Summary and Analysis
PART SEVEN: August 1942 “Prisoners” to “Fall”
The corporal of Werner’s new unit, whom the soldiers nickname “Neumann Two” because the unit has another man named Neumann, whom they nickname “Neumann One,” takes Werner from Schulpforta to Russia by train. During the night, they pass a train full of prisoners and corpses. When they reach Russia, Werner learns that Volkheimer is part of his new unit. The unit travels in a truck named the Opel, looking for forbidden radio broadcasts, which Werner will calculate the location of so the unit can find and kill rebel broadcasters.
Driven to action by Madame Manec’s death, Etienne cuts a false door into the back of the sixth floor wardrobe so he can access his radio transmitter in the attic. He and Marie-Laure put Madame Manec’s resistance plan into action: Marie-Laure goes to the bakery and makes a coded request to Madame Ruelle for a loaf of bread. Baked inside the loaf is a slip of paper with a series of numbers on it, which Etienne reads into his radio transmitter. They repeat this routine every few days for several months. Etienne also takes the risk of broadcasting music occasionally.
When Werner first sees the passing train full of prisoners, he thinks that prisoners are sitting and leaning against piles of sacks. Then he realizes those sacks are human corpses. The sight shocks him, and he incredulously asks Neumann Two if the prisoners are sitting on their dead. Neumann Two simply answers, “Bang. Bang Bang.” In other words, the overwhelming magnitude of death has made it impossible for these prisoners to behave in ways that Werner considers ethical. War destroys the humanity not only of its perpetrators, but also of its victims. These prisoners have been robbed of their free will just like Werner feels robbed of his. Yet Werner also can’t help feeling responsible for the ways in which his actions have unconsciously supported the horror he sees.
Death also has a dramatic impact on Etienne and Marie-Laure but in a very different way: Madame Manec’s death inspires Etienne to take up her cause. He has been living as if his life is predetermined, but he now begins to take responsibility for his own actions by resisting the Germans. Joining the resistance makes him feel hopeful and alive, so much so that he increases his risk even further by broadcasting music once he has read the series of numbers.