set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Student Question

Does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas provide evidence of Bruno's innocence and his ignorance of the Holocaust?

Quick answer:

1. Bruno's innocence is a reflection of his idealism and his inability to fully understand the horrors that are taking place around him. 2. Bruno's innocence is a manifestation of courage in the face of human savagery. 3. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is itself an innocent work, despite its subject matter, as it seeks to express what it would be like for an innocent child to live through such horror.

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Both questions strike at Bruno's sense of idealism and innocence in a world that lack both.  There is evidence to suggest that Bruno's innocence is an intense part of his characterization.  From his pronunciation of "The Fury" and "Out- With," Bruno shows his sense of innocence, unable to effectively pronounce words that lie beyond the grasp of language in communicating their horror.  At the same time, Bruno openly questions what would be seen as commonly held assertions.  Bruno questions Herr Liszt in his teachings, and also questions why socially temporal values are so readily accepted as universal truth.  When Gretel becomes infatuated with Lt. Kotler and the Nazi cause, Bruno does not understand her change.  Bruno does not understand the arbitrary divisions between Germans and those who are Jewish.  This becomes evident in his discussions with Shmuel, reflecting an innocence and a lack of gravity about the situation in which he is immersed.  When it is suggested that he could "come over" for a visit with Shmuel, Bruno thinks that he “could come over on a visit and no one would be any the wiser."  There is innocence in this, a condition that does not acknowledge the reality of the concentration camp. Even when Bruno crosses over to the other side of the fence and recognizes that something unsettling exists in the world of Auschwitz, he expresses this reticence in an innocent manner.  Shmuel reminds him of his "promise to help him find his father," something that impacts Bruno on an intestinal level.  For Bruno, honoring his promise to his friend is the most important element.  This is reflective of an innocent state of mind.  Finally, when Bruno clutches Shmuel's hand and reminds him that they are "best friends" in the midst of the gas chamber, it is a transformative moment.  It is powerfully transformative because Bruno is shown to be so innocent.  Even at the moment where human horror and terror is embodied, Bruno clings to friendship as the defining element to one's being in the world.  These examples represent textual evidence to show the extent of Bruno's innocence.

Bruno's innocence has resonated, despite the fact that he has not been excessively shielded from the horrors of the Holocaust.  The family has moved to Auschwitz, a world in which death is fairly difficult to ignore.  Bruno's mother desperately seeks to shield her children from the reality that surrounds them. However, it is clear that she is unable to fully prevent the world from entering into her children's perception.  Bruno sees Lt. Kotler demonstrate abuse and cruelty to Pavel and, of course, Shmuel.  Bruno's father tells him that Jewish people are "not really people."  While he seeks to control the flow of information to his family about what exactly he does in Auschwitz, he does not fully shield them from the relationship between a family like his and Jewish people.  Indeed, no one tells Bruno of the exact nature of savagery at Auschwitz.  Yet, the realities of the outside world are not entirely kept at bay for Bruno.

Perhaps, this is what makes his innocence all the more profound.  Bruno understands that the world is not a "nice place."  Yet, he does not take the form of the world around him.  Bruno's innocence becomes a statement of resistance.  It is an act of courage in a world where cowardice and fear dominated over everyone.  Bruno's innocence in all of its forms acquires even more significance when it is considered that he might not have been entirely sheltered or shielded from the horrors of the Holocaust.  If this is the case and the outside world's reality did creep into his consciousness, it makes his innocence all the more noble.  It becomes a point of reference and a reminder of what all human beings should strive for in the midst of terror and horror.   

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Does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deal with subject of the Holocaust in an appropriate way? How does Bruno deal with what's going on around him? Is his naivety purely of innocence or does it cross the line into ignorance?

There is much controversy surrounding this novel due to the "revisionist" history presented. It has been sharply criticized by noted Rabbis for presenting the Holocaust in an unrealistic way. However, it is a novel, so it is not intended to be truthful. Nevertheless, do you think it is problematic to present such horrid events such as the Holocaust in a lukewarm light, even if it is fictional? Good question.

Critics take issue with the fact that boys of this age (8 or 9) would be in a death camp. If children could not work, they were shot or gassed immediately. Also, the fences surrounding the death camps were electric, so it is unlikely that Bruno would have been able to crawl under it. Bruno's referring to Der Fuhrer as "Fury" is seen by some as unrealistic. Even a boy of this age would know that this referred to the leader of his country. I don't know -- do you think if you asked an eight-year-old boy who the president of the U.S. is, he would answer, "President Obama?" I think so. Further, for the times, would a young German boy not know what a Jew was? All around Germany, there were signs that read "Juden Verboten" -- and if the boy could read, he would probably ask a parent, "What is a Jew, Mommy?"

It is a matter of interpretation, then, whether Bruno is innocent or naive. Do you think it matters in the story? Consider this: questions of "how much did they really know?" aside, do you think that the author might have actually been trying to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust by having a German child mistakenly sent to the gas chambers? Perhaps the author is asking the rhetorical question, "How would YOU like it if it were YOUR child?"

It is just so hard to be objective about this because the horror of the Holocaust is so intense, still to this day. So, even though the book is fiction, it has aroused some pretty angry debate.

You can read about some of this controversy right here on eNotes.

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