What is the setting of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne? More specifically, what is the time and place?

The setting of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is Berlin in the beginning and then the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland for the majority of the book. It takes place during World War II, probably sometime between 1940 and 1945.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is very clearly understood to take place during the events of WWII, during a time when the tragic events of the Holocaust of the Jewish people were well underway. We know this, first and foremost, from the fact that the primary narrative focus of the book is an interaction between Bruno, the young son of an SS officer, and Shmuel, a young boy who is imprisoned in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Though the exact nature of Shmuel's circumstances are somewhat unclear to Bruno, they are entirely clear to the reader, who experiences the cruel irony of Bruno's innocence firsthand.

Because of this, we can surmise that the events of the story take place sometime between 1941 and 1945. Beyond that, we would only be guessing. The exact time of the story is not precisely relevant, as the horrors of concentration camps and the ignorance of many German civilians, particularly children, were uniform throughout. As far as exact place goes, we are certain that Bruno and his family have moved to Auschwitz from Berlin, and we do catch glimpses of Bruno's previous home in the latter. Bruno is constantly lamenting his declined circumstances in the city of Auschwitz as opposed to his beloved home in Berlin.

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Readers are only given setting details pertaining to time in somewhat broad strokes. We do know that the book is taking place during World War II as Hitler is mentioned in the closing lines of chapter five. American readers are then likely to think that the book is taking place between 1941 and 1945 as that is when the United States was involved in this particular world war; however, Germany invaded Poland in 1939. For a more specific time frame, a reader has to know a bit about the Auschwitz concentration camp. Specifically, a reader needs to know that Auschwitz was operational between May 1940 and January 1945. There doesn't seem to be a threat of the allied armies closing in on the camp, nor does it seem like the camp is newly operational, so I would place Bruno's time at the camp around 1943.

The majority of the book takes place at the Auschwitz concentration camp which is located in southern Poland. For Bruno, this is a massive location change. Prior to being at the camp, Bruno's family was living in Berlin which was a magnificent city at the time, and readers are constantly reminded about how much Bruno liked it there. Other setting locations are places within Bruno's house. He spends time in his room, his sister's room, the kitchen, etc.

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General Location:  The setting of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the death camp Auschwitz. The events of the novel are seen through young Bruno's innocent eyes, and he calls his new home "Out-With." 

Time period:  1943--The protagonist, Bruno, is nine years old during World War II.  

Specific Locations:

  • Berlin:  The novel begins at Bruno's old home in Berlin, but Bruno and his family must pack up and leave to join his father at Auschwitz.  Bruno misses his grandparents, friends, and school in Berlin.
  • The long fence with 'the boy in the striped pajamas' on the other side is, of course, the fence of the concentration camp, Auschwitz.  Bruno does not understand the significance of the camp, only that it is "Out of Bounds At All Times."   Bruno believes that all of the people wearing pajamas are farmers.
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John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes place in Nazi Germany. The main character, Bruno, moves with his family from Berlin to "Out-With," which is actually Gretel's way of pronouncing the name of one of Germany's most notorious death camps: Auschwitz. Gretel (Bruno's slightly older sister) explains:

I heard Father say that whoever lived here at Out-With before us lost their job very quickly and didn't have time to make the place nice for us.

Though the concentration camp bore this name, it was also the name of the town where it was located, on the border between two countries: Germany and Poland. Auschwitz had originally been Polish, but it was "incorporated within the German Reich" in 1939. It was not returned to the Polish until after World War II. The "extermination" (concentration) camp was built there in 1940.

Bruno's father originally works in Berlin, though Bruno is not sure what he does.

But when they asked Bruno what his father did he opened his mouth to tell them, then realized that he didn't know himself. All he could say was that his father was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him. Oh, and that he had a fantastic uniform too.

For those familiar with the history of World War II and of Nazi Germany, "Fury" refers to the Fuhrer, the name by which Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi movement was called.

The people Bruno and Gretel see from the window are boys and men:

There were small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers. Perhaps a few uncles, too.

As the inmates at Auschwitz were separated men from women, Bruno and Grete are only able to see the males. Later Bruno will meet the "boy in the striped pajamas," when he goes where he is absolutely not allowed to go—called "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions." The boy's clothes are not pajamas, but a uniform issued to the captives at Auschwitz. The boy's name is Shmuel, and because he has a star on his "pajamas," the reader will realize that Shmuel is a Jew. Of all the races of people the Nazis endeavored to destroy, they passionately tried to exterminate the Jews more than any other group.

So the story is set some time after 1940, when the labor camp was built, but prior to the end of the war (1945) when those who remained alive at Auschwitz were freed by the Allies—in this case, the Red Army (soldiers of the Soviet Union). And Bruno's father is a member of the Nazi army.

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