It’s rare that I look forward to anything about the Holocaust. How can you “enjoy” anything having to do with such a horrific, dark and inhumane time in our history? The first time I ever looked forward to a movie about holocaust was in 1999. Roberto Benigni won 3 Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture (twice as amazing, because it was a foreign film) with Life is Beautiful— a touching comedy, believe it or not, about the holocaust. I once read that Benigni said that he wasn’t interested in communicating the horrors of that time—we already know it was bad, and he could never fully communicate just how bad it was anyway. What he wanted to write about was how, no matter how bad things were (or are), there is still beauty to be found in life. If there is such a thing as a “must see” – Life is Beautiful would definitely be on that list.
The Book Thief is the second time I have ever looked forward to a movie about the holocaust. (I read the book in anticipation of the movie, and it was delightful! So creative and well-written, I was as enthralled with the way it was written as the story itself.) It tells a slightly different story than the one we are accustomed to. It’s the story of every day life for a family (a good family of good people) in Germany during that time, and it’s particularly focused on their adopted daughter, Liesel. It’s the story of their struggles (they may not suffer like the Jews do, but they still suffer and are still victims of Hitler and his agenda—the book communicates more of this than the movie does), and the beauty, laughter and joy they manage to hold on to, despite it all. It’s the story of how they choose to be human and “do unto others,” even when it was costly to do so. Above all, it’s the story about how, even in death, life prevails; even in horror, beauty exists. No matter how evil tries, good wins.
I am struck by the fact that all the things that the Fuhrer tried to take away were the very things that became most dear to Liesel. Books were being burned and outlawed; Liesel stole them and learned to read. She somehow knew they must be valuable if he was working so hard to destroy them. She lost her mother and brother (because of Hitler, ultimately), so she valued her adopted family all the more. Jews were being killed; they hid one in their basement (Max) and Liesel came to truly love him. It was like the books, she knew he must have great worth or Hitler wouldn’t need to kill him. Everything that Hitler tried to destroy came to have even greater value in the eyes of Liesel. It worked the very opposite effect. It makes me think of that verse that says that everything the enemy intended for harm, “God intended it for good to accomplish…the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Liesel and her parents worked hard to keep Max alive and protect him. Eventually, he decided to leave their protection, because he loved them and didn’t want to endanger their lives anymore. Just as they had been risking their lives and making sacrifices to keep him alive, he did in turn for them. He risked his life and faced the almost certainty that he would be caught and put in a concentration camp because he loved them. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13). Jesus may not be mentioned in The Book Thief, but Hans, Rosa, Liesel and Max were all living a lot like He lived.
After Max disappeared, Hans struggled to understand what was the point of it all. “I’m not sure what it all meant. Everything he went through. Everything we did.” It’s tempting to feel that if you go to such lengths for someone, you should see the results. Such efforts should end up being worth it. We all tend to feel that way. I felt that when I read the book. What’s the point of this story if Max dies? But Liesel understood something: she understood that it’s not results, or circumstances or even others who determine what we do. It’s who we are that determines what we do. She tells Hans, “We were just being people. That’s’ what people do.”
This is an important point. I hear people all the time excuse their actions because of external influences. They do something wrong towards another person, but think they are excused because the other person isn’t nice, or did wrong too, or what have you. Certainly, if anyone had good, external reasons to justify their actions, Hans and Liesel and Rosa did. It was dangerous for them to hide a Jew. Hans’ decision to take Max in put not only himself, but his whole family in danger. Not to mention, they were constantly being told that Jews were horrible people that didn’t deserve to live. They could blame their circumstances, or they could blame the people, or both—they had every excuse to turn their backs. But they didn’t, not to Max, and not to other Jews who they saw being taken. Time and again Hans spoke up in defense of his fellow man, even when it cost him. And it did cost him, every time. And every time it was questionable (at best) if it did any good. Every time he felt that the only result was harm to himself and his family.
Why? Why continue to risk harm when it does no good? What’s the point? Liesel’s right. They do good because it’s who they are. Because they must. The “must” is a running theme. The must is about who they are; it’s about character, not about results. And though it may have seemed that their actions only stirred up more trouble, it stirred up trouble because it reminded people of their humanity, and that made people uncomfortable.
We see the same principle in the Bible with Jesus. When he did what he “must,” because it was his nature to love, it compelled him to do things that stirred up trouble. Take, for example, when he healed on the Sabbath.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus,[a] to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Mark 3:1-6
Jesus did what he had to, what his nature and character required—He healed the man—and His doing so stirred up trouble. The Pharisees immediately set out to find a way to destroy (kill) Him after that. Some might ask what good did it really do. Sure, the man was healed, but Jesus was killed (which was a good thing in the end, because He rose again). Jesus did more than heal that one man though, He reminded everyone, even the Pharisees, about their humanity, about the nature of God who is love and about the heart of the law. It was costly, but that didn’t matter. He did it because He “must.”
The movie ends with Death, the narrator, talking about their lives. Even though death has the final say, literally, it’s life that prevails. He is “haunted” by their lives. He says that Rosa (mama) wishes she had shared more of her enormous heart with others. Hans (papa) died with a “soul as light as a feather.” And Liesel lived her long life “wisely” and died in absolute peace. Liesel’s life was being watched, witnessed by death, himself, and she lived in such a way that he wondered what it would be like to live. The Bible says that we are all “surrounded by… a great cloud of witnesses” and therefore we should “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and …run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). When we do so, there will be others who say of us that we made them wonder what it would be like to truly live.
Questions for Discussion:
- What’s an example in your life of something that was intended for evil, but that God used for good?
- What do you think about the sacrifices Hans, Rosa and Liesel made for Max? What about the sacrifice Max made for them? What do you think you would have done in if you had been in their shoes?
- What are the sacrifices people have made for you? What have you sacrificed for other people?
- Do you believe that Jesus sacrificed his life for you? How do you feel about that?
- Do you, like Rosa, ever withhold your heart from others? Why? Why do you think Rosa did?
- Who do you know who lives life such a way that you are inspired to live better?
- Who are the witnesses that are watching you and your life? What do you think is the legacy your life is leaving behind for them?
- Hebrews 12:1 says that if you are to run the race (life) before you with endurance, you need to put aside “every weight and sin”—what does that mean for you and your life?