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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: A moving look at the horrors of Auschwitz through the eyes of an innocent young German boy, the son of the camp commandant. No explicit violence but the final moments are quite tragic. May be suitable for younger readers in company with an older reader who can explain what's happening if needed.

Cover of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author: John Boyne

Publisher: David Fickling

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: WWII

Setting: Auschwitz

Genres:  FriendshipGrowing-UpHistoricalMoral IssueThought-provokingWar


Characters:

  • Bruno is the 9-year-old son of the camp commandant at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Innocent of the world around him, he merely sees a community of people isolated by a wire fence, all wearing the same striped pyjamas. Right to the end, he offers Shmuel a simple trusting friendship.
  • Shmuel is a young Polish Jew, imprisoned with his family in Auschwitz. More aware of the world around him (necessarily since he and his family have been taken from their Polish village and treated like subhumans in a concentration camp) he nonetheless reciprocates Bruno's simple friendship.
  • Gretel is Bruno's 12-year-old sister, more aware than Bruno of the nature of the camp overlooked by their new house. However she's swayed by the explanations of her parents and of the handsome young Lieutenant that the camp's inmates are less human than them.

Synopsis:

Young Bruno is upset when his family is uprooted from their comfortable Berlin townhouse and forced to live in the featureless Outwith at the insistence of his soldier father's chief The Fury. Throughout the months they spend there, Bruno applies his innocent logic to his dealings with the bullying young lieutenant, the elderly servant who's no longer a doctor, and in particular with Shmuel, a boy his own age who lives on the other side of the big metal fence and who wears the same striped pyjamas as the others over there. His sister, three years older, is more knowledgeable but accepts her parents' view that those on the other side of the fence are somehow not to be treated as human. Right until the tragic ending, however, Bruno innocently accepts Shmuel as he would any other boy in his neighbourhood.

Notes:

My initial reaction to the opening pages of this book was: does the world need another Holocaust-based story for youngsters? The reviewer has always to be conscious that what might seem commonplace and formulaic to him might be the reader's own introduction to a particular genre. But, even so, it's impossible to believe that any English-speaking boy or girl is ignorant of the horrific events of the middle of the 20th Century which saw however many millions of people imprisoned, abused and ultimately killed or left to die. However, it's one thing for someone to be acquainted with the facts of the matter by means of history text books or reconstruction documentaries; it's quite another for them to see those events through another set of eyes.

And it's another set of eyes which this book provides: the 9-year-old eyes of Bruno, the ingenuous son of the newly-appointed camp commandant. Right up to the end of the book, Bruno simply believes that his father is a splendid figure with an interesting armband device which mirrors the star device which his friend Shmuel wears. He rather envies the people over the fence their striped pyjamas in contrast to his more uncomfortable clothes. He thinks it strange that their elderly servant would give up being a doctor to come and chop vegetables for his family. And while he dislikes the young bullying Lieutentant who sets his sister flirting, he realises that his mother is much happier when the young officer is around and is surprised when the Lieutenant is sent away after a big row between his parents.

Bruno operates at the level of a small boy but he has a well-defined code of behaviour and of honour. His upbringing in Berlin has left him knowing that certain things — interrupting his mother, entering his father's study and calling people “stupid” — are entirely forbidden although not everyone seems to observe these rules as well as he does. But he's willing to overcome his training when he feels it's really necessary. After he takes a spill from a rope swing which he's built by himself, Bruno forms a secret bond with the elderly servant who waits on his family and discovers that he was a doctor. He's subsequently horrified by the actions of the arrogant young Lieutenant when this servant accidentally drops the wine he's pouring. And he's appalled at himself when he lies about Shmuel to save himself. It's a mark of the quality of each of the boys that, when they next meet, Bruno apologises fulsomely and Shmuel accepts the apology gracefully in spite of what he endured as a result of Bruno's actions.

Gretel, equally ignorant at first, slowly comes to understand the difference between their family and the people over the fence, but accepts her parents' explanation that these are not nice people, inhumans in fact. Bruno, even when she explains this to him, never really understands what she means, taking her to mean that “Jewish” simply means “different from us”.

At one level it might seem incredible that a boy nine years old could be so naive about the world around him, but I think two things must be borne in mind. One is that Bruno is growing up in an age when children are much more sheltered than they are now, for better or for worse, and when communications are much more limited so that their only view of the world would have come through parents and through friends who probably received it in turn from their parents. (Of course, it's been noted that many adult Germans of the period refused to believe that camps such as Auschwitz could have existed). But in addition, the story teller needs a point of view character who's old enough to be outgoing and independent, and young enough to be the unknowing lens through which we see the true picture.

While Bruno is our third-person point-of-view character, the last chapter is not told from his point of view. Bruno's father has been a fairly distant figure throughout, eager to rise in the military by acceding to the demands of the Fuhrer (whom we mistrust implictly because of the poor impression he creates on Bruno when he comes to dinner). He seems wholly indifferent to the plight of the prisoners in the camp he commands and fails to explain to his son's satisfaction the situation they're in. When tragedy strikes, his figure is diminished and made far more human, a final warning perhaps that no matter how much we may view history in terms of national movements and societal shifts it is individual men and women, boys and girls, who are the heart of every human endeavour for better or for worse.

Ultimately I find that this book does have a place on the bookshelf of Holocaust literature, combining as it does a German point of view who is nonetheless trusting of his parents, of his friends and of the world around him, yet whose trust is ultimately if unwittingly betrayed by those very people.

Themes:

  • The actions of of the Nazi regime
  • The extent to which Germans believed in what was being done to the Jews

Friday 4th July 2008