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