The Book Thief – Part One – The Jesse Owens Incident

The Jesse Owens Incident

I think this is an interesting and very amazing way to tell us part of the story, which otherwise we would have missed. The incident of course is in the past, so unless we somehow go back in time, we wouldn’t get the story. Not only is it in the past, but it is not in the past of the character whose story this is about (if you think about it, this is a confusing story, Death is narrating the story of Liesel, which was written by Liesel and which Death found. Zusak’s other book, The Messenger is also like this, but I won’t spoil it!). So I think this is quite clever of Zusak, he thought of a great way to incorporate an integral part of the story, Liesel has heard the story so many times (or at least that is what I think at this point in time), that she knows the story so well she has decided to write it down, and now Death is narrating it.

Ah yes the infamous Jesse Owens Incident (in real life!), where Jesse Owens, absolutely pummeled everyone else in the Olympic games held in Germany (to be honest, I find it interesting that they actually decided to hold the games there). So Jesse Owens wins 4 (taken from the book) gold medals, and then in one of them (the relay?) he was supposed to receive the medal from Hitler himself. But of course the racist fool Hitler is, he refuses to shake his hand (or something), because Jesse was black, and the world was outraged (or so I hope, I mean it was still the 30’s so I don’t think too much black-rights stuff had happened yet). Jesse won fair and square, though I’m sure Hitler probably thought that he cheated somehow.

So this brings us back to Rudy, the whole family watched the events unfold, and then Rudy decides to go to the kitchen and pick up some charcoal and make himself black. I really do see why people think he is a tad crazy. He is at the track and warms up, and then pretends to shake the hands of the other ‘opponents’ and even commentated the race. ‘The starter’ and a ‘crowd’ I would say there was no starter, just in his head, and most of the crowd were not real, maybe a couple of people saw him and thought what the hell is this kid doing. But the only real audience was his father who found him and dragged him home. His father tried to discuss the politics of the time with him, but Rudy didn’t care or understand, until years later, when it was all too late.

The Contradictory Politics of Alex Steiner

Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter.

Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse – gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business – propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers.

Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely?

Point Four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the Party, it meant being in the Party.

Point Five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.

I think that Point One, was probably the case with many Germans. I mean, at least a couple of the ‘policies’ and ‘ideas’ weren’t horrific and racist, and clearly people agreed with some of their ideas. And I’m sure that he was quite pleased that the Jewish stores were run out of business, because it meant more business for him. But I have to draw parallel to some of the things going on in today’s society. I nearly think racism is at an all time high, not necessarily towards the targets of old, like ‘black’ people or ‘Asians’ (though there is always the ‘racist’ idea of all Asians being smart, etc, which technically is racism) but now it is directed towards people coming from the ‘Arab World’ and most noticeably Muslims. I don’t know about all parts of the world, but I do know about where I live, Australia. Even though people frequently call us ‘multicultural’ (well I think people still call us that) we have been known to take quite a while to get used to our immigrants. In the past it took a long time to warm up to the Italians and Greeks that came to Australia after the war, and also the Asians who came after Vietnam. But now they are all apart of “Australian culture”. Recently we have been in the grips of an “immigration crisis” (if you believe some radio-shock jocks and the opposition government, and the media) and that soon we will be overrun by Muslims. And I think that this message is the same in the UK and US, and probably some other parts of the world. This comes to my mind because of the ‘propaganda’ informing Alex Steiner that Jews would soon overrun the country and all the jobs in the country that were ‘theirs’ would soon be lost to the Jews. And many racist, bigots are repeating the same propaganda today. It is confounding that in Australia people seriously believe that the number of “boat people” (quite a derogatory term for the asylum seekers who risk their lives to come to Australia because they are fleeing war-torn parts of the world.) is getting way out of control and we have to send them back and blah blah blah! I’m sure the rest of the world laughs at us because the percentage of refugees that actually come to Australia by whatever means, is relatively small, and the percentage that are ‘illegally coming here’ compared to what happens in most of the world (especially in Europe and the US) is tiny. We have under 700 asylum seekers a year come to Australia ‘illegally’ (I say illegal like this because in reality it isn’t, but people keep believing that they are, when clearly they aren’t) by boat and each year we take 0.03% of the refugees from around the world. And yet people believe we are being swamped! So it is almost like we are being fed propaganda by the media, radio shock-jocks, and the opposition government (and probably the government themselves) when it comes to the ‘refugee problem’, so sometimes it is advisable to get the real facts, governments and the media don’t always tell the truth! Let’s hope that nothing like the Holocaust happens again, and that another World War doesn’t break out because of everyone’s xenophobia!

Enough of the major rant! And back briefly to the story. So Alex tells Rudy that he can’t go around painted black. And of course Rudy asks why, as all children love to do. Alex tells him that he will get taken away if he does it, because ‘you shouldn’t want to be black people or Jewish people or anyone who is … not us.’ And I just love a response by Rudy “Do you have to pay to be Jewish? Do you need a licence?” I thought that was quite a smart answer! But of course, as a child Rudy doesn’t really understand the finer details of what is going on, children notice a lot, but they don’t always understand everything.


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