Berlin, 1942 : When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a harrowing Holocaust story with an excruciating ending. It is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, whose family moves from Berlin after his father gets a promotion to Commandant. When the family arrives at their new home, Bruno is disheartened. The new place, which the boy calls “Out-With,” is desolate, with a large “camp” on the other side of a big fence, behind which all of the people, except the soldiers, wear gray-striped pajamas. After starting classes with a tutor, who advocates history over art, Bruno explores his new surroundings and meets Shmuel who is living in the fenced-in area. Bruno never quite grasps why his new friend is behind the fence, but he knows that he should keep quiet about their visits. Only mature listeners with knowledge of World War II and Hitler’s “final solution” will be able to interpret what the author unveils slowly (there is no mention of a war going on or the ability to get news from the radio or newspapers). Still, the novel will certainly augment the study of this period in history.
After more than a year, Bruno’s mother wants to move back to Berlin with the kids. Bruno’s not as happy as he thought he’d be about this idea, though, and dreads breaking the news to Shmuel. However, as it turns out, Shmuel has bigger fish to fry: His dad’s gone missing. The boys hatch a plan for Bruno to dress up in pajamas and help Shmuel find his dad before he leaves Auschwitz on Saturday. The next day, Friday, Bruno goes to the fence.
He changes into his striped pajamas, leaves his things on his side and crawls under the fence. The two boys walk toward the camp and Bruno realizes that things are very bad on Shmuel’s side. Bruno wants to go home, but he’s promised Shmuel he’ll help, and as a loyal friend, he stays. Unfortunately, though, they don’t find Shmuel’s father.
Just as Bruno is about to head home, the boys are surrounded by soldiers and forced to march. They’re led to a gas chamber (neither boy realizes this), and once inside, they hold hands. The lights go off, chaos ensues, and we, unfortunately, know that the end of their story is not going to be happy.
The children in the novel are severely repressed. Shmuel for obvious reasons in the camp, but for Bruno it is a repression of communication. There is a silence in the house, a clear ‘children should be seen and not heard’ culture which was prevalent then. Bruno’s communication with his father is sporadic and often curtailed for one reason or another. We can again link this to how the holocaust could not be explained in rational ways, because Bruno’s father is seen to avoid/ dodge the questions of his son. In a cast that is so heavily made up with male characters, there is a sense of imbalance which is again mirrored in the unfair imbalance of power during this time. The questioning of the Holocaust, or the attempt to break down barriers of communication come from the female characters. They are more divulgent, yet again, they are repressed. The Holocaust was a ‘man-made’ event, with emphasis on ‘man’, hence lack of feminine values and a feeling of absence or one-sidedness in the narrative.
Bruno’s father in some ways resembles the real-life Franz Stangl, the Austrian policeman turned camp commander who stayed devoted to his wife and children while supervising the deaths of 900,000 inmates at Treblinka. As described in Gita Sereny’s superb Into that Darkness, Stangl was a good family man, merely getting on with a job. Bruno’s father, although also fond of his children, is a more obviously flawed figure.
As much a parable as a realistic story, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is principally concerned with telling its tale, leaving the subtleties of how outsize evil can co-exist with domestic tranquillity for another day. Bruno, too, is more innocent than seems likely, oblivious to the truth of what he witnesses. Is he that gullible, or fooling himself? John Boyne, who has written previously only for adults, never goes into such issues.