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Literature / The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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"We're not supposed to be friends, you and me. We're meant to be enemies. Did you know that?"
Bruno: There is such thing as a nice Jew, though, isn't there?
Herr Liszt: I think, Bruno, if you ever found a nice Jew, you would be the best explorer in the world.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a book by John Boyne about a young boy of nine named Bruno, who loved to play with his friends and go to school, among other fun things to do in Germany in the 1940s. Yeah, those 1940s. That is, until his father's job forces his family to move to Poland, particularly to an odd camp called "Out With", which consists of a small house with an odd fence beside it. His older sister, Gretel, informs him that it will only be 'for the foreseeable future", which she figures to be about two weeks.

However, things do not go as quickly as they'd hoped. So Bruno takes a look around and peers out a window to see what is beyond the fence. What he sees is, to him, amazing- so many people, old men, young men, boys of all ages, all wearing the same striped pyjamas! He asks Gretel about them, and finds out that they're called "Jews", which according to Gretel aren't really people.


Later on, Bruno decides to investigate for himself. While walking around, he meets a young boy about his age named Shmuel. After talking for a while, they forge an odd sort of a friendship, meeting as often as they can at the one spot on the fence.

It was adapted into a film starring Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis in 2008.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Considering it's a WWII story, Heck Yeah.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Bruno, really, is strikingly oblivious. Maybe over-protection can account for some of it, but he apparently can't hear words right or understand that a concentration camp is a bad place to sneak into even when looking right at it. Even when talking to one who is an inmate of it almost every day for a year. Foreshadowed by one of Gretel's friends insisting he must be six instead of nine.
  • Artistic License – History: The Auschwitz complex actually had two major camps — one extermination, one concentration/work note . There was only one series of experimental gassings (of Soviet POW) in the concentration camp, after which the test-chamber was re-purposed and all incoming prisoners were handled at the extermination camp.
    • Some children were retained in the concentration camp (see Reality Is Unrealistic below), but Shmuel would have been shot if he approached the fence.
    • Bruno not knowing who Hitler was is implausible to say the least.
  • Children Are Innocent: The book depicts the Holocaust from a child's point of view.
    • There is a subplot where Bruno's mom has a flirt and maybe an affair with a teenage nazi lieutenant. Bruno's 13-year-old sister also flirts with him, but Bruno doesn't make any connections and thinks Gretel is being silly and that his dad is angry with the young man for some reason unconnected to his mother.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Justified as Bruno and to a lesser extent Shumel who are only 8 years old boys are innocent to the Holocaust:
    • Bruno thinks Pavel the Jewish manservant is peeling potatoes because he wasn't 'qualified' to be a doctor.
    • Bruno thinks the Jewish inmates living on the camp with Shumel are 'farmers' rather than inmates.
    • Bruno thinks the uniform Shumel, Pavel and the other Jewish inmates wear are 'pyjamas' and that the tag numbers are part of a 'game'.
    • Shumel refuses to play football with Bruno not out of rudeness but because it is too dangerous while Bruno sees no problem with it, oblivious Shumel is trying to warn him they could get caught.
    • Bruno watches the propaganda film his father, grandfather, Kotler and other Nazis are watching and literally believes the camp is like a place for enjoyment only for him to see the true picture of the camp near the end of the film.
    • Shumel believes his father is now working mending boots implying he thinks that is his new job rather than to an extent slavery.
    • Arguably the most infamous one is the end when Bruno and Shumel are literally led on the long walk to their demise in the gas chambers and believe they are going for a 'shower' although it is argued the Jewish soldiers simply made it up so there would be no panic as well as the implication they had to use a cover story to hide the fact everyone is getting executed.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Bruno starts to learn about the horrors of racism and intolerance through his friendship with Shmuel. But it's ultimately averted, because Bruno is gassed to death.
  • Culture Blind: Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy growing up in Nazi Germany who is so naive, he doesn't even know who Hitler is.
  • Deadly Gas: At the climax, obviously enough.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The film ends with Bruno's family in utter heartbreak after realizing his fate, but it's his mother's violent wailing that's the hardest to watch.
  • Death of a Child: This work goes out of its way to show exactly what may happen to children in an extermination camp.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Gretel gets rid of her dolls, she puts them in a large pile in the basement without clothing. The shot of the pile of naked doll bodies is obviously meant to evoke certain images.
  • Downer Ending: The book ends with Shmuel and Bruno being gassed in the "showers" and dying. And then there's the epilogue, where Bruno's father somehow figures out what happened to his son. Who's been missing for the past year. Considering this takes place at Auschwitz, it's justified. The movie is not any better, as it has been modified such that Bruno's parents do realize their son is missing and may be within the extermination camp. The father runs into the camp only to find that one of the gas chambers has already begun working. The mother and sister find Bruno's clothes outside the camp and completely break down in tears.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Bruno's father, an SS officer, obviously loves his son, and he totally breaks down when Bruno dies in the gas chamber.
  • Everyone Has Standards: While Elsa seems to be fine with Ralf being a Nazi soldier, she is disgusted and horrified after learning what truly goes on in the concentration camp.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Kids getting gassed to death is not an idea for anyone
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence
  • Famous Last Words: “And I’m sorry we didn’t really get to play, but when you come to Berlin, that’s what we’ll do. And I’ll introduce you to... Oh, what were their names again? Actually, it doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t. They’re not my best friends any more anyway. You’re my best friend, Shmuel. My best friend for life.” - Bruno.
  • The Film of the Book: Some slight changes but mostly true to the original work.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The children's reactions when they discover the camp foreshadows their development. Gretel is in denial that anything bad is going on, and later in the book she tracks the movements of the German troops on maps with great interest. Bruno sees people, including potential playmates, and goes on to make a friend out of one of them.
    • There are certain scenes in the movie that foreshadow Bruno's failed attempt to find Shmuel's father by dressing up as a Jewish prisoner, and eventually dying by deadly gas:
      • Before Bruno leaves his old home, he plays mock soldiers with his friends, with him being the final fake casualty. Bruno dies in the last five minutes of the film.
      • When Bruno's family move in to their new home, Bruno is seen sitting on the stairs, lost in thought over his new surroundings. The camera is framed so that the black stair railings are in front of Bruno, resembling him being in a prison. In the last act, Bruno goes through Auschwitz's gates, for the first and last time.
      • While retrieving his football in the dark attic, Bruno is horrified by a pile of Gretel's naked dolls, stacked altogether on one side. In Auschwitz, Bruno and Shmuel meet their makers by being forced to strip and go into a confined, locked room, with other Jewish prisoners, in the pretense that they will have a shower. Instead, poison gas is used to kill everyone inside.
      • When Elsa doesn't see Bruno on the swing when coming back from town, she asks Gretel if she seen her brother who claims he is on the swing and Elsa frantically goes to check and to her relief sees he is safe. This foreshadows Bruno reported being missing from the premises near the end of the film.
      • Notice the colour of Bruno's pyjamas in two scenes. They're white, blue, and vertically striped, exactly like his outfit to get into Auschwitz.
  • Heroic BSoD: Bruno's mother, after finding out what was really going on in the camp right next to her house, is so horrified and disgusted with her husband that she seems to just stop caring anymore. She stops keeping her hair tidy, no longer wears makeup, and argues with her husband openly.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Bruno's father is the boss of an extermination camp; his own son is killed in its gas chambers.
  • Howl of Sorrow: In the movie, when Elsa and Gretel find Bruno's clothing outside the fence of the camp and his tell-tale tunnel under the fence and at least one gas chamber is in operation, they guess what has happened and collapse in anguish.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Gretel makes fun of Bruno for having an imaginary friend — he doesn't, he's just covering for Shmuel — and walks back to her room to tell her dolls about how ridiculous her little brother is.
  • Ironic Echo: Bruno sees a propaganda movie telling people how wonderful and happy the Jews are in their camps, and shows a clip of happy children dancing on stepping stones surrounded by singing dancing people. After entering the camp himself he finds the same stepping stones in the movie, and can't help but pause at the realization of how wrong the film was.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Averted with Bruno. A Deleted Scene from the film shows Bruno watching in shock and confusion when his group of friends make rat noises at a Jewish passerby.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After sending so many children to gas chambers, Bruno's father believes Bruno's death in the gas chamber to be this for him.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: While not a straightforward struggle, Bruno is reluctant to take off his shoes and socks when pretending to be a Jewish boy, as he is horrified by the idea of being barefoot in the mud. However, he soon starts to enjoy it. This is only in the book, as in the film, Shmuel is always wearing shoes too, so there is no evidence that the Jewish boys would be barefoot.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: As if Bruno and Shmuel's fate wasn't horrific enough, there's a chilling lack of detail, attributed mainly to its PG-13 rating. Immediately after the deadly gas infiltrates the chamber, the place goes dark and it cuts away. The final shot of the movie is a panning-away shot of the now silent chamber.
  • Odd Couple: Bruno, the son of a Nazi, and Shmuel, a Jewish child at an extermination camp.
  • Person with the Clothing: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
  • Precocious Crush: Gretel gets one on Lieutenant Kurt Kotler.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some reviewers of the film and book expressed disbelief that Shmuel would still be alive at the camp, saying that Nazis would gas those who couldn't work first. While the bulk of young imports were processed by the extermination camp, the concentration/work camp part of the complex really did retain some. 600-700 boys around the ages of eight were registered to be alive at that part of the camp during 1944-45.
  • Say My Name: Ralf yells Bruno's name just after the gas chamber he's in starts working.
  • Stepford Smiler: Elsa is this prior to her Heroic BSoD.
  • Together in Death: Bruno and Shmuel, though their relationship is platonic, not romantic.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Because Bruno gets infected with lice, his father decides that the solution is to shave his head. This leaves Bruno to cry because not only does he now have a bald head, but his sister was infected as well but didn’t have HER head shaved because she’s a girl. This becomes a Chekhov's Gun because this makes him look very similar to Shmuel, “only fatter”. So, this allows him to blend in with the concentration campers when he goes to the other side of the fence.
  • Uncertain Doom: Lieutenant Kurt Kotler. The last time he is mentioned is by Ralph who says Kotler was sent to battle in the East Front, and it is not confirmed if he survives the war, but considering this was the most brutal fighting World War 2 took place in, his chances aren't good.
  • Villainous BSoD: Once Bruno's father realizes what has happened to his son, he just completely gives up. It's stated that when the Soviets arrive to liberate the camp and arrest him, he doesn't struggle in the slightest.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Nathalie's reaction to Ralf. Unusually for this trope, this attitude is portrayed positively, as Nathalie isn't upset at something minor, but rather the fact that her son is a Nazi.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Played painfully straight.
    Bruno: It's not fair, me being stuck over here all on my own while you're in there playing with friends all day.
    Schmuel: Play?
    Bruno: Well, isn't it part of a game with your number?
    Schmuel: It's just my number.
  • You Monster!: When Bruno's mother finds out what's really going on at the camp she starts having frequent fights with her husband (the SS commander of the camp in question), at one point stating that she married a monster whose own mother couldn't even love him.
    • Ralf's mother, Nathalie, herself. When her husband and daughter in law were proud of Ralf, Ralf's mother was horrified, questioning where she went wrong and pointing out the atrocities Ralf was participating in, as well as pointing out everything the Nazi uniform stood for.

Alternative Title(s): The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas


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