The Life of Ilsa in Marcus Zusaks The Book Thief

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief took place in Nazi Germany during WWII, where countless unjust and inhumane events occurred. Many Germans fell under the category of either survivors, victims, bystanders, perpetrators, or rescuers. As the privileged yet sheepish wife of the mayor, one lady in particular clearly falls under one of these descriptions. Although she is in the upper class, she has encountered a fair amount of grief and discomfort, allowing her to live far from the happy, ideal lifestyle. Ilsa Hermann is a bystander because she is observant, passive, and cowardly.

Throughout her life, Ilsa goes about her days quietly, yet observantly. When Liesel steals her first book from the rubbish pile in the town square, “the mayor’s wife had seen her” (132), but was waiting for the right moment to reveal her knowledge to Liesel. She thought she had gotten away with it, but little did Liesel know, Ilsa Hermann had witnessed the whole thing. In addition, Frau Hermann wears Nazi propaganda around her house (460). Ilsa has experienced the damage of the Nazi party with the death of her own son, and also with firing Rosa Hubermann as her launderer, but continues to wear their symbols around. Although she is on the quiet side, Ilsa definitely notices the actions taking place around her.

Ilsa has a good eye for observation, but she does not react to most situations as an ordinary person would. When Liesel brings about the death of Ilsa’s beloved son, Johann Hermann, Ilsa mentions that “he is nothing now in this world” (145). Ilsa often mourns over the death of her son, but her odd reactions to these touchy situations make her obscure and passive manner easily recognizable. According to Rosa Hubermann, Ilsa is not one to make friends either, for she “sits at home all day” (42). Living on the top of a hill, Ilsa is both physically and mentally isolated, and does not make an effort to meet new people or try new things. She is generally passive due to her ability to easily avoid human communication.

Along with observant and passive, Frau Hermann is also very cowardly. After being informed that Ilsa is going to discontinue her washing services, Liesel insults her when she “[sprays] her words directly into the woman’s eyes” (262). Liesel portrays her words more powerfully and brutally than she ever imagined capable, yet Ilsa refuses to fire back. This is also the case when Liesel first breaks in to Ilsa’s library and steals The Whistler. With the help of her best friend Rudy, Liesel manages to break in to Ilsa’s library and steal the first book she sees, which happens to be The Whistler (288). Meanwhile, Ilsa is aware of this occurring yet fails to take action. By doing so, Ilsa Hermann proves to be sheepish and cowardly.

Although she changes a bit towards the end of the story, Ilsa Hermann generally remains as a bystander throughout the novel. She watches things happen, but does not put forth any effort to do anything about it. Frau Hermman demonstrates the traits of observant, passive, and cowardly throughout the story’s numerous pages. She is scarred for life by the death of her son, and feels as if she needs to live every day suffering for him. Ilsa Hermann displays many traits that lead to the conclusion that she in a bystander.

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