Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Oxford University Press (January 5, 2006)
Setting: The story is set in WWII – Auschwitz Concentration Camp, also known as “Out-With” in the text.
Main Characters: Bruno, Shmuel, Gretel and Father
Summary: Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy who happens to be the son of a high-ranking officer and the right-hand man of Adolf Hitler. Having displayed exemplary work for Hitler, Bruno’s father is promoted to Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the entire family leaves Berlin. Bruno is upset about the move as he no longer has the opportunity to hang out with his friends. At Auschwitz, he is home-schooled with his sister, Gretel, and basically has no playmate. However, he notices that there is a compound near his house with “boys, fathers and grandfathers” all dressed in the same “pair of grey striped pyjamas and grey striped cap” – he often wonders who those people are but no one would tell him.
One day, he decides to explore the compound and befriends a prisoner named Shmuel, who coincidentally has the same birthday as him, and is of the same age. Somehow, Bruno is cautious about revealing his “friend” to anyone in the family and keeps it a secret. After several meetings with Shmuel, he finds out that Shmuel’s father and grandfather were both taken on a “march” and never returned. Out of sympathy, Bruno decides to help Shmuel find his father and does this by changing into a pair of “grey striped pyjamas and grey striped cap” that Shmuel lends him, and crawls under the fence into the concentration camp. As Bruno had shaved his head bald to get rid of lice in his hair, he looked just like every other boy in the camp and no one could tell that he didn’t belong there. Little did he know that he would be “selected” for the “march” and sent to the gas chambers. The twist in this ending leaves Bruno’s father in wonder – where was Bruno? He finally forms a theory on what could have happened and decides to investigate the matter. He eventually confirms his theory but all is too late.
Review: Set in WWII, this story is told from the protagonist’s point of view and supplemented with dialogues in various sections of each chapter. The character Shmuel plays a huge role in this story, as his introduction as Bruno’s only friend in Auschwitz is an unsolved mystery that is inextricably linked to an innocent friendship: (1) despite the fact that Bruno’s father is the commandant of the camp and that Shmuel is his friend, he never actually learns what really goes on at Auschwitz and why life on Shmuel’s side is so different from his; (2) Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship is built on the innocence of two nine-year-olds, with little clue of the larger context.
Shmuel is introduced in chapter ten, after Bruno sets off to explore the land in hope of finding something that might interest him and occupy his time. Their first meeting sparks off a discussion initiated by Bruno about Germany being the “greatest of all countries” and “superior” – an effect of propaganda. Being brought up in a home where his father and grandfather often spoke of Germany’s power influenced Bruno to think the same, not knowing that his father and Hitler were involved in the annihilation of the Jews. In addition, Bruno could not speak any other language except German, clearly an effect of the education system in Germany at that point of time, an opposite of the sort of education Schmuel received in Poland, where he could speak multiple languages including German. Bruno also mentions to Schmuel that he wants to be a soldier like his father when he grows up because in his eyes, his father is a good soldier who wears an “impressive uniform” and has been selected by the “Fury” to do big things. On this subject, Schmuel is unimpressed and repeats that there is no such thing as good soldiers but Bruno disagrees because he firmly believes that his father is an exemplary soldier. In chapter eighteen, Bruno further reinforces that his father is “very knowledgeable about life on that side of the fence” and suggests that he could ask his father about Shmuel’s father’s whereabouts. When Shmuel rejects his offer, Bruno is disappointed and even reiterates that the soldiers “don’t hate you [Shmuel]”. Clearly, Bruno is defensive in rebutting Schmuel’s claims that there are no good soldiers, which shows that Bruno is loyal to his father – and his country.
Another incident which illustrates Bruno’s loyalty to his country and disloyalty to Schmuel as a friend is the day Schmuel appeared in Bruno’s home after being handpicked by Lieutenant Kotler to polish some glasses. Bruno offers some food to Schmuel not realising that he is not supposed to be friends with Schmuel to begin with, but denies having any relations with Schmuel when questioned by Lietunant Kotler. The manner in which Lieutenant Kotler questions Bruno terrifies him and compels him to deny his friendship with Schmuel rather than create chaos for himself. In doing so, he displays self-interest, putting himself (underlying context: his country) above others. Clearly, his action is a result of the propagandistic and dictatorial system that he has been brought up in – to disassociate a “superior” race like his from anyone who is of a “lower” race.
Despite being disloyal to his friend, Bruno offers to make up for it by volunteering to help Schmuel find his father who “disappeared” after going on a “march”. He continues with the mission even after noticing that camp is filled many unhappy people wearing the same striped pyjamas (even though he expresses interest in heading home, he stays on to help Schmuel anyway). This illustrates the innocence of a nine-year-old boy, who perceives friendship as something that is fluid, and that one’s actions can be easily forgiven and forgotten by making up for past mistakes. At the end of the story, Bruno declares to Shmuel that he is his “best friend for life” and in the midst of the darkness in the gas chamber, Bruno holds on tightly to Shmuel’s hand in his own and “nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let it go”. This exemplifies how much Bruno regards Shmuel as a friend and companion – Shmuel was his pillar of strength and comfort in a moment of uncertainty and fear.
The character Pavel also plays a unique role in this story – a Jewish inmate at the camp who used to be a doctor but now peels vegetables for Bruno’s family. His first close encounter with Pavel takes place when Pavel attends to him after he falls off a swing, though he later learns that his mother took credit for dressing his wound. He asks Maria, his housemaid, to explain why Pavel who used to be a doctor has been relegated to a waiter for his household, but he never quite grasps the idea of the Jews being subject to the Germans’ rule over them. The climax of Pavel’s character in the story takes place when he accidentally spills wine on Lieutenant Kotler’s lap after losing grip of the wine bottle. That night, Bruno went to bed thinking about what happened and why no one, not even his father, stopped Lieutenant Kotler from abusing Pavel. He later concluded that if the punishment for disobeying any kind of orders was so severe, then he would rather not create any chaos at all; and this element of fear explains why Bruno never dared to tell anyone about Schmuel. The way in which the military ruled over the people affected Bruno’s way of understanding how one would usually be punished for disobeying any rules, reinforcing the authoritarian state that Bruno grew up in.
The series of events outlined above show how the themes of propaganda, innocence and friendship are intertwined in the context of Bruno and Schmuel’s relationship, and further elaborated by Pavel’s character in the story. The theme of loyalty and patriotism is also portrayed by Bruno’s father, whose loyalty to Hitler and the country results in him neglecting Bruno’s needs, who initially pleaded to return to Berlin, only to have his request thrown out of the window. In doing so, Bruno’s father’s demonstrates his loyalty (and his family’s) to Hitler – the ideology that was widely propagandised during that period, suggesting that more often than not, a person’s thoughts and actions are shaped and influenced by a dominant ideology in society.
The importance of being able to command respect from fellow soldiers also illustrates the way in which the military is regarded as a patriarchal, nation-binding authority – everything else is secondary. This results in overruling the father-son intimacy between Bruno and his father. In chapter five, it is revealed that “father was not usually the type of man to give anyone a hug, unlike mother and grandmother,” and that his father’s office is basically a sacred place for important meetings that affected national agenda, so Bruno could not enter the office as and when he liked. Essentially, the void of closeness between father and son contributed to Bruno’s death – the authoritative direction from father to son, the lack of concern for Bruno’s well-being in Auschwitz and the lack of explanation regarding the war and his father’s role as Hitler’s right-hand man led Bruno to explore for answers on his own.
As a socio-political text, this book has succinctly portrayed one of the most heinous efforts to annihilate a race in history and since it is written more casually from a nine-year-old’s point of view, I would assign a reading age of thirteen and above for this text. Contrary to what critics think, I believe that being able to combine the plot line of a naive and innocent nine-year-old in the context of war and death is truly a feat as it is easy to understand and certainly acts as a starting point of reference for teenage readers who are learning about the holocaust. (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)