What The Book Thief Taught Me About Being German

Now that I finally have some free time, I’m going to sit down and blog about this idea I’ve been thinking about since… Thanksgiving break. So, here goes.

Over Thanksgiving break, I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak for my adolescent lit class. I could gush about its amazingness for about ten years but that just seems so old hat, so I’m going to talk about the other thing reading that book made me think of (eventually it’ll circle back to education).

When my dad was two years old, his mom brought him and his six-year-old sister to America from Germany after she married an American soldier. They lived in Pennsylvania for a while before they settled in this tiny little town called Ballantine, twenty minutes away from Billings, Montana’s largest city (which isn’t saying much, because Fort Collins is bigger than Billings).


Ballantine is surrounded by farmland, has one post office, one gas station, and a population of maybe 50.

So I’m half German. Personally, I think this is pretty awesome. I mean, fifty percent of my known heritage is German, while the rest is from a bunch of western European countries that most Caucasian people can claim anyway (and a smidgeon of Chippewa Indian, which I will come back to). However, for a long time I didn’t think this was very cool at all, and not even for a good reason. My dad doesn’t like to talk about himself, period. Whenever we’d ask him about his heritage (y’know, basic kid question), he’d kind of brush us off with the phrase, “I’m an American, and so are you. And that’s all that matters.” Not in a mean way, of course, but definitely evasive.

My mother, on the other hand, is pretty much an open book, so the part of my ethnicity I always took interest in was the smidgeon of Chippewa Indian (I’m 1/16), so I always liked Native American history. That’s why, when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, both the stereotypes and the situation resonated with me because I’ve heard that story before.

Back to The Book Thief. One of the reasons I adore The Book Thief is because it taught me about my heritage. I know my grandmother was alive during World War II and that her and her family were kicked out of Nazi Germany into nearby Yugoslavia until at least the end of the war. Beyond that I know virtually nothing, nothing except for the little tidbits of history and culture you pick up after to going to school for fifteen years.

That’s why I love this book. I learned so much about German culture, especially during World War II, because the book is about a regular German girl, not a German Jew on the run or a German family hiding a Jew (although that does, briefly, happen). Like German words. Most of them were swear words, but one that really stuck out was himmel, which is German for heaven. Even though it is a Holocaust book, even though it’s sad, I wanted to know more about what it means to be German besides possibly being associated with Nazism.

Which brings me around to education. Thinking about my heritage made me think of this old-school Disney movie I used to love and that the Disney channel always shows in March: The Luck of the Irish. Don’t laugh, but the movie is about how this boy, Ryan, discovers through a school-wide heritage project that the maternal side of his family are leprechauns, which makes him part-leprechaun. Okay, I guess you can laugh; it does sound pretty cheesy. At the risk of sounding even more cheesy, there’s also a Degrassi: The Next Generation episode like this (the heritage project, not the leprechauns; also, I didn’t watch that episode of my own accord, it was totally my sister’s doing, I swear).

My point is, I wish schools still required a project like this. Maybe some do, but not any of the half dozen I’ve attended. It’s eye-opening, inspirational, and multicultural – why aren’t schools jumping all over that? At the very least, I’d like to have learned more about other cultures, and not just the cut-and-dried histories of wars and conquests and death, but what other people do in other places. American culture is great and all, but I’ve been exposed to that my entire life.

Actually, that’s not true – I was required to learn about other cultures at two of the four elementary schools I attended. At the first one, our art projects were always based on an art form from another place. I carved a Mayan face into a piece of sheet rock, sculpted a sea serpent out of clay, wove on a loom, and probably a dozen other projects I no longer remember. At the second school, kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders were required to study a country as a class. Kindergarten studied Australia, the first graders studied China, and second graders studied Mexico. By the time I attended this school I was in the fourth grade, but I sang in the school choir and so I had to learn all the multicultural songs the littler kids learned so we could sing with them at the Multicultural Concert. Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he…

Nevertheless, that was in elementary school and only in elementary school. There were glimpses, here and there, into the other worlds, but nothing substantive. Certainly nothing relating to me personally except war and death and so on, so on, so it goes…

I wonder why this is. I wonder why the only schools I see forcing students to learn about their family histories are on corny TV shows. Hmm…

So, now I guess enjoy this cheesy clip. This land is your land, this land is my land… (P.S. I had to learn that song too)


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