set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Chapter 12 Summary

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Last Updated on December 28, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

Bruno has asked Shmuel why there are so many people on his side of the fence and what they are doing there; Shmuel reflects upon his past in searching for an answer. He recalls that before he came there, he had lived with his parents and brother in a small flat in Cracow. Shmuel’s father had been a watchmaker and had given him a beautiful watch that was taken away by the soldiers.

Shmuel’s idyllic life began to unravel when his mother made an armband with a star on it for each member of the family and they had to wear it whenever they left the house. Bruno says that his father also wears an armband, one that is “bright red with a black and white design on it.” Bruno draws the design on the ground so Shmuel can see it—it is a swastika.

Shmuel remembers that, after a while, his family was told they could not live in their house anymore. Bruno is delighted to hear that he is not the only one who has been forced to move against his will. He asks his new friend if the Fury had come to dinner at his house, too, just before everything had changed. Shmuel says no and goes on to explain how his family had been relocated to a part of Cracow where the soldiers had built “a big wall.” There, he and his parents and brother had to move into one squalid room with another family—eleven people crammed in all together.

Then one day, soldiers in trucks had forcibly taken all the people to a train. Conditions on the train had been unspeakable. Bruno, remembering the two trains at the station when he had left Berlin, naïvely suggests that Shmuel should have ridden in the one that had brought him to Out-With. Shmuel goes on to describe a journey in an airless, stinking boxcar, an experience completely beyond Bruno’s comprehension. When the train had finally stopped, the people had been forced to walk a long way in the freezing cold. Shmuel’s mother had been taken away when they arrived where they are now, and he and his father and brother had been put in the little huts, where they have been ever since.

Shmuel looks very sad as he tells his story, and Bruno cannot understand why, because in his mind, pretty much the same thing has happened to him. Bruno asks Shmuel if there are other boys on his side of the fence, and Shmuel responds that there are hundreds. Bruno assumes that they must play together every day and is indignant that he does not have the same opportunity. Shmuel then asks with embarrassment if Bruno has any food, but Bruno does not. Saying that if he is caught there by the fence he will be in a lot of trouble, Shmuel begins to run back toward the camp. Bruno shouts that he will return tomorrow and sets off for home.

Bruno is excited about what has just happened and can hardly wait to tell his parents and Gretel that he has found a friend. The more he thinks about it, however, the more it seems that telling them about Shmuel will not be a good idea. In the end, he decides that his new acquaintance will remain “his own secret.”

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