa encourages her to write. Liesel writes the story of her life in the Hubermanns’ basement, where she miraculously survives an air raid that kills Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and everyone else on her block. Liesel survives the war, as does Max. She goes on to live a long life and dies at an old age.
Ever since Nazi Germany and its terrors, there have been many texts available to the world written by Holocaust survivors, and by the second generation of holocaust survivors. Their writings are known as Holocaust literature, although the definition of Holocaust has expanded, as David Roskies and Naomi Diamant in their book, Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry: Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide, define it as: “Holocaust literature comprises all forms of writing, both documentary and discursive, and in any language, that have shaped the public memory of the Holocaust and been shaped by it” (Roskies and Diamant 2). Following Roskies and Diamant’s definition, most everyone in today’s world has read or watched something related to the Holocaust, even if the works have not been produced by those who experienced the Holocaust. Evidently adolescent Holocaust literature explores a variety of themes, such as coming of age during the time of Nazi Germany either as a Jew or as a Gentile helping Jews, the fact that there were Germans who had ties with Jews but did not take any action to help and stood by passively, and also the terrible experiences the Jews were suffering under the Nazi rule in concentration camps. The one theme adolescent Holocaust literature seems to fail to explore is how literacy helps those who are in Nazi Germany and the Jews. One such text that explores the theme of literacy and the power of literacy for Gentiles and Jews in Nazi Germany is The Book Thief.
Most books tackling the subject of World War II are very serious and aimed at adults; this novel, while relating the tragedy and horrors of war, also manages to infuse the undercurrent of misery with moments of joy and happiness. In depicting Liesel’s journey into the enchanting and powerful world of words, Zusak’s novel insists upon the importance of individual interpretations, rewriting and representations. As we are told when Liesel steal her first book: The Gravedigger’s Handbook,
“It didn’t really matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was important.”(39)
This forms a central concern of the novel: the ability for the individual to affect the course of history, to reimagine events, to rewrite meanings and to create more hopeful stories. “The Book Thief” offer us an unbelievable, hard won hope. That hope is embodied in Liesel, who grows into a good and generous person despite the suffering all around her, and finally become a human even death loves. From the negative impact of the anti-Semitic propaganda present in Nazi Germany to the reassuring effect of Liesel’s reading in the bomb shelter, words have both a positive and negative influence on the major characters. Words can become the tool to brainwash the people when it’s used by Nazis. Words can become the strength to rescue and comfort people’s minds when it’s used by Liesel.
The power of words are shown in the way that Death, at least, measures our value by the words we create and utter, and the way they are used. The novel shows how those words can be both “damning and brilliant”. Words, and the power that they have, therefore reflect our value and worth. So every word we utter has a humongous power over us even though we don’t realize that. As Emily Dickinson writes,
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word”.