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 Characters

The main characters in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are Bruno, Shmuel, Gretel, Bruno’s mother, and Bruno’s father.

  • Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant who befriends Shmuel.
  • Shmuel is a young Polish Jew who does not understand why he is in the concentration camp. He befriends Bruno, and the two share many similarities in spite of their different circumstances.
  • Gretel is Bruno’s sister and a staunch supporter of Nazi propaganda.
  • Bruno’s mother is largely ignorant of what goes on in Auschwitz.
  • Bruno’s father is proud of his high-ranking position in the German military.

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Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant who is forced to leave his home in Berlin and move to Auschwitz, where his father has been reassigned. He is reluctant to leave Berlin, where he has three good friends, is close to his grandparents, and lives in a lovely home. Bruno is characterized by an endearing childhood innocence that becomes especially poignant when he meets a young prisoner on the other side of a fence near his house. Bruno remains strikingly unaffected by the war and unmoved by the Nazi beliefs and propaganda he confronts daily. This may well be due to his young age or the result of his character. In any case, Bruno represents man’s capacity for kindness and compassion.


Shmuel is a young Polish Jew who is a prisoner in Auschwitz. Bruno meets him at a fence while exploring near his house. Shmuel is in many ways as innocent as Bruno and seems to not quite understand why he is a prisoner. Shmuel reveals that his mother is a teacher who speaks German (which she has taught him), French, Italian, and English (which she plans to teach him). Until the deportation, Shmuel lived with his mother, father, and brother above his father’s watchmaking shop. He tells Bruno about how he came home from school one day to find his mother making armbands for the family, which the Nazis forced them to wear. Bruno has a hard time comprehending some of the stories Shmuel tells him because it seems so unimaginable to him. Shmuel becomes worried once his father goes missing in the camp and asks for Bruno’s help in finding him. Bruno’s willingness to help his friend results in both of them dying at the merciless hands of the Nazis.

Bruno and Shmuel seem to lead parallel yet mutually exclusive lives. They share common interests, the same birthday, and a similar perspective on life. Their friendship is not just unlikely; it defies possibility. In a world and a time where people were being told what to think, whom to hate, and what relationships were acceptable, Bruno and Shmuel demonstrate how resistant and resilient children can be and how important kindness and compassion are.


Gretel, Bruno’s older sister, annoys him a great deal; he refers to her as a “Hopeless Case” who does nothing but cause him grief. Gretel fancies herself far more mature and worldly than Bruno, despite her doll collection, which would seem to symbolize her naivete. Gretel is increasingly interested in the beliefs and activities of the Nazi party and, after their move to Auschwitz, befriends one of the Nazi camp guards. In an effort to demonstrate her devotion and dedication to the ideals of the Hitler Youth, Gretel gives up her doll collection for Nazi propaganda posters and literature. Gretel may represent those in German society who were aware of the horrors of the Holocaust but made a conscious choice to do nothing to help others.

Bruno’s Mother

Bruno’s mother tries desperately to shield her children from the horrors of the Holocaust, which is taking place virtually in their backyard. To some extent, she seems to turn a blind eye to what her husband does for a living and to what is taking place in the camp. She becomes distraught when she learns that Auschwitz is not a concentration camp but rather a death camp. She is furious when she finds out that her husband has been ordering the slaughter of thousands of Jews in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. She concludes that Auschwitz is no place to raise children and decides to move back to Berlin with the children.

Bruno’s Father

Bruno’s father (referred to simply as “Father” throughout the novel) is a Nazi commandant who seems to truly revere Nazi ideology. When Bruno’s grandparents learn of his father’s promotion to Commandant, Bruno’s grandfather is extremely proud of his son’s accomplishments while Bruno’s grandmother is horrified at the thought of what he will be doing. Once the family is settled in their new home, Father is thrilled to host Hitler and his female companion, Eva, for dinner and is determined to make a positive impression. Despite Father’s professional inhumanity, he does try to shield his own family from the nefarious goings-on at Auschwitz.


Pavel is a Jewish servant who works in Bruno’s home. Bruno believes that Pavel and the other people he sees from his bedroom window are pajama-wearing farmers. Pavel had been a well-established doctor before his internment, and Bruno cannot understand why he gave up that career to be a farmer who peels potatoes for Bruno’s family. When Bruno falls from a tire swing in the garden, Pavel uses his medical skills to care for Bruno. One day, Pavel is beaten by Lieutenant Kotler and no longer comes to the family’s home afterwards; the family’s maid, Maria must clean up the bloody mess.

Lieutenant Kotler

Lieutenant Kotler is an arrogant Nazi guard with aspirations of greatness. He relishes any opportunity to abuse and demean the prisoners who work in Bruno’s house; not only does he seem to truly believe that he is superior to them, but he also seems to enjoy showing off for Gretel.

Herr Liszt

Herr Liszt is the tutor hired by Bruno’s father who tries to instill in him and Gretel Nazi rhetoric. Gretel is a willing student, while Bruno seems skeptical and inquisitive; he is not quite as willing as Gretel to accept Herr Liszt’s version of history, in particular.

Each of the characters, though imbued with individual characteristics and personalities, represents a different stereotype of someone who lived during the Holocaust. For example, Gretel symbolizes the members of the Hitler Youth who blindly accepted the ideology and practices modeled by the Nazi party. Lieutenant Kotler is but one of countless ardent supporters of Hitler’s policies and practices. Not only does he believe that the Germans are superior to the Jews, but he clearly enjoys any chance he gets to point this out, whether it is by making anti-Semitic comments or beating prisoners relentlessly. Bruno’s mother is a bystander who likely feels badly about what is happening to the victims but chooses to do and say nothing. This kind of feigned ignorance is one of the reasons Hitler was able to continue his systematic extermination of millions for as long as he did. 

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