Fiction is not typically my first reading pick. But if more books were like The Book Thief, I would be swayed. Author Markus Zusak has created characters and scenes so rich, so deep, so cutting, that I found myself consumed by it.
In this tale, we follow Liesel over a five-year stretch, from a 9-year-old girl to a 14-year-old young woman. She lives in Nazi-controlled Germany during the Jewish Holocaust, and from her life we see into the many faces and facets of her country’s regime. Even for its citizens, Germany during Hitler’s reign was a frightful place to be. There was want and joy and death and rationing and hiding Jews and watching death marches through town and living life and hunger and hope and anger and loss and family.
The Book Thief was my reading selection for the Social Justice Challenge (SJC) this month. My first assessment after getting hooked on the read was that my choice was off base for this month’s SJC theme of religious freedom. After completing the book and giving it some mulling over, my perception of its fit for the theme—and even my perception of the Holocaust itself—has changed.
Before this, I had always thought of Hitler’s assault on the Jewish race as an issue with a people group: Hitler didn’t like Jewish people as a race. I stuck it in the same category as the racism experienced by Irish immigrants in the United States in the 1800s. For some odd reason, in this case alone I had forgotten the inseparable nature of race and religion for the Jewish person. (Although I understand that not all who are of Jewish heritage practice the Jewish faith.)
Therefore, the Holocaust must be seen as religious persecution.
My understanding of religious persecution in general, and the Holocaust in particular, has widened. This was indeed a great read for the SJC.
From this reading, several cautions have risen up through the story that could serve as guardrails to keep history from repeating itself:
1) Stereotyping is the root of religious persecution. Hitler began his assault on the Jewish people by labeling them. Soon the general public had a very negative perception of Jews, making the next steps (persecution, then extermination) seem rational.
In The Book Thief, what Liesel knew about Jews was the propaganda stereotype (they were swine). But when she met an individual Jew, she discovered he did not fit the stereotype. Was he an anomaly? Or was the assessment of the Jewish race wrong? These are the wrestlings we must wrangle: Do we believe the stereotypes we hear about certain people groups or do we discover the individual? Do we make assumptions about individuals based on what we hear in American media today about Christians or Republicans or Democrats or union workers? What if we are missing the beauty of an individual based on faulty information?
2) Fear is the fertilizer that grows stereotypical divides. No one likes to be an outsider. So when stereotyping begins with labeling and verbal assault, people must decide which side of the sand line they want to be on. Fear of being lumped together with the outcasts keeps normally rational people quiet and stationary, on the “safe” side. In regard to the Jewish assault, brute force by the German army widened the gap between Jews and the rest of society, making it impossible for anyone bridge the gap or stop the momentum.
3) Religious freedom requires weeding out the oppression of the oppressors. The tricky thing about freedom is that some oppression is needed for it to flourish. Hitler was an oppressor. For the Jewish people to live freely, he had to be stopped. It is this dilemma that haunts society: Which oppressors do we stop? Which freedoms do we allow? How do people of varying faiths coexist on this planet?
Sometimes I think we all need to be separated, like kids sent to their respective corners. Eyes straight ahead. Hands to yourself. Mouths shut. No squishy faces or tongues stuck out. No taunting. If you can’t say anything nice . . .
Consider though what we would miss if we were completely isolated, stuck in the corner . . . groupthink would be heavy; stereotypes would only grow.
Separation doesn’t seem to be the answer.
So now I’m thinking of society today and wondering how far we’ve come since Hitler. Have we learned to see the individual first, then the religion or race? Do we work to undo the inevitable prejudices that sprout undetected in our own hearts? Have we learned to ask more questions instead of holding tight to our judgments?
What can we do to create an atmosphere conducive to religious freedom while discouraging and preventing another Holocaust?
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