The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells the heartbreaking story of a forbidden friendship between two boys — one a prisoner in Auschwitz, the other the son of the concentration camp’s commandant. Their childhood innocence stands in stark contrast to the horrific events unfolding around them. Six million people were murdered during the Holocaust; the Nazis’ crimes remain the worst to date in recent history.

The Holocaust

Bruno realises that his father is an important man, and feels proud that other Germans look up to him. But in reality his father is overseeing the genocide of Jews at Auschwitz. The Holocaust has given rise to countless stories, both true and fictional. It has been the backdrop to tales of tragedy, of evil and of heroism.

Witnesses

Boyne’s book tells the story of the Holocaust through the means of a fictional friendship. But much of what we know about the Nazis’ crimes comes from the ability of real people to tell their stories. Today, we can learn about the shocking conduct of groups such as Daesh in Syria because brave people have dared to tell the truth about them.

Prejudice

It was possible for the Holocaust to happen because many ordinary people accepted the dehumanisation and ‘othering’ of the Jews. Hitler and the Nazis blamed Jewish people for their country’s economic collapse and the first world war, and faced no powerful opposition when they did so. Do we need to be on our guard against similar patterns allowing history to repeat itself?

Childhood

Boyne juxtaposes the curiosity and playful innocence of the children in his story with the mass murder taking place at Auschwitz. Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel is a hopeful story. But as it develops he is repeatedly shocked by his friend’s gaunt appearance and sad demeanour. Children’s innocence is inevitably lost, but circumstances force some children to grow up much more rapidly than others.

Empathy

Bruno has no need to visit Shmuel; he has a comfortable life. But he steals bread to feed him, plays board games with him and is shocked when his friend’s father goes missing. There are many ways of showing our empathy — the understanding of the situation in which others find themselves. But what explains our attachment to the suffering of others, and how significant a force is it?