How is fear portrayed in the story?

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Over the course of the book, Bruno becomes increasingly fearful for himself and those he cares about. He never fully understands the true nature of what goes on at Auschwitz until it's too late, but long before his tragic end, he does begin to share in the general sense of fear that pervades the camp. One example of this comes after Bruno witnesses Kotler's brutality toward Pavel. Bruno is horrified by his wicked actions but at the same time understands the need to keep his mouth shut and not make any trouble.

Nevertheless, Bruno does eventually manage to overcome his fears to a considerable extent. This is due largely to his youthful innocence. Though he is still understandably concerned at what may happen to him, his friendship with Shmuel is such that he agrees to stay at the camp and look for the Jewish boy's father, as he promised he would do.

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One way that John Boyne develops the idea of the all-encompassing fear in which people live is to show Bruno’s journey from being innocent and ignorant to feeling fear. As a child of a privileged class, he understands very little about the war before his family moves to Auschwitz. In contrast, the other characters are far more aware than he is. Bruno's parents’ complicated attitudes toward Hitler include obedience to him as their leader but also include fear. This fear extends to Nazi military men, such as Lieutenant Kotler. When Bruno sees him take Pavel off to physically punish him while Bruno’s father simply allows this, Bruno realizes that the adults are living in fear. When he befriends Shmuel, he learns of the fear that the prisoners, including the children, all experience day and night. This understanding grows when Shmuel tells him his father is missing. Bruno also understands that there is a component of fear in his mother’s emotional condition, as she campaigns for them to leave the camp because it is inappropriate for children.

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One of the true terrors of the Holocaust was how few people were able to assert a sense of the collective good. Understandably, many people felt they could not stand up for one another because they were afraid for their own lives. Fear dominated the time period of the Holocaust, and we see this echoed throughout the story. For example, Bruno is fearful when his friendship with Shmuel might be exposed, and he lies to protect himself. However, Bruno later feels bad for betraying his friend and apologizes to Shmuel for abandoning him in his time of need. Later, Bruno demonstrates greater courage and sympathy when he decides to go on an "adventure" to help find Shmuel's father.

When studying the Holocaust, it is common to hear that people "did what they had to do" in order to survive, and there is no doubt that this was often the case. Yet there are moments in history where individuals went above and beyond and looked beyond their own survival to help others. As the novel progresses, we see Bruno begin to look outside himself to better understand the suffering of his friend.

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