‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ A Must‑Read For Learning About The Holocaust
Note to our readers: This is our first book review by a kid writer — the book’s intended audience. It makes sense: book reviews of stories for kids, written by kids.
When a teacher first recommended I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, to learn more about the Holocaust and its impact on history, I was reluctant. I was aware that this was an exceptionally dark period in history when millions of people were displaced from their homes and forever lost and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read more about it. But my teacher insisted, and I am glad she did.
The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is a fictional story for kids set against the backdrop of the Holocaust. It is a story of that terrible time told through the eyes of Bruno, an innocent 8-year-old German boy, who is oblivious to the horror going on around him.
Bruno — one of the two protagonists in the story — is distraught about having to leave Berlin and his school friends for “Out-with” (the reader assumes here that Bruno is referring to Aushwitz, but is unable to pronounce it), where he will live with his parents and older sister. Bruno’s father, a senior Gestapo officer who is viewed favorably by “The Fury” (again a simplification in Bruno’s eyes of Adolph Hitler’s title “The Fuhrer”), has been promoted to manage a concentration camp.
Bruno and his family arrive at their isolated home in Out-with, where there are no other children for Bruno to befriend. An extremely strict teacher tutors him and his sister at home, and Bruno spends hours staring out of his room’s window at a long, barbed fence with nothing beyond it. One day, from another window in his new house, he notices a few people on the other side of the fence. They are strange-looking; all sport shaved heads and the same clothes.
Excited to have some company at last, Bruno goes for a walk along the barbed fence and meets a boy named Shmuel. Bruno firsts laughs at Shmuel, as it appears that Shmuel has still not changed out of his pyjamas. But as they talk, the story unfolds. They discover the many similarities they have – the boys share a birthday and have both unwillingly left their schools and friends behind to come to Out-with — but they also discover differences. While Bruno, who lives on one side of the fence, has supper and a warm bed every night, Shmuel, who lives on the other side, has been separated from his mother and is in Out-with with only his father, who used to be a watchmaker when they lived in Poland. The boys’ secret friendship continues and grows as they meet every day, separated by the fence, to share stories of the past and hopes for the future.
To say anything more about the end other than it is shocking would be to give away the plot.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an emotional story for kids told from the eyes of children who saw no difference in each other. Unburdened by the distinctions created by adults, the children form their own relationship. But while they have so much in common, during World War II, their destinies could not be more different.
I found the book to be moving and thought-provoking, but I have some criticism. I wonder how oblivious Bruno can really be to the horrors that are taking place outside his home. And — if he isn’t oblivious — why does he feel the need to keep his friendship with Shmuel a secret? These characters are just a few years younger than I am now, and their friendship is touching. To know that they saw and, in the case of Shmuel, even endured the atrocities was heart-wrenchingly sad.
One of my favorite characters in the book was Bruno’s grandmother. She is the only one who is courageous enough to tell her son (a Gestapo General) that she is ashamed of the person he has become. The cruelties committed against the Jews in the name of nationalism were heart-breaking, and unfortunately, the voices that stood up to them were too small.