A metaphysical being, Death serves as the dryly cynical narrator of The Book Thief. Death's duty is to carry away the souls of the recently departed, which it has apparently done for millenia. In its line of work, Death tries to focus on colors as a way of distracting itself from the survivors of those who have died. Liesel's story is one of a handful of survivors' tales that Death remembers; in fact, Death retrieves the actual written autobiography of Liesel's life after the air raid at the end of the novel. Death is "haunted" by humans and unable to reconcile humanity's capacity for evil with humanity's capacity for good.
Introduced by Death as "The Book Thief," Liesel is nine at the beginning of the novel, when her younger brother dies and she is given up by her mother to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the small town of Molching. Liesel is traumatized by her brother's death, but Hans proves to be a calming foster father; with his help, she learns to read and soon finds comfort in the written word. Over the course of the novel, she befriends Max, the Jew who arrives to hide from the Nazis in the Hubermanns' basement, and falls in love with Rudy Steiner, her best friend. Ultimately, Liesel learns the power of words to influence humans to act towards both good and evil as she experiences the beauty and the brutality of humanity. Death describes her as a "perpetual survivor," and Liesel survives Hitler's reign while many of those whom she loves perish as a result of World War II and the Holocaust.
A 23-year-old Jew who hides from the Nazis in the Hubermanns' basement. Max was a fist-fighter growing up, and as a teenager he resolves not to die without a fight. Max is wracked with anguish and guilt over leaving his family to save himself, but he comes to befriend Liesel as the two share their respective nightmares. Their friendship grows very deep, and Liesel reads to Max every night when he falls comatose. Max makes two books for Liesel, both of which involve thinly-veiled allegories about their friendship and Nazi Germany: an illustrated story called "The Standover Man," and a long book of sketches that includes the short story "The Word Shaker." Max leaves the house after Hans gives an old Jew being marched to a concentration camp a piece of bread in public. Liesel later sees him among such a procession, on his way to Dachau. Max survives the camp, however, and reunites with Liesel shortly after the war's end.
Liesel's silver-eyed foster father. An amateur accordion player, Hans is a tall, gentle man with a remarkable amount of integrity and bravery -- Hans' compassion sets a strong example for Liesel, who is soothed by his presence. His life was saved by a Jew Erik Vandenberg in World War I, and he keeps his promise to Erik's widow by hiding her son Max from the Nazis. A skilled house painter by trade, Hans is horrified by the Nazis' persecution of the Jews, and he brings scrutiny to himself by painting over anti-Semitic slurs on Jewish-owned homes and businesses. Hans' impulsive kindness ultimately gets him in trouble, and he is conscripted to serve in a dangerous air raid recovery unit. Hans survives this assignment, but ultimately dies in the air raid that hits Molching at the end of the novel.
Hans' wife and Liesel's foster mother. A squat woman who makes some money doing laundry for wealthy neighbors, Rosa has a fiery attitude and frequently employs profanity, especially towards those whom she loves. Death describes Rosa as a good woman for a crisis: she maintains order in the household through difficult times, but her spirit is steadily beat down by several the events in the novel, e.g. Max's illness, Hans' conscription, and the air raids.
Liesel's best friend. One of six Steiner children, Rudy is gallant and impetuous -- he is best known for painting his face black and running around a track imitating Jesse Owens. Rudy is motivated throughout the novel by his love for Liesel; at one point he retrieves Liesel's book from the icy cold river and asks her for a kiss. By the end of the novel, Liesel has come to love Rudy as well; Rudy dies in an air raid at the end of the novel, and Liesel kisses his corpse.
The mayor's wife. An intelligent woman with her own library, Ilsa has spent decades mourning the death of her son Johann, who froze to death in 1918, the final year of World War I. Ilsa takes a liking to Liesel: she witnesses Liesel stealing a book from the book burning and invites Liesel into her home library to read. Ilsa gives Liesel a blank book and encourages her to write, and not to live the rest of her life in despair. Ilsa and her husband take Liesel into their home after Hans and Rosa are killed.
Liesel's six-year-old brother who dies at the beginning of the book. Liesel is haunted by the memory of Werner and consistently experiences nightmares about his death for months after arriving in Molching. At one point, Liesel thinks to herself that in her mind, Werner will be six years old forever.
Liesel's mother, who gives her up for adoption by the Hubermann's at the beginning of the novel. Liesel's father was taken away by the Nazis for being a Communist, and Paula meets the same fate. As Liesel comes to realize, by giving her daughter away, Paula saves her from persecution.
A friend and classmate of Liesel's. Described as a twitchy kid, Tommy has hearing problems due to a chronic ear infection. Tommy is generally helpless and relies on the support of his friend Rudy Steiner.
The very pro-Nazi shopkeeper who refuses service to anyone who does not salute and say "Heil Hitler" upon entering her corner store.
A neighbor of the Hubermanns who has feuded with Rosa for a long time, spitting on the Hubermanns' door on a daily basis. Frau Holtzapfel agrees to stop this practice if Liesel will read to her on a regular basis. She has two sons serving in the German Army in Russia, Michael and Robert. Robert dies at the Battle of Stalingrad, and Michael returns with a bloodied hand. Frau Holtzapfel is emotionally ruined by the death of one of her sons, and after Michael commits suicide, she quietly awaits Death.
Hans and Rosa's only son. Indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda, Hans Jr. is ashamed of his father's kindness towards the Jews and accuses him of being a coward for not supporting Hitler. He serves in the German Army in Russia and stops returning home for holidays because of his animosity towards his father. Another soldier, Michael Holtzapfel, tells Rosa that he heard that Hans Jr. is still alive, but no other indication is given about Hans Junior's ultimate fate.
Hans and Rosa's adult daughter.
The Hitler Youth leader described as a sadist by Rudy. At one point, Franz viciously beats Rudy up in the street for throwing a rock at his head.
Max's father who served in World War I with Hans. Erik saves Hans' life by volunteering him for a writing assignment on the day he and everyone else in his regiment are killed in battle. Erik's death comes at Max is very young. Erik taught Hans to play the accordion, and Hans' accordion was originally Erik's.
The fifteen-year-old leader of a small group of thieves. The group mainly steals food from farms, and Arthur is very kind to the others, divvying up their gains fairly and sharing with everyone the food brought to him by Rudy and Liesel. Arthur gives the two a bag of chestnuts before leaving town. He is replaced as leader by a new boy, Viktor Chemmel.
After Arthur Berg, the second leader of a group of thieves. Unlike Arthur, Viktor is wealthy and steals for excitement. Also unlike Arthur, Viktor is very domineering and cruel to the others; he savagely beats Rudy for his insolence. Viktor is the one who throws Liesel's book into the freezing cold Amper River.
Max's best friend. Walter and Max began as fighting partners growing up, but soon became friends. In the early stages of the Holocaust, Walter helps Max hide from the Nazis and arranges for Max to stay at Hans Hubermann's.
Woman from the foster care agency who facilitates the transfer of Liesel to the Hubermanns.
An ornery old man with a habit of whistling.
One of Liesel's teachers, a nun who delivers corporal punishment to insolent students.
A classmate of Liesel's. Ludwig taunts Liesel for not being able to read, and Liesel beats him up. Ludwig is injured at the book burning, and Liesel helps him get away from the crowd, then apologizes for attacking him.
Ludwig's older brother.
Mayor of Molching and Ilsa's husband.
Ilsa's son who froze to death in 1918, presumably while fighting in World War I.
An older boy who introduces Liesel and Rudy to the gang of thieves when Arthur Berg was their leader.
A classmate of Liesel's who delivers food to the church every week. Liesel and Rudy knock him off his bicycle and rob him.
Hans' Sergeant in World War I.
A shop owner who catches Rudy for trying to steal a potato and threatens to call the police, but lets him go when he is convinced of how poor Rudy is.
Rudy's older brother.
Rudy's father, a tailor who does not hate the Jews, but was somewhat relieved when the Jewish tailors competing with him were driven out of town. Alex refuses to let Rudy be inducted into an Army training academy and is punished with conscription. After the war, Alex, who has lost his entire family in a bombing raid, reopens his store and is kept company by Liesel.
Sergeant of the Air Raid Special Unit, of which Hans becomes a member.
A 23-year-old member of Hans' Air Raid Special Unit. Described as an arrogant hothead and a poor gambler, he accuses Hans of cheating at cards. Later, on a truck, he demands that Hans switch seats with him; when the truck crashes, Reinhold is dead.
One of Frau Holtzapfel's sons, Michael served in the German Army in the Battle of Stalingrad, where his hand was severely wounded. At a makeshift hospital, he sees his brother Robert die. He returns home and later commits suicide, unable to live with the guilt of having lived while his brother died.
One of Frau Holtzapfel's sons. Robert's legs are blown off at the Battle of Stalingrad, and he dies in a makeshift hospital with his brother Michael by his side.
Historical Fuhrer of Nazi Germany. While not a character in the novel per se, Hitler's propaganda and its consequences -- the war, the Holocaust -- functions as the novel's central antagonist.
The Book Thief Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Book Thief is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Ultimately, The Book Thief is framed by Death's ongoing contemplation of humanity. Death finds it impossible to weigh the value of human beings, with some capable of great malice and criminality like Hitler and others capable of great strength...