set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Summary

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a novel about Bruno, the young son of a Nazi officer, who befriends a Jewish boy named Shmuel during World War II.

  • Bruno’s family moves to a house in the countryside near Auschwitz, where Bruno’s father works. 
  • Through a fence, Bruno encounters a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who is imprisoned in the concentration camp. The two boys become friends.
  • One day, Shmuel asks for Bruno’s help in finding his father. Bruno disguises himself as one of the prisoners and enters the camp.
  • The two boys are killed in the gas chambers.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fictional tale of the unlikeliest of friends: the son of a Nazi commandant and a Jewish concentration camp inmate. Written by John Boyne and published in 2006 by David Fickling Books, the story was made into a major motion picture in 2008. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas explores the beauty of a child’s innocence in a time of war, the common desire we all have for friendship, and the fences—both literal and figurative—that we must all navigate and choose whether or not to break down.


The novel is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant. Bruno arrives home from school one day to find the family’s maid packing their things. Unbeknownst to Bruno, his father has been selected to oversee operations at Auschwitz (which Bruno hears as “Out-With”) and the family will be joining him. Bruno is devastated to leave his home, his friends, and his grandparents in Berlin. The situation becomes even worse when the family arrives at their new home, which is stark and isolated. Bruno is instructed by his parents that there are certain areas that are “Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.” This includes the vast property behind the house, which seems to beckon Bruno. With no idea what is happening just behind his home, Bruno laments the lack of children his age and fun activities in “Out-With.”

Bruno’s twelve-year-old sister, Gretel, is an all-too-eager believer in the Nazi rhetoric being espoused to German youth. Her zeal for Nazi ideology increases when the family moves to Auschwitz and she develops a crush on a Nazi soldier, Lieutenant Kotler, who is a frequent visitor to the family’s home. Bruno instantly dislikes Kotler, who patronizes him. Gretel is also a student of Herr Liszt, the tutor hired by the children’s father to homeschool them. He unabashedly promotes Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitism, of which Bruno is skeptical.

From his bedroom window, Bruno can see hundreds if not thousands of people wearing pajamas working on what Bruno believes to be a farm. When Bruno’s desire to explore gets the best of him, he embarks on an adventure that leads him to an endlessly long fence. Bruno follows the fence, and after walking for quite a while, he sees a boy sitting by the fence. Bruno approaches him and notices that he is wearing the same pajamas as everyone else on that side of the fence along and a striped cloth cap. Bruno makes note of the boy’s filthy feet, which are bare. Bruno is struck by the boy’s sad eyes and ashen skin. Shmuel, the boy, introduces himself, and the two strike up a conversation. They soon discover that they share the same birthday: April 15, 1934. Bruno realizes how lonely he has been since the family moved to “Out-With.” He misses his friends from school, Martin, Karl, and Daniel.

Shmuel tells Bruno how there are many boys his age on his side of the fence, and Bruno instantly deems this unfair; he plans to speak to his father about how he wants to be able to play with the boys on the other side of the fence. Bruno tells Shmuel he is from Berlin, and Shmuel reveals that he is from Poland; neither has ever heard of the other’s home. Bruno suggests that Germany is better than Poland because the Germans are “superior,” remembering what he has learned in his geography lessons with his tutor, Herr Liszt. The two boys continue their discussion, and Bruno finally works up to courage to ask Shmuel why there are so many people on his side of the fence and what they are doing there.

Bruno continues to visit Shmuel, often bringing him food. Each and every day, Bruno suggests that he climb under the fence so that he can play with Shmuel. Knowingly, Shmuel tells Bruno that it would be a bad idea. One day, Shmuel appears in Bruno’s home as a servant whose fingers are small enough to clear some crystal glasses. He begs Bruno for some food, which he provides, but when Lieutenant Kotler catches Shmuel eating, he accuses him of stealing the food. Bruno does not stand up for him, and Shmuel is summarily beaten.

When the Führer (which Bruno hears as “the Fury”), Adolf Hitler, and his girlfriend, Eva Braun, come to dinner, Bruno has no idea who they are aside from the fact that the man is his father’s boss, and he takes an instant dislike to them. This scene speaks to the fact that children are excellent judges of character.

Bruno’s mother faces the difficult task of supporting her husband and shielding her children from what he does. When she learns that prisoners are being put to death at his command, she demands that she move back to Berlin with the children because Auschwitz is clearly not a good place to raise the children. Ironically, whereas Bruno at one time was desperate to return to Berlin, he is reluctant to leave because of his friendship with Shmuel. Bruno feels terrible about having to tell Shmuel that he is going to be leaving, so he tries to make it up to him by promising to help Shmuel locate his missing father. The two hatch a plan that has dire consequences beyond anything they could imagine.

Bruno returns the next day with a shovel, and Shmuel meets him at the fence with a spare set of pajamas. Bruno digs enough of a hole that he can shimmy under the fence in the hopes of helping find Shmuel’s father. Initially, the two friends are thrilled that they are finally on the same side of the fence, and each boy fights the urge to hug the other.

Bruno takes in the scene on the other side of the fence: emaciated, shaven-headed figures looking sad, soldiers shooting prisoners, and a distinct lack of the fruit and vegetable stands and cafes he had expected. Bruno says to Shmuel, “I don’t think I like it here,” to which Shmuel responds, “Neither do I.” Bruno decides that he should go home, but it is too late. The boys are herded into a line with hundreds of other prisoners, taken to a room, forced to undress, and sent to their deaths in a gas chamber. Throughout the quick ordeal, Shmuel and Bruno hold hands, clinging to one another and to their friendship until the very end.

Bruno’s family searches for him for several days until a Nazi soldier finds a pile of his clothes near the hole in the fence. Eventually, Bruno’s mother returns to Berlin with Gretel and Bruno’s father disappears with a group of fellow soldiers.

The story ends with the caveat: “of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” This is clearly a loaded statement that is intended to make readers think about all of the instances of persecution in the years since the Holocaust. Readers are left to consider how an act of kindness—or hatred—no matter how small can affect others.

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