“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is a 2006 novel by the Irish author John Boyne. The novel has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide it was the bestselling book of the year in Spain for two years and was number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. The novel tells the story of Bruno, a nine year old boy living in Berlin, Germany in the 1940’s. Bruno’s father is a high-ranking Nazi officer and one day, he moves the family to a house next to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Bruno initially detests the cold, unfriendly house with the community of sad looking people next door. But one day, when he is walking by the fence he meets a boy his age name Shmuel who wears the same striped pajamas as everyone else in the community.
Bruno and Shmuel grow to become friends and Bruno brings Shmuel food everyday. Eventually, Shmuel confesses to Bruno that his father has gone missing within the camp and Bruno decides to sneak in to investigate the disappearance. Shmuel provides him with a set of the striped pajamas and Bruno climbs underneath the fence.
Once inside, he realizes that all of his assumptions about the community were incorrect and that the people inside are being tortured. Before Bruno can escape, he and Shmuel are rounded up with other people and brought to the gas chamber to be killed. No one knows what became of Bruno until his father manages to retrace his steps.
The novel has faced some criticism by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who contests that there were no small children in Auschwitz because if a person could not work, the Nazi’s immediately disposed of them. The novel was adapted into a movie in 2008.
The novel begins in Berlin, Germany in the 1940s. The main character, Bruno is a young boy who comes home one day to find his maid packing his things. His mother tells him that they are moving for his father’s work. When the family arrives at the new house, Bruno is still sullen. He does not like that it is so small and that there are no other boys around to play with. He tries to convince his mother to move back to Berlin, but she scolds him and tells him that they are staying there. Bruno asks his maid what she thinks of the move but she does not want to answer.
Suddenly, a blond soldier walks into the room, nods at Bruno and leaves again. Bruno looks through a window and remarks that he feels “very cold and unsafe” in the new house. Bruno unrealistically wishes they have left his sister, Gretel in Berlin to take care of the old house. He calls her ‘The Hopeless Case’. He talks to Gretel about the new house and she agrees that it is cold and odd. She calls the house ‘Out-With’. She says this means ‘out with’ the former residents of the house.
Bruno tells her that the other children don’t look friendly. She asks him what he means and he takes her to his bedroom window. Through the window, Greta sees “small boys and big boys. Fathers and grandfathers.” She thinks that they are on a farm but Bruno notices that there are no animals or crops in sight. They stare out the window a bit longer and a group of children come out of a hut. The children are shouted at by soldiers. Gretel wonders if they are rehearsing a play. She soon leaves to decorate her room but Bruno continues to look out the window. He realizes that all of the people outside are wearing gray-striped pajamas.
In the next chapter, Bruno remembers when a official looking car with red and black flags took he and his family to the train station. His mother regrets letting ‘the Fury’ come for dinner. Bruno sees large groups of people on the other side of the station. Bruno decides to speak to his father. He confesses that he doesn’t like the new house but his father rebukes him and tells him to follow orders and get used to it. Bruno asks his father about the people outside of the window and his father tells him that they are not people. Before he leaves, his father bids goodbye to him by saying “Heil Hitler” and Bruno repeats it, assuming that it means, ‘good day’.
Bruno talks to the maid, Maria about the house. Maria tells him that his father knows whats best for the family. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot rings through the house. Bruno is frightened until he realizes that it was only his sister slamming her bedroom door. Gretel storms into the room and demands that Maria run her a bath. Bruno asks why she doesn’t just do it herself. Gretel tells Bruno to keeps his thoughts and feelings to himself before he gets their family in trouble. Bruno stomps outside in his anger, but there is nothing for him to do out there.
The next chapter jumps forward a few weeks. Bruno is desperate for entertainment in the barren house. He decides that he is going to make a tire swing. But he needs help, he looks for an adult to ask. Outside, the blonde soldier, whom Bruno learned is named Lieutenant Kotler is the only adult standing around. Bruno does not want to ask him for help, because he finds the man disconcerting, but he does anyway. Kotler calls a man named Pavel, the old man who helps the cook peal vegetables in the kitchen, to fetch a tire from the storage shed. Pavel gets the tire and helps Bruno attach it to the tree. Bruno climbs to the top of the tree and ties the ropes himself.
A few hours later, Bruno is swinging on the tire swing when he falls off and hurts himself. Pavel carries Bruno into the kitchen and bandages the wound on his leg. Bruno wonders if he’ll have to be taken to the hospital but Pavel assures him that it is only a small cut. Pavel admits that he is a doctor and his confuses Bruno, as Pavel works in the kitchens and he can’t imagine a doctor peeling potatoes. Bruno’s mother returns and orders Bruno back to his room when he tries to explain what happened. Before he leaves, Bruno overhears his mother telling Pavel that if the Commandant asks, they will say that she doctored Bruno. Bruno thinks that his mother is trying to unfairly garner praise for something that she didn’t do.
The next chapter contains a flashback to the previous Christmas. Bruno’s father showed off his new uniform and talked about his new position. Everyone congratulates him, except Bruno’s grandmother who says that she is ashamed of him and that seeing him in that uniform makes her want to tear her eyes out. She storms out of the house.
Back in present time, Bruno writes a letter to his grandmother about how much he hates their new house and the people on the other side of the fence. Soon, Bruno’s father decides to hire a tutor for his children. The tutor is named Herr Liszt. Herr Liszt hates reading and art which are Bruno’s favorite subjects. He tells Bruno that he is going to teach him about all of the ways the Jewish people have wronged the Germans.
One day, Bruno sees a bench outside his house and reads the plaque on it. The plaque says “presented on the occasion of the opening of Auschwitz camp, June nineteen forty.” Bruno is not supposed to approach the fence. But on this day, he does so and tries not to think about the trouble he will get into if his mother and father find out.
Bruno walks alongside the fence for a long time. He watches as his house disappears behind the horizon and the smokestacks and huts on the other side of the fence disappear as well. Soon, it seems as though the fence is only separating him from an open field. Bruno grows hungry and starts to turn back but he sees a dot coming closer to him on the other side of the fence. Bruno remembers reading in a book that people who are lost in the desert can hallucinate other people and places and wonders if that is what is happening to him. However, as he gets closer, the dot turns into a blob which turns out to be a boy.
Bruno has been warned against talking to strangers, and is hesitant to talk to the boy but does so anyway. They say hello to each other. Bruno notices that the boy is smaller than him and is wearing the same striped pajamas as the others. He is also wearing an armband with a star on it. Bruno starts talking to the boy and they discover that they were born on the same day, April 15th, 1934. The boy says that his name is Shmuel and Bruno says that he’s never heard that name before. Shmuel says that he’s never heard Bruno’s name either but that there are hundreds of Shmuels on that side of the fence. Shmuel tells Bruno that they are in Poland and Bruno doesn’t believe him. The chapter ends with Bruno asking Shmuel what everyone is doing on that side of the fence.
The next chapter contains another flashback. Bruno’s father now has the title of Commandant, and he tells the family that a person whom Bruno calls ‘The Fury’ (Adolf Hitler) is coming to dinner with his girlfriend. Father lays down a lot of ground rules, and mother rushes to get the house in order, but eventually, The Fury arrives. Bruno notices the man’s tiny mustache and his pretty girlfriend. The Fury talks with him for a short while before he and Bruno’s parents go off to have dinner. After the dinner ends, Bruno overhears his parents talking about moving to Auschwitz. His mother disapproves.
Back in present time, Shmuel tells Bruno that he used to live with his parents in a flat situated above a watch store. His father once gave him a gold watch but the soldiers took it when he arrived at Auschwitz. His mother was also taken away when he was forced to move to Cracow. At the end of their conversation, Bruno decides that he should keep Shmuel a secret from his parents. Bruno and Shmuel begin meeting at the fence daily after this.
Back at the house, Bruno asks Maria is Pavel was telling the truth about being a doctor. She tells him that he used to be and gives Bruno some information about Pavel’s life that is not included in the narration.
That evening the family have dinner with Lieutenant Kotler. Bruno announces that he doesn’t like history and Kotler says that he liked it as a boy. He says that his father was a professor of literature, but he doesn’t know where the man is now because he left Germany years earlier. Bruno innocently asks if Kotler told his superiors that his father left and Kotler gets nervous. Pavel is serving the family and accidentally spills wine on Kotler. Kotler uses the opportunity to do something terrible to Pavel. The narration only reveals that whatever he did made Bruno cry.
The next day when Shmuel comes to see Bruno, he has a black eye. Bruno knows that there are other boys their age in the camp and he assumes that Shmuel got into a fight. Shmuel tells Bruno that the prisoners all wear the striped pajamas because their clothes were taken away from them. One day, when Bruno is kept inside by the rain, he accidentally confesses his meeting with Shmuel to Gretel. He quickly rescinds it, pretending that Shmuel is just his imaginary friend.
As Bruno continues to meet Shmuel, he notices that the boy is getting thinner. Bruno’s father has a birthday party. Bruno’s mother invites the officers. That day, Bruno is surprised to go into the kitchen and find Shmuel polishing glasses. Shmuel tells him that Kotler ordered him to help with the party. Bruno offers Shmuel, some chicken but the boy says that he doesn’t want to be caught eating and get in trouble. Bruno gives him the chicken anyway. Just when Shmuel is eating it, Kotler happens to come in. Kotler starts yelling at him, and Shmuel confesses that Bruno gave him the food.
Bruno is so scared that he claims not to know Shmuel. Kotler leads Bruno away and tells him to leave Shmuel to do his work. Bruno is so ashamed of himself that he cannot speak. Bruno goes back to the fence to wait for Shmuel but he does not appear. For seven days, Bruno waits faithfully and Shmuel is nowhere to be seen. Finally, the boy returns but he has obviously been beaten and has bruises all over his face. Bruno apologizes desperately and Shmuel forgives him. Shmuel lifts the bottom of the fence up and reaches his hand out. Bruno shakes it. It is the first time the boys have ever touched.
Almost a full year has passed since Bruno’s family left Berlin and he barely remembers the city now. When Bruno’s grandmother dies, the family go back to the funeral. Bruno is relieved when he returns home because he finds it more comforting now that he is familiar with it. One day, Bruno asks Gretel why the fence beside the house is there. She says it’s to keep the Jews locked up. Bruno is confused, he has heard the word “Jew” before but never knew it’s meaning. He doesn’t understand what makes the Jews different from them. He asks Gretel if they are Jews, too and she tells him that they are the opposite of Jews.
Before Bruno can get any more answers, his sister suddenly lets out a piercing scream. Their mother is woken up from a nap and rushes into the room. Gretel has realized that there are tiny lice eggs in her hair. Mother searches Bruno’s hair and finds more lice. She is furious and grumbles that she knew something like this would happen “in a place like this.” Gretel and Bruno have to be treated with a special shampoo. Gretel cries for hours in her room. Father decides that it’s best for Bruno if his hair is just shaved completely off. Bruno cries as well, but after it is done he is surprised to realize that he looks just like Shmuel with a shaved head.
Bruno’s mother grows more and more unhappy with living next to Auschwitz. Bruno admits that when he first arrived, he hated the house but now that he has met Shmuel he loves it. But Mother doesn’t have a Shmuel to make her enjoy the house. She wants to go back to Berlin. Father tries to make her see that a move like that will make his superior offices questions his loyalty.
For a few weeks, things stay the same and Bruno continues to meet with Shmuel by the fence. The mother spends her time taking naps and drinking sherry. One day, Father asks Gretel and Bruno if they want to go back to Berlin. Bruno only says that he wants them all to be together. Father decides that they will move back within the week.
Bruno is upset that he will have to say goodbye to Shmuel. But the confession is waylaid when, the next time Bruno sees his friend, Shmuel admits that he cannot find his father. Bruno decides that he will dress up in the striped pajamas so that he can go under the fence and help Shmuel find his father.
The next day, Shmuel brings Bruno the striped pajamas and lifts up the fence so that he can crawl under. When Bruno sees the inside of Auschwitz, he is appalled. He had innocently assumed that it would be something of a small town but inside everyone is sad and soldiers stand around with guns. All of the prisoners are rail thin with sunken eyes. Bruno wants to leave, but Shmuel reminds him that he promised to help him look for his father.
The boys looks for Shmuel’s father for a while with no luck. Just as Bruno is about to leave, he and Shmuel are rounded up with a bunch of other prisoners. Shmuel tells him that the soldiers sometimes force them to go on marches but he’s never seen the prisoners return from one. Bruno is not worried until they are led to a long, warm chamber. Suddenly the door closes and the lights are shut off. Bruno takes Shmuel’s hand and tells him that he is his best friend. Bruno says that in all the chaos that followed, he still held onto Shmuel’s hand and that nothing in the world would have made him let go.
The last chapter begins several days later. Bruno has been missing for days, and the soldiers search the house and eventually, the whole town for him. All they find are his clothes by the fence. Bruno’s mother goes back to Berlin to see if he somehow made it there and Gretel goes as well. Bruno’s father stays in the house for a year by himself. Eventually, he decides to retrace Bruno’s steps. He finally realizes what happened and collapses on the ground. Months later, the allies come to Auschwitz. They order Father to come with them.
Bruno – the main character of the book. Bruno is a precocious but somewhat naive child in Germany in the 1940’s. Bruno’s father is very high up in the Nazi chain of command. When Bruno is forced to move to Auschwitz, he initially hates it, but later starts to love the house when he meets his friend, Shmuel. Though Bruno’s father is a Nazi, he does not seem to know much about what is going on with the war or bear any particular hatred toward the Jewish people.
Many instances throughout the novel, Bruno hears the word “Jew” spoken in hatred but he does not know what the word means, and his confusion is reproduced in the text by the narration leaving the word out and simply describing it’s usage. When Bruno meets Shmuel, he assumes that the boy lives in some private community and that he has the same benign everyday struggles as himself.
Bruno retains his ignorance until he sneaks into Auschwitz and sees for himself how bad things are in the camp. His sinking sense of dread as he explores the camp is obvious. Bruno’s childlike naivete eventually gets him killed as he and Shmuel are brought to a gas chamber at the end of the novel.
Shmuel – the Jewish boy that befriends Bruno. The differences between Bruno and Shmuel’s lives and concerns are enormous. Though Shmuel’s perspective is never fully explored, it is obvious from Bruno’s descriptions of him that he is starving and often beaten by the soldiers. Shmuel and Bruno’s innocent friendship is a testament to goodness. Though Shmuel could just as easily be tolerating Bruno because the boy brings him food, it is obvious that he loves Bruno and enjoys talking to someone his own age. When Shmuel’s father goes missing, he allows Bruno to sneak into Auschwitz without considering the consequences of getting him back out. He and Bruno are killed in a gas chamber while holding hands.
Bruno’s father – though he is never given a name in the text, Bruno’s father is a major character throughout the novel. A high-ranking Nazi officer, his character is very sinister and secretive throughout the book. Bruno’s father often treats Bruno with indifference and annoyance. Bruno is not allowed to go into his father’s office, and when he does at the beginning of the novel, his father quickly dismisses him.
Through flashbacks, it is revealed that Bruno’s grandmother does not approve of her son’s job and seeing him in his Nazi uniform makes her want to scratch her eyes out. After Bruno disappears, his father retraces his steps and finds out what happened to him. He is soon taken away by Allied soldiers, but the knowledge that his son died the same way thousands of Jewish people died under his watch is the true punishment.
John Boyne Biography
John Boyne was born in Dublin, Ireland on April 30th, 1971. As a young man, he attended Trinity College in Dublin and studied English Literature and later, at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, studied creative writing. While at East Anglia, he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize for writing.
His first novel, “The Thief of Time” was published in 2000. Boyne has published both adult and young adult novels almost every year since the year 2000. In 2006, he published his most famous work, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” which was adapted into a feature film two years later. The novel was also a New York Times Bestseller.
In 2012, Boyne was presented with the Hennessy Literary ‘Hall of Fame’ award. In addition to this, he holds three Irish Book Awards for his young adult novels, People’s Choice Book of the Year, Short Story of the Year, the Gustav Heinemann Peace Prize and the Que Leer Award for Novel of the Year. He was also awarded and Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the East Anglia.
Boyne currently reviews books for The Irish Times and lives in Dublin. Some of his novels include: “The Congress of Rough Riders” (2001), “Crippen” (2004), “Next of Kin” (2006), “Mutiny: A Novel of the Bounty” (2008), “The House of Special Purpose” (2009), “The Absolutist” (2011), “The House is Haunted” (2013), “A History of Loneliness” (2014), “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2016).