The Boy In The Striped Pajamas- A Book Review
Summary of The Plot
The story is set in Europe during WWII. The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy named Bruno, and the story is told via his perspective. Bruno is born into a very well-made family in Berlin, with his father holding an extremely high position in the German government. Bruno also has a twelve-year-old sister named Gretel, and a maid named Maria.
The story unfolds when the family moves to a house near Auschwitz in Poland due to his father’s new promotion to Commandant issued by Hitler himself. Bruno was very lonely in this new location, as there were no children to play around with, so he resorted to exploring the nearby areas. Through his expedition, he discovered a boy named Shmuel who was separated from him by a fence. Bruno, being only 9, was extremely naive, and thought that the opposite of that fence might have been a big park filled with happy families. Shmuel and Bruno soon became good friends, and Bruno spent most of his afternoons with his new friend. Close to a year later, Bruno’s mother informed Bruno that they would move back to Berlin. When Bruno was about to break this dreadful news to Shmuel, Shmuel informed Bruno that his dad is missing. Bruno decided to help Shmuel find his dad, and hatched up a plan: he would wear the same clothes as Shmuel and sneak under the fence to look for Shmuel’s dad with him. The next day, Shmuel brought him the ‘striped pajamas’. Bruno changed into them and went under the fence. Upon arriving inside, Bruno discovered that Auschwitz was nothing like his imagination: everyone is thin and sickly, and looks rather sad. After searching for a while, Bruno and Shmuel were forced to march into a ‘shower room’ (a.k.a. A poison gas room) by soldiers. The ‘shower room’ then turned dark, and Bruno held Shmuel’s hand through the chaos, dying with together with him.
After Bruno’s disappearance, soldiers searched everywhere for him but to no avail. All they could find of him was his clothes left on his side of the fence. Bruno’s mother, instead of returning to Berlin as she had planned, stayed there for months waiting for news related to Bruno. One day, she suddenly had an idea that Bruno might be waiting for her in their house in Berlin, and went there as soon as possible. Sadly, she didn’t find her son waiting for her on the stairs of their house as she had wished. Bruno’s father, however, remained in Auschwitz. One day, when sitting on the spot Bruno’s clothes were found, he noticed that there was a little hole under the fence where a small child could have crawled under, and realized what had happened to his son. Bruno’s father was soon taken away by the American soldiers/Alliance, when they arrived in Poland to rescue the Jews, thus ending the story.
I have read/watched many books and movies regarding the Holocaust. This book, however, offered a brand new point of view on this whole event. This book has a general light setting compared to others, and tells the story in a very innocent perspective. We rarely see the author depicting horrible things such common in concentration camps such as starvation, disease, and death. The book also censored many parts of violence, such as the beating of the Jews. Despite all this censorship, this book still packs a powerful punch. It was able to make the reader ask themselves this question, ‘What is the human nature?’. Censorship in this book also helps expand the book to perhaps a younger audience, and can help educate even small kids on the terrors of WWII without prematurely exposing them to too much bloodshed.
Bruno tells the story from the perspective of a child, he doesn’t know what Auschwitz is, calling it ‘out-with’, and even calls the Fuhrer (a.k.a Hitler) ‘Fury’. He also thinks that the prison uniform was simply ‘striped pajamas’ like the ones he has. It is from this child’s perspective that we are able to view things differently, shedding away the many prejudices or misconceptions we might have gained as we grew older, and start seeing things the way we should have viewed them from the very start.
I believe by giving the Bruno and Shmuel the same birthday, the author was trying to illustrate how two identical people can wind up in polar opposite situations because of the labels people attached to them. Since Shmuel was a Jew, he was labeled as ‘not-a-person’ as said so by Bruno’s father; because he was a Jew, he deserved to have everything he owned and so loved taken away from him; because he was a Jew, it was perfecting fine to deprive a small child of his mother and father; because he was a Jew, he deserved to starve and eventually die despite being only 9. Why was he deserving of all those things simply because he was a Jew? Why is it that when they see this little boy they don’t see a human being, but rather a bullseye with the words ‘JEW’ slashed over it? Bruno never understood why, and neither should we. We only absorb these misconceptions when we hear the enough people say it. Even Bruno said that Germany was the superior country despite him feeling it wasn’t right, just because he had heard enough people say it.
The book answered the question ‘what is the human nature?’. The human nature is tied with deception. Deception of others and of ourselves. Did not even a single Nazi general think what they were doing were unethical? I think not. They simply pushed away that doubt and replaced it with the lie that ‘Jews are not people’ just like what Bruno’s father was seen doing in this book. Even I lie to myself sometimes. Sometimes when I fail to reach a goal, I say to myself it is because I set the bar too high, but deep down a little part of me know that it is because I did not give my best. Why do we lie to ourselves? By self-justifying, we can escape the guilty conscious. We can see ourselves as great again, and not as the imperfect human beings we are. This book taught me that self-justification can cause so much harm, and that perhaps I should be more careful when giving myself a reason for doing something that doesn’t feel quite right.
Throughout the book, we constantly see people who thought that the genocide was wrong, but failed to take actions against it. Bruno’s mom thought it was wrong, yet she didn’t do anything. She simply packed her bags, and left for Berlin. This book made me realize that not the entire Germany had agreed with what Hitler was doing, they simply didn’t bother to oppose it. It also made me realize that the entire Holocaust would not have had such a severe effect, if everyone who thought it was horrible did a thing or two about it.
The protagonist is Bruno, a nine year old boy from Berlin who came from a prestigious family. He is illustrated as extremely naive, perhaps thanks to the peaceful and easy life he had been brought up in. (An example could be him seemingly unaware of a huge death camp next to his house.) His naive nature is perfectly used to contrast the wicked hearts of man. The author used his pureness to show how some actions we consider to be normal- war, discrimination, and racial superiority- is absolutely absurd. Although Bruno is naive, he has a good heart. He always brings foods to share with Shmuel, treats his Jewish servants as equals, and has compassion for those Jews abused by the Germans. A great thing the author was able to do with this character, was that he was able to make him a child, and not as a perfect little angel. Bruno also had moments of weaknesses common to his age. When Shmuel came over to clean the glassware, Bruno offered him some chicken, only to deny it when interrogated by a German Lieutenant named Kotler. Afraid that he would take the blame for allowing the Jew to have some chicken, Bruno said that he did not know Shmuel, leading to Kotler being furious towards Shmuel. In the end, Bruno was able to prove himself a hero, by showing courage when he offered to help Shmuel to find his dad. All in all, Bruno is just a classic 9-year old boy (a good one, that is), he is kind, compassionate, and although he has his little faults, he was able to overcompensate for it with his courage.
Shmuel is also a major character in the story, but despite this, Shmuel doesn’t really have a character to him. He is mostly used as a prop to contrast the lives of the Jews and the Germans. Although he is the same age as Bruno, Shmuel is much more mature. Shmuel is a great friend, as well as a great listener. He easily forgives Bruno after the chicken incident, and doesn’t really blame him at all. The only slight complaint I have for his character is that his story line is too unrealistic. It is absolutely impossible for a prisoner in Auschwitz to have an hour of free time each day to talk with his little friends, and much less the possibility of him talking to his friends without the Nazi guards noticing.
Bruno’s father, although he did not receive that many descriptions, plays a big role in this story. He illustrates the classic Nazi, unfeeling, distant, and narcissistic. I believe that deep down he knows that his work is not right, or even cruel, which is why whenever he is asked by Bruno what the concentration camp is, he gives no response. Him not telling his son about the concentration camps would eventually lead to Bruno’s demise when he unknowingly walked inside a gas chamber. He always tries to convince himself that what he was doing was righteous, since ‘Jews are not people’ but I think that is just a lie to convince himself. If he had really disregarded the Jews, he would have more than happily shared with his son the proud works he is doing, and how he is making Germany a better country. When he discovered how Bruno died at the end of the book, he lost all reason to live, which is very ironic. If he had ever put himself in the shoes of the thousands of Jewish families he had destroyed, he would have been the strongest opposer of Hitler. His self-deception and self-centeredness make him the perfect representative for all those who had supported Hitler during WWII, especially of the German people who had simply turned a blind eye or pretended to be ignorant to the horrific acts happening inside the concentration camps.
Bruno’s mother represents the majority of people of her time- those who knew something was wrong with the genocide of the Jews, yet did nothing to help them. The most she has done was pack her little bags, and decided to move far away from the concentration camp. Afterall, it is easier to avoid the guilt when you are thousands of miles apart from the source of evil. We can see that although she knows perfectly fine the line between wrong and right, all she had cared about is saving her own skin. Much like the many other countries who had known about Hitler’s wrongdoings, yet chose to ignore them. America knew all about the mass genocide, they just chose to ignore it. Why bother? They are not our own people. They only acted against it, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan, the alliance of Germany. We always hold Hitler responsible for what happened during WWII, but think about it, can the rest of the world really escape the blame?