Shmuel and Bruno are two little boys uncorrupted by the brutal realities of the world around them. In both fiction and in real life, nothing represents innocence like children; in fact, they are presumed to embody the notion of uncorrupted youth. Two boys, left untouched by the prejudices of adults, are prone to form friendships irrespective of differences in ethnicity. Bruno’s father, however, is the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in which Shmuel is a prisoner – a prisoner based solely upon his religion. While Bruno regularly hears derogatory comments from Germans regarding Jews, he is unable to reconcile the negativity in those comments with the humanity he identifies in that other little boy on the side of the barbed-wire fence. As the friendship between the two boys grows, Bruno finds that challenge increasingly difficult. The Holocaust, of course, was one of, if not the greatest tragedy in human history. For Bruno, the little boy he befriends in the striped pajamas – “and who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniform?” – is just another little boy and one with whom he can forge a friendship. As John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, nears its end, the innocence is somehow still there. Bruno cannot comprehend, even after all he has seen, that the world can be so cruel. In that heartbreaking scene at the end, with Shmuel being corralled into the gas chamber along with other prisoners, Bruno cannot let go of his friend’s hand: “You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said. “My best Friend for life.”
That Bruno, who had donned the striped pyjamas of a Jewish prisoner in order to sneak into the camp, perishes along with Shmuel in the gas chamber while continuing to hold his friend’s tiny hand lends Boyne’s story an added dimension of sadness to an already horrific scenario. The theme of friendship in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is demonstrated through the continued acts of kindness between the Bruno and Shmuel and by the expressions of love they express. The innocence conveyed in the exchange between the two boys earlier in the novel as Shmuel describes the changes in his and his family’s life upon returning from school to discover his mother sewing yellow arm bands on his clothes – the yellow arm bands that identified Jews as such – and as Bruno describes the arm band on his father’s, the commandant of the concentration camp, uniform (“My father wears one too,” said Bruno. “It’s very nice. It’s bright red with black and white design on it”), that innocence and naivete is all too apparent. All these boys see is each other: a friend. Boyne’s novel is the story of that friendship, and its conclusion is unbearably sad.