When I was in fifth grade, I brought a copy of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas home from my school library. I asked my mom if she had heard of it, curious about why I hadn’t heard of it because that had surprised my teacher, especially because I knew of many other books about the Holocaust. My mom told me she had read it, but she didn’t want me to read it; she didn’t like how it portrayed the Holocaust, and she thought there were better books for me to read. I brought the book back to school the next day, unopened.
This September, author John Boyne will be releasing a sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Recently, having heard criticisms and defenses of this book, I decided to finally read it, to judge it for myself.
To summarize the novel, the main character, 9-year-old Bruno, moves to live nearby Auschwitz when his father, a Nazi, is promoted to be in charge of the camp. Throughout the first portion of the novel, Bruno has no idea what the Nazis are, has never heard of concentration camps and knows nothing about Jewish people. Bruno eventually ventures into Auschwitz to join the Jewish friend he made through the fence of the concentration camp and ends up dying in a gas chamber.
As I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I noticed the same issue repeatedly: significant portions of the book, and major plotlines, are historically impossible. These inaccuracies are more than mistakes; each contributes to an understanding of the Holocaust which minimizes it and dissociates it from its antisemitism.
There is no way the child of such a high ranking Nazi would know as little as Bruno does. His ignorance is illustrated when he doesn’t seem to recognize a Nazi flag, doesn’t know what his father’s job is, and knows nothing about the discrimination against Jewish people. A child who grew up in Bruno’s era would have been taught to hate Jewish people from the day he was born. He has never heard the term “fatherland” before, which is historically illogical, as the conception of the fatherland was key to the nationalism and unity promoted by the Nazi party.
When Bruno first notices the Jewish people in Auschwitz, he notices that some have crutches and bandages — there was no real medical care at Auschwitz, there were no crutches or bandages, and this inaccuracy minimizes the horrors of Auschwitz. Bruno calls Auschwitz “Out-With,” which also distances the reader’s knowledge of Auschwitz by removing the name association and instead encouraging the reader to think of Bruno as an innocent child. When Bruno enters the gas chambers, he believes the purpose is to stay out of the rain. He describes the gas chambers as a dark room, and mentions in passing that it is chaotic, but this aspect is downplayed. Instead, the image the reader is left with is him holding hands with Shmuel, his friend, and that they died together. This portrayal makes their deaths seem oddly peaceful.
Bruno could not have grown up in the time he supposedly did and as the child of a high ranking Nazi without learning to believe in antisemitism and German nationalism. He would have been surrounded by antisemitism and hatred as a child; given that his father wanted to be and successed as a powerful Nazi, he would have needed to believe in the Nazi agenda and thus would have taught it to his son. Bruno’s lack of knowledge sanitizes the father’s Nazism, allowing the father to seem like a Nazi who isn’t really a Nazi, effectively promoting the idea of a likeable and perhaps corrupted but not fundamentally evil Nazi.
The characterization of Bruno’s father, referred to only as Father, promotes the image of a Nazi who didn’t mean any harm from the moment the reader meets him. In an early scene, Father tells Bruno he learned as a child when to argue and when to follow orders, implying that Father is just following orders, an excuse used by many Nazis in their defenses later.
The theme of excusal is furthered by Father’s bizarre reaction to Bruno’s death at the end of the novel. The father does not realize the horror of Auschwitz: he does not feel guilty, he does not see the place as remarkable, despite having killed his own son there. He does not see anything wrong with what he has done. The only demonstration of his guilt is the way he lets the soldiers take him away from Auschwitz, but it’s unclear whether he’s retiring or being arrested or if the war ends, and this implies more apathy than guilt on his part.
Even in this last chapter, after Bruno’s death, the author refers to Auschwitz as Out-With. The death of Bruno in this novel does not change the childlike innocence that Auschwitz is portrayed as possessing. The last line, saying that “nothing like that could ever happen again,” “not in this day and age” is meant to be powerful. And in a way, it is: as sentences go, the linguistic power of the last three sentences of this novel is immense. But the actual meaning of these sentences is unclear: are readers supposed to believe the world has changed, a subject that has not been previously touched on? All these lines do is further distance the reader from the events of the novel, making them less personal, and promoting the image of finality, a neat conclusion that did not exist.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas trivializes the deeply ingrained antisemitism of perpetrators of the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz. A reader finishes this novel with no conception of what actually happened at Auschwitz and with the idea that the people most harmed there were the children of Nazis. This is incredibly untrue and problematic.
I’m not looking forward to reading the sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, particularly now, in a time where antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism are rising on both sides of the political spectrum. Recent examples include the Trump administration’s statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which neglected to mention Jewish people, and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib saying “there’s always kind of a calming feeling I tell folks when I think of the Holocaust,” a quote which she claims has been taken out of context.
Authors of Holocaust fiction have a responsibility to accurately represent the atrocities inflicted on Jewish people and other targeted groups. I hope the sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has the historical accuracy the original lacks and doesn’t minimize the Holocaust, but based on this novel, that seems unlikely. Boyne’s book promotes a narrative which rewrites the history of the Holocaust to remove the antisemitism from it and it needs to be recognized as misinformation.