The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne, is a short novel intended to introduce the challenging subject of the Jewish Holocaust to a young audience. The story is told from the perspective of a naive nine-year-old German boy named Bruno. He is the son of a Nazi concentration camp commandant, and the vantage from his second floor window affords him a privileged view of the concentration camp nearby. Through the eyes of Bruno, we fellow outsiders are invited to look inside and to try to make sense of the masses of people in striped pajamas. The story is well written and a refreshing deviation from the typical modern youth novel.
Many youths today have a conditioned indifference to the Holocaust, resulting in part from the way it is presented to them. Museums around the world have exhibits presenting countless images, walls littered with thousands of dossiers, and massive displays of the discarded shoes of murdered victims. These memorials are good and a powerful reminder of the need for vigilance, but they are not perhaps the best starting point of understanding for younger minds.
The novel is a potent way to awaken minds to complex questions. During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Alexander Solzhenitsyn quoted Dostoyevsky as saying, “Beauty will save the world,” and to this he contributed, “There is, however, a particular feature in the very essence of beauty—a characteristic trait of art itself: The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart.” His novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was able to move hearts and minds to recognize the evils of the communist system in Russia. His book accomplished this, not by logical arguments, which can be easily twisted and confused, but by artfully presenting an image of one day in the life of a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp. This image was a form of truth against which there was no argument. Solzhenitsyn’s short novel marked a turning point in public opinion against the communist concept as a viable political system and earned him the Nobel Prize. John Boyne, like Solzhenitsyn, lets his art kindle the wonder that is the beginning of knowledge. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas presents the image of an innocent boy living in surreal proximity to unspeakable inhumanity of the Jewish Holocaust. The reader, like the protagonist, is an innocent outsider trying to look in and understand what happened within the walls of the camp, and by the end, there is the possibility of a terrible knowledge.
The fulcrum of the story is the friendship that Bruno forms with a young boy who is in the concentration camp named Shmuel. While exploring one day, Bruno approaches a secluded and unnoticed part of the camp fence and sees a “speck, which became a blob, a blob which became a figure, a figure which became a boy.” This progression of perception is repeated twice in the novel, and marks the progression of Bruno’s understanding of Shmuel and of people in general. Bruno begins the story with an infantile understanding, but as he spends time with Shmuel, he learns empathy, and something more of love and humanity. The story has a tragic pace, in that we are rushed into a sudden conclusion that leaves us with a sense of loss and a sense of wonder at what Bruno might become.
Bruno is innocent of heart and ignorant of the purpose of the camps. For this reason he also is initially unable to comprehend or appreciate the sufferings and trials that Shmuel and his family are enduring in the camps. Bruno sees the world with rose-colored lenses, knowing no greater evil than the chiding of an older sister or the unpleasantness of boredom. It is suitable therefore that Boyne made “La Vie en Rose” the favorite song of the wise grandmother in the story. Edith Piaf wrote “La Vie en Rose” in 1945 as an outpouring of her desperate hope for a love that could overwrite her sordid history of pain and loss. It captured a global audience that was desperate to escape the memory of the unfathomable evils of World War II. “La Vie en Rose” is a love song expressing how the presence of the beloved causes the singer to see “Life in Pink.” All the cares and troubles melt away leaving a simple, pure, and innocent delight. Bruno’s grandmother alone, of all characters, calls out her son, Bruno’s father, for cooperating with the evil Nationalist Socialist regime. Her grandson is the one who sees the world around him in a rosy and idyllic hue. We the audience have the knowledge of the pain and loss of Piaf and the camps that exposes “La Vie en Rose” as a romantic deception. This is one of many layered elements in this book which make it enjoyable even for an adult reader.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a well-written tale that manages to humanize the Holocaust without romanticizing it. Boyne successfully introduces a difficult subject in a way that is youth appropriate, using no foul language or explicit violence. I would recommend this book for children twelve and up, but readers ought to be prepared with parent discussions about the Holocaust before and after reading the book. In an era of increasing moral obscurity in American culture, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas provides a great opportunity for the cultivation of moral sensibilities in young people. What is more, it is an interesting read, particularly for those who have a personal connection to the history that surrounds the Holocaust.
The movie version, of the same name, is very well done and is appropriate for any audience that is mature enough to read the book. The movie includes all the salient details of the book and only excludes some of the details about lesser characters like the grandmother, the sister, and the extended family. I will say that Boyne was more subtle in his portrayal of the German characters in the book; in the movie version, the characters come across as stylized. This was perhaps necessary to simplify the drama and concentrate a young audience of the dynamics between Bruno and Shmuel.