John Boyne’s best-selling and award-winning novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy in Nazi Germany whose father has been put in charge of running Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Bruno secretly befriends a boy his own age, who lives on the other side of the fence where Jews are imprisoned in the death camp. Bruno is observant but naïve in the extreme and has only the dimmest understanding of the situation and place in which he finds himself. However, Bruno’s innocence enables him to see certain elements of truth more clearly than many of the adults around him. Most importantly, he is curious and honest and dares to ask questions about that which he does not understand. At the end of the novel, Bruno crosses under the fence to help his friend Shmuel try to find his father, who is missing. Just after Bruno says to Shmuel that he is his best friend “for life,” the two boys perish in the camp’s gas chamber.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas raises many questions that are as relevant today as they were then: Is it always right to obey? Can silence have dangerous consequences? Do we share more similarities than differences with our fellow humans? How powerful is friendship? How do our actions—or complacency— influence others?
Boyne describes his tale as a fable. He intended it to be more than a story of a single time and place. Although it is very clear when and where the story is set, he never directly mentions the Nazis, the war, the actual name of the concentration camp, or Hitler. Instead, the novel is a kind of allegory that could relate to any political dividing line, or “fence,” anywhere in the world. The book was published in 2006. Many fences have gone up and many atrocities have been committed in the decades since World War II. Boyne’s message is clear: The dangers of tyranny are ever-present and genocide could—and does—still happen in the world we live in today. We must be vigilant. We must always question what is right and speak out against that which is wrong.
There is some controversy over whether Bruno’s experience could ever have taken place and whether Bruno’s level of naïveté is truly plausible. Is it really possible that the nine-year-old son of a Nazi running a death camp would understand so little of the world around him? Although this is a worthy question, the story’s lessons rise above the specifics to convey a profound message about our shared humanity and our need to fight injustice everywhere.
It’s worth noting that students will need to be given some historical context to understand the story. The author assumes that the reader will have enough knowledge to know what Bruno is experiencing, even though Bruno doesn’t explain it. For students to be able to grasp the plot, they will need to do some additional reading about World War II, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define what Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, the Führer, and the concentration camps were and explain how they came to be.
2. Explain the potentially dangerous consequences of silence and complacency.
3. Speak about the transformational power of friendship.
4. Discuss the potential dangers of blind obedience.
5. Understand the importance of keeping an open mind.
6. Discuss the symbolism of “fences,” and point out other fences around the world.