set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne
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What do Bruno and Gretel see outside their window in Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

When Bruno and Gretel look out their window in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, they see Jewish prisoners following orders inside the Auschwitz concentration camp. The siblings are confused by what they see and struggle to identify the exact nature of the environment inside the fence. Initially, Gretel concludes that they are looking at the "countryside," but Bruno questions her assumption. Bruno is also perplexed by the prisoners' uniforms, which he refers to as striped pajamas.

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Outside their window in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno and Gretel see a desolate looking area that contrasts sharply with the lush garden directly beneath Bruno's window that was "full of flowers" and had a "very pleasant pavement with a wooden bench on it, where Gretel could imagine sitting in the sunshine and reading a book."

In the barren area beyond their garden, they see people who appear to be working hard and who also appear to be very different from any other group of people they have ever seen, although they cannot quite understand what makes this group of people so different. They are puzzled by what they see, and Gretel asks Bruno,

"What sort of place is this?"

"I'm not sure," said Bruno, sticking as close to the truth as possible. "But it's not as nice as home, I do know that much."

Beyond the landscaping of their home, "there was a huge wire fence" that was topped by "enormous bales of barbed wire." They see low huts and ugly large square buildings and "one or two smoke stacks in the distance." They do not understand that those are buildings intended for mass killings.

Bruno disagrees with his sister's theory that they are looking at a countryside environment. While neither child can really articulate it, each feels a sense of dread and fear about the area outside their home. People are fenced in, commanded by soldiers and made to wear the same tattered rags that resemble striped pajamas.

"Who are all those people?" she asked in a quiet voice, almost as if she wasn't asking Bruno but looking for an answer from someone else.

"And what are they all doing there?"

They are puzzled by how desolate the area appears and that there are no women or girls beyond the fence, only men and boys. They are puzzled that some of the men have bandages or crutches. Most of all, they are puzzled by how packed in all the people appear to be in small huts with no distance between them and how filthy looking the people appear, even the children.

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When Bruno and Gretel look out of the window of their new home, at first they see a very pleasant sight. Beneath the window is a very large garden full of pretty flowers growing in neat orderly sections. It looks as if someone has really made the effort in planting them.

Past the flowers, there's something else that's pleasant: a nice little pavement with a wooden bench on it, a place where Gretel can imagine reading a book in the sunshine.

But that's where the pleasantness ends. Further along from the garden, the pretty flowers, and the nice little bench is a huge wire fence that runs along the full length of the house, extending further along in every direction, as far as the eye can see. The children don't know it yet, but this is the security fence that keeps the inmates of Auschwitz from escaping.

All along the top of the fence, one can see coils of barbed wire. Gretel feels pain inside her as she contemplates the sharp spikes sticking out all the way around it.

Beyond the fence, one can see low huts and square buildings dotted all around the place and two smokestacks in the distance. The children are blissfully unaware that these are the giant crematoria used to dispose of the bodies of Auschwitz prisoners murdered by the Nazis.

Although Bruno and Gretel are still too young to understand what Auschwitz is all about, they do at least know that it's a nasty-looking place.

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In chapter 4 of the novel, Gretel follows Bruno into his room and stares out his window to see the Auschwitz concentration camp for the first time, which is located next to their new home on the opposite side of a high barbed wire fence. As Gretel and Bruno look out the window, they are confused by the people inside the fence and struggle to identify the concentration camp. Both children are too young and naive to recognize that they are looking at one of the largest Nazi concentration camps and that the men and boys wandering around are actually Jewish inmates. Gretel immediately questions where the women are located and cannot discern the function or exact nature of the mysterious environment.

All the children can see are low huts and a few large square buildings with smokestacks in the distance. Both children agree that Auschwitz is a "nasty-looking place," and Gretel mentions that the huts must be modern types of houses. Initially, Gretel concludes that they are looking at the "countryside," which explains the lack of shops, schools, and different homes. However, Bruno comments that there are no farm animals or good soil to grow crops. They also notice groups of prisoners marching as soldiers give them orders and wonder what kind of people live in such a dirty, depressing environment. Bruno also cannot explain why everyone is wearing the same grey striped pajamas, which are actually prison uniforms. Overall, Gretel and Bruno see the Jewish prisoners following orders inside the Auschwitz concentration camp when they look out the window together.

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This question can be answered by reading Chapter Four:  "What They Saw Through the Window."  The short answer to your question is that Bruno and Gretel see the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.  Because the concentration camp is right across from the Commandant's house, the Commandant's two children are not protected from seeing the prisoners walking about behind the fence.  Bruno and Gretel are confused.

There were small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers and perhaps a few uncles too.  And some of those people who live on their own on everybody's road but don't seem to have any relatives at all.  They were everyone.

They see "a nasty type of place" with what they think might be "modern types of houses" found on what they can only believe to be "the countryside."  This is where Bruno gets the mistaken idea that the people behind the fence are farmers; however, Bruno wonders why there are no farm animals to be seen.  Further, the two of them decide they can see hundreds of people, but that there must be thousands behind the fence.  

And one final thought came into her brother's head as he watched the hundreds of people, ... all of them--were wearing the same clothes as each other:  a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads.

This quotation, of course, is where the title comes from.  These "grey striped pajamas" are striking as the hundreds of people walk around inside the Auschwitz fence.  These are the people that Gretel and Bruno see outside their window.

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