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Disturbing memories of a horrific time

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sometimes we just have to deal with discomfort. I realised this more than ever after reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945, covers the period of World War II. Zusak says he based the book on many of the stories he had heard. It seems I heard many of the same stories from my mother, who was the same age as the main character, Liesel, when she moved from Romania to Nazi Germany.  


Throughout the war, my mother, a schoolchild struggling to perfect German; my grandmother, who worked in an underground munitions factory in Hannover Germany; and my grandfather, who worked on the Berlin to Baghdad railroad, experienced many of the same circumstances described so eloquently by Zusak in his novel narrated by Death.


Like Liesel, I grew up hearing stories about how my grandmother sneaked inside farmers’ fields to dig for potatoes those farmers had hopefully left behind. Liesel’s foster mother did the same thing. She also searched for sugar beets. Like Liesel, my mother had to make sure that she did not divulge any family secrets. This was a time of mistrust.


On some level, The Book Thief is a story for all those people in the world—like me—who have harboured history’s secrets with an undeniable feeling of guilt. History tends to tell extreme stories of heroes, villains and victims. World War II Germany is the story of Adolf Hitler and his ghoulish cronies or it is the story of Oskar Schindler, who risked his life to save the Jewish people, the victims of this atrocious period. It is the story of all the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.