Last Updated on December 28, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
Bruno walks along the fence for the better part of an hour. He does not see anyone or any opening that will allow him to cross over to the other side. Just when he is about to turn back, he spies a boy sitting in the dirt on the other side of the fence, “minding his own business, waiting to be discovered.” Cautiously, Bruno approaches him and says hello.
The boy is smaller than Bruno and wears the same striped pajamas as all the other people who live beyond the fence. When he hears Bruno’s voice, he looks up. All Bruno can see are “an enormous pair of sad eyes” staring at him; he is sure that he has never seen “a skinnier or sadder boy in his life.” The boy returns Bruno’s greeting. Bruno wants to ask him why he looks so sad but does not want to seem rude.
Bruno sits on the ground by the fence, facing the boy. He learns that the boy is called Shmuel, a name Bruno has never heard before but that the boy says is very common on his side of the fence. Shmuel is nine, just like Bruno, and to their astonishment, the boys discover that they were born on the same day.
Bruno feels very happy to have found a friend. Shmuel says there are a lot of boys his age on his side of the fence but that they fight a lot, which is why he seeks solitude there where Bruno has found him. Bruno complains that it is not fair that Shmuel has so many friends with whom he probably plays “for hours every day,” and he resolves to talk to Father about the situation.
Shmuel tells Bruno that he is from Poland and that his mother, who is a teacher, has taught him to speak both German and Polish. Bruno, who has never heard of Poland, remembers his father’s frequent assertion that Germany, their homeland, is “the greatest of all countries.” He unthinkingly suggests to Shmuel that Poland is not as good as Germany. Shmuel does not respond to this observation. Bruno is uneasy because as he makes the statement, it does not seem quite right to him, and he does not want to be unkind. He asks Shmuel where, exactly, Poland is located. After a short hesitation, Shmuel says that they are in Poland now.
Bruno has always had trouble keeping the names of places straight in his head, and he promises himself that he will pay better attention in geography class. Shmuel comments that, although they are in Poland, they are not in a very nice part of the country. Bruno tells Shmuel about Berlin and how nice it was there before things changed and it became very noisy and scary at night and everyone had to turn off all the lights each evening the minute it started to get dark. Shmuel says that in the part of Poland where he used to live, “everyone . . . is very friendly” and there had been “lots of people in [his] family.”
Bruno tells Shmuel that he is going to be an explorer when he grows up. Then, he ventures to inquire about something that has been bothering him for a long time. Choosing his words carefully, Bruno asks Shmuel why there are so many people over on his side of the fence and what in the world they are all doing there.