What is the relationship between Ilsa Hermann and Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief?

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In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Liesel Meminger, the protagonist, has a complex relationship with Frau Ilsa Hermann.

Liesel meets Frau Hermann, the mayor's wife, while picking up and dropping off the laundry that the Hermanns pay Rosa (Liesel's foster mother) to wash. Liesel views Frau Hermann...

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In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Liesel Meminger, the protagonist, has a complex relationship with Frau Ilsa Hermann.

Liesel meets Frau Hermann, the mayor's wife, while picking up and dropping off the laundry that the Hermanns pay Rosa (Liesel's foster mother) to wash. Liesel views Frau Hermann as a somewhat distant figure. They begin a tentative friendship when Frau Hermann sees Liesel steal a book from the mayor's library and gives her more books instead of punishing her.

As the external conflict of World War II continues, Frau Hermann must end her employment of Rosa due to increased financial difficulties. This infuriates Liesel, who views Frau Hermann as a melodramatic sadist who delights in the pain this financial loss causes Rosa.

In reality, Frau Hermann is a much more emotionally complex character. She is grieving the loss of her son in World War I, while also dealing with the daily traumas of civilian life during World War II. Again, instead of retaliating against Liesel's verbal abuse, she forgives the girl and continues to show generosity as best as she can. She is greatly responsible for Liesel's growth and resilience throughout the novel, providing her with both a dictionary (to aid her in learning to read) and the black book, which becomes Liesel's telling of her own story.

Eventually, Ilsa becomes a literal guardian for Liesel, as the Hermanns take her in after her foster family is killed in the air raid.

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Ilsa and Liesel are fellow survivors during a time of upheaval. Although they are not related to each other, they share an appreciation for books and the ideals of freedom. In short, Ilsa and Liesel are friends or even co-conspirators living in a nightmarish regime.

According to the text, Ilsa is actually a grieving mother. She has never gotten over the loss of her son, Johann Hermann, during World War One. Initially, Liesel considers Ilsa a self-induced sadist, one who embraces penitential suffering as a defense mechanism against grief. Struggling with her own grief, Liesel verbally attacks Ilsa.

She accuses Ilsa of being melodramatic, pathetic, and hypocritical after Rosa is fired. So, the friendship between Ilsa and Liesel is initially fraught with tension and distrust. Ilsa and Liesel understand that they must live within the dictates of the Nazi regime; however, both detest what the regime represents. They eventually come to the realization that they must process their grief in constructive ways or risk being destroyed by their anger. Both eventually find common ground, and their friendship allows them to heal from their painful pasts.

For her part, Ilsa does not retaliate against Liesel's initial rage; instead, she does her best to protect her young friend from the ever-present dangers in their war-torn world. It is Ilsa who gives Liesel a dictionary and thesaurus so that the latter can fully benefit from her reading. Even after Liesel destroys a book in her library, Ilsa forgives her. She tells her young friend not to become entrenched in negative emotions, especially the kind that destroys hope and enthusiasm for life. Later, after the death of Liesel's family, Ilsa takes the young girl in.

The friendship between Ilsa and Liesel is a conduit of healing for both.

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Ilsa Hermann is the mayor's wife, and Liesel gets to know her by dropping off and picking up laundry from her house. Liesel does not think that Frau Hermann, who seems distant, has seen her steal a book from the mayor's library. When Liesel next shows up to collect the washing, however, Ilsa Hermann hands her an entire stack of books. Ilsa takes Liesel to the library and allows her to browse through the books, delighting Liesel. Eventually, the mayor's wife has to cancel the laundry service provided by Liesel's foster mother, but she says that Liesel can continue to read in her library. Liesel responds with anger, telling Ilsa that she should have long ago gotten over the death of her son in the last war. 

In response, Ilsa writes a letter to Liesel telling her that she knows she is stealing books from the library and asking her only to come in through the front door. Ilsa eventually befriends Liesel and gives her a book in which to record her thoughts and stories, encouraging her to be a writer. Later, she takes Liesel in after her house has been destroyed. By befriending Liesel, Ilsa is distracted from the grief with which she has enveloped herself; Ilsa is revived a bit by caring for Liesel rather than wallowing in her grief. 

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The relationship between Ilsa Hermann and Liesel Meminger is one fraught with tension.  Liesel does seem to be a bit angry with Mrs. Hermann for not continuing to have her laundry done by Rosa.  Liesel thinks that the mayor and his wife must still be able to afford Rosa's services even though Ilsa says that they cannot.  Liesel does not feel guilty in any way for stealing a book from Ilsa's library and figures that the lady will not even notice that one book is missing from among so many.  Once Ilsa notices that Liesel is stealing books from her, she does not scold the girl and figures that she must be in some way starved if she resorts to breaking into her library.  Ilsa feels that she can provide Liesel with what she needs, so she allows her to come into the library.  But the two remain relatively guarded and thus the relationship is tense.  Liesel never really trusts Ilsa, and Ilsa is unsure of Liesel's motives.  Their relationship is symbolic of the ultimate tension of the time in which they live--the circumstances of the war do not allow them to have a bond that they otherwise might have.

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