The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is about 9-year-old Bruno, who ends up moving next to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp due to his father’s work. There, he befriends another 9-year-old boy named Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence.
Well you’ve been brought here against your will, just like I have. If you ask me, we’re all in the same boat. And it’s leaking.
It is a fable, so it is short and succinct but I wouldn’t say it’s a children’s book. The topic of concentration camps aside, it takes at least a young adult with a background on Nazi Germany to really understand the contents of the story. Boyne writes from a 3rd person point of view, but that 3rd person still has the eyes and capacity of a 9-year-old. The word “Auschwitz” is never actually mentioned, instead it is mispronounced as “Out-with”. The Führer is written as “The Fury”. Scenes of disagreements and predictable deaths or exiles are not dismissed fully, but dismissed nonetheless as simple everyday reasons. And although Bruno receives information from both sides, he never actually understands the world around him.
Maybe it is just because he is 9-years-old, but the idea that his innocence is untainted through the entire story makes me see him as an ignorant boy.
Shmuel vs. Bruno
It is no question Boyne uses Shmuel to directly contrast to Bruno. Both boys are of the same age with the same birthday, yet in completely opposite circumstances. Even though Bruno converses with Shmuel for an entire year, the conversations never seem to sink in on him. To be fair, Shmuel does not exactly tell Bruno everything that happens inside the camp (he himself is not very sure where people disappear off to), but he continuously lets Bruno know that it is not a good place to be. Yet, Bruno still believes that the camp is some happy tribe where people live in huts and elders tell stories to the children. Each time Shmuel tells him about something bad that happened to him inside the camp, Bruno responds back with what he believes to be an equally bad event in his life. Needless to say, Bruno’s “bad” life-events pale in comparison to the struggles Shmuel has to go through.
Not trying to say Bruno is stuck-up and arrogant, but he is quite immersed in his own little world.
“It’s so unfair, I don’t see why I have to be stuck over here on this side of the fence where there’s no one to talk to and no one to play with and you get to have dozens of friends are probably playing for hours every day, I’ll have to speak to Father about it.”
Bruno’s father is the Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. While he is known to be a kind person in the beginning of the book, it feels as if he was successfully brainwashed by Nazi propaganda in the end. Bruno admires his father and wants to become a ‘good soldier’ like him. I understand many children grow up thinking father is the head honcho, the superman who will come to save you and the one who is always right. Even when he hears arguments between his grandmother and his father, Bruno believes his father is a good person until the end.
“Those people… well, they’re not people at all, Bruno”
Gretel is Bruno’s older sister and she is around the age of 12-13. Unlike Bruno, who has a secret friend, Gretel is left alone in the house. She ends up becoming very fascinated in history and geography. She throws away her dolls and begins to add pins on a map (most likely following the German expansion and the unfolding of WWII). She is observed to be disturbed by the actions of the soldiers, but it does not stop her from following her crush on Lieutenant Kotler, an 18-year-old Aryan soldier. Gretel is quite an interesting character as well, since she is of age to enter the League of Young Girls, a branch of Hitler Youth. However, the book never mentions this and I find it odd that a German girl who becomes so interested in “the motherland” never ends up joining it. She certainly seemed to hold Nazi values, when she tried to explain to Bruno the differences between a Jew and a non-Jew. Evidently though, she did not have a very sound explanation, leading me to wonder whether she really believed in those values or not.
“Heil Hitler,” he said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.”
The ‘disappearance’ of Bruno
Bruno sneaks into the concentration camp to help Shmuel find his father. In the end, he and Shmuel are both marched into a gas chamber and dies. It is quite unfortunate, as Bruno was very close to escaping back to Berlin with his mother and sister, but his friendship with Shmuel ultimately causes him the end of his life. There is no information on whether Bruno blames Shmuel for his early death or not. In the last moments of his life, Bruno holds Shmuel’s hands, and Boyne writes that nothing in the world would make him let go.
How very innocent.
Bruno’s untainted innocence is his charm. At the same time, it is also what showcases the blatant cruelty that was willfully ignored during this period of time. Bruno’s innocence makes us realize the darkness within ourselves.