The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
UK first edition book cover
AuthorJohn Boyne
PublisherDavid Fickling Books
Publication date
6 January 2006
Media typePrint (hard cover & paper back)
823.914 22
LC ClassCS 2006/45764
Followed byAll the Broken Places 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a 2006 historical fiction novel by Irish novelist John Boyne.[1] The plot concerns a German boy named Bruno whose father is the commandant of Auschwitz and Bruno's friendship with a Jewish detainee named Shmuel.

Boyne wrote the entire first draft in two and a half days, without sleeping much; but also said that he was quite a serious student of Holocaust-related literature for years before the idea for the novel even came to him.[1][2]

The book has received a divided response from critics, with positive reviews praising the story as an effective morality tale. Holocaust scholars, historians and memorial organizations have criticised the book for its historical inaccuracies, which have been deemed potentially damaging to Holocaust education efforts.[3][4][5][6][7]

In both 2007 and 2008, it was the best-selling book of the year in Spain,[8] and it reached number one on The New York Times Best Seller list.[9] The book was adapted into a homonymous film in 2008, a ballet in 2017 and an opera entitled A Child in Striped Pyjamas in 2023.[10][11][12][13][14][15] A sequel, All the Broken Places, was published in 2022.[16]


John Boyne has described the conception of his novel as an idea popping into his head instantly of "two boys, the mirror of each other, sitting either side of a wire fence". While the conception of the book came about fast, his inspiration for writing has a more lengthy foundation. Boyne has stated that his style and writing process has been influenced by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, who suggested he write every day without rest days.[17]

Unlike the novels written by him, Boyne has described how he wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in roughly two days and a half, with the idea for the novel coming to him on Tuesday, April 27, then wrote non-stop until Friday at noon. Afterwards, he ended up writing ten different drafts before sending his book to the editor.[17] As for the subject material and research that Boyne undertook to write the book, Professor Gerd Bayer from the University of Erlangen has stated that Boyne's reader should not rely on "the actual truth-value of his text".[18]


Bruno is a nine-year-old boy growing up during World War II in Berlin. He lives with his parents, his twelve-year-old sister Gretel whom he has nicknamed "A Hopeless Case", and maids, one of whom is named Maria and another is a Jewish chef named Pavel. After a visit by Adolf Hitler, whose title the Führer Bruno commonly mispronounces as "Fury", Bruno's father Ralf is promoted to Commandant of the death camp Auschwitz, which Bruno mispronounces as "Out-With".

Bruno is initially upset about having to move to Auschwitz and is almost in tears[5] at the prospect of leaving his "best friends for life", Daniel, Karl, and Martin. From the house at Auschwitz, Bruno sees the camp in which the prisoners' uniforms appear to him to be "striped pyjamas". One day Bruno decides to explore the wire fence surrounding the camp. He meets a Jewish boy, Shmuel, who he learns shares his birthday (April 15) and age. Shmuel says that his father, grandfather, and brother are with him on his side of the fence, but he is separated from his mother. Bruno and Shmuel talk and become very good friends although Bruno still does not understand very much about Shmuel or his life. Nearly every day, unless it is raining, Bruno goes to see Shmuel and sneaks him food. Over time, Bruno notices that Shmuel is rapidly losing weight.

Bruno concocts a plan with Shmuel to sneak into the camp to look for Shmuel's father, who has gone missing. Shmuel brings a set of prison clothes and Bruno leaves his own clothes outside the fence. As they search the camp they are captured, added to a group of prisoners on a "march", and led into a gas chamber, which Bruno assumes is simply a rain shelter. In the gas chamber, Bruno apologises to Shmuel for not finding his father and tells Shmuel that he is his best friend for life. It is not made clear if Shmuel answers before the doors close and the lights go out, although Bruno determines to never let go of Shmuel's hand.

Bruno is never seen again, his clothes being discovered by a soldier days later. His mother, Elsa, spends months searching for him, even returning to their old home, before at last moving back to Berlin with Gretel, who isolates herself in her room. (Boyne develops Gretel's life in his 2022 novel All The Broken Places.) Ralf spends a year more at Auschwitz, becoming ruthless and cold to his subordinates, while haunted by visions of Bruno. Near the end of that year, on a theory, he returns to the place where Bruno's clothes were found, discovering the gap in the fence. He deduces how his son disappeared and collapses to the ground in grief. Months later, Allied troops liberate the camp and Ralf, wracked with guilt and self-loathing, allows himself to be taken without resistance.

The book ends with the phrase "Of course, all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age".

Genre and style[edit]

The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas fits into the genre of Holocaust fiction.[19] Boyne uses general knowledge about the Holocaust to create a self-described "fable", that relies more on a story of moral truth than historical accuracy.[19] This type of literature, as shown in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, tends to be told to children, from a child's perspective.[20] By having one child share the "bitter herbs" of history with another, the novel instills moral obligation in children.[20]

Kenneth Kidd, professor of English at the University of Florida, argues that John Boyne's use of fable allows him to explore the darker elements of the Holocaust with more of a cautionary tale resulting.[21]


Sophie Melissa Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton, argues that writing a factual story as a fable is damaging as it may produce misconceptions about the Holocaust.[21] Examples include the ability of Shmuel to escape work and Bruno's ability to approach an electrified fence.[22]

Smith claims that Boyne lowers the culpability of Nazis like Bruno's father by not just humanizing them but also creating a sense of obligation in characters like Bruno's father, as Bruno's father was a Commandant at a large concentration camp.[21] Additionally, the depiction of the story told through Bruno creates a greater ignorance of the Nazi regime by using words such as "the Fury" in place of the Fuhrer and "Out-with" in place of Auschwitz.[19] Generally, critics see the trivialization of the Nazi regime in this portrayal as damaging to Holocaust education.[7][23]

Educational implications[edit]

A 2009 study by the London Jewish Cultural Centre conducted a survey in which 75% of respondents thought Boyne's novel was based on a true story.[23] Many students also thought "the tragic death of Bruno brought about the end of concentration camps."[21]

Michael Gray, Director of Studies at Harrow School and author of Contemporary Debates in Holocaust Education and Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for Ages 11-18, described the book in 2014 as "a curse for Holocaust education."[24] In an opinion column for the Jewish Chronicle, Noah Max criticised Gray: "Gray’s 2015 study... [found] that 'respondents almost universally expressed their eagerness for studying the topic and frequently remarked that this [the Shoah] was one of the most interesting periods of history' (my italics). His sample of 298 Year 9 students from London and Oxford is perilously narrow given the book’s widespread popularity and none of his other findings are anywhere near that substantial. However, even in a sample so small, any 'universal' finding is worthy of close attention."[25]

Criticising the book's accuracy, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum commented in 2020 that the novel "should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the Holocaust."[26] The Melbourne Holocaust Museum, while finding the book a powerful introduction to the subject, cautions teachers regarding its many inaccuracies.[27]

Following on from their research in 2016, that suggested that pupils reach mistaken and/or misleading conclusions about the Holocaust from the book, The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education's 2020 research found that 35% of teachers in England conducting lessons on the Holocaust use it, or the film.[28]

In response to Noah Max's operatic adaptation of the book, Professor Nathan Abrams wrote that "it is a very tricky task to translate the magnitude of the Holocaust to a younger audience. Any device, however flawed, should be applauded for attempting to do so even if it does not fully succeed. It is the task of the reader to go and learn more to put the novel in context."[29]


Kathryn Hughes, writing in The Guardian, calls the novel "a small wonder of a book." She takes issue with the laxness of Auschwitz and describes the novel as "something that borders on fable," arguing that "Bruno's innocence comes to stand for the willful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses."[5]

Nicholas Tucker, writing in The Independent, calls the novel "a fine addition to a once taboo area of history, at least where children's literature is concerned." He asserts that it is a good depiction of a tragic event that strays away from graphic details, with the exception of the "killer punch" at the end of the novel.[30]

Ed Wright, writing in The Age of Melbourne, calls the novel "a touching tale of an odd friendship between two boys in horrendous circumstances and a reminder of man's capacity for inhumanity." He felt that the depiction of Bruno and Shmuel's friendship was a classic childhood friendship with a naïvety of their surroundings. He concludes by observing that "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is subtitled A Fable", and sets out to create a moral story of human nature in a fable format.[31]

A. O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, questioned the author and publisher's choice to intentionally keep the Holocaust setting of the book vague in both the dust jacket summary and the early portion of the novel.[32] Scott described how the experiences of the characters were supposed to be represented as separate from the setting of the Holocaust, and this creates a lack of the informative nature seen in other novels of Holocaust literature such as Night by Elie Wiesel.[32] Scott claims that "there is something awkward about the way Boyne manages to disguise, and then to disclose, the historical context."[32] Scott concludes that "to mold the Holocaust into an allegory, as Boyne does here with perfectly benign intent, is to step away from its reality."[32]

Rabbi Benjamin Blech offered a historical criticism, contending that the premise of the book and subsequent film – that there could be a child of Shmuel's age in Auschwitz – was impossible, writing of the book: "Note to the reader: there were no 9-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz – the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work."[33] Rabbi Blech affirmed the opinion of a Holocaust survivor friend that the book is "not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation." Students who read it, he warns, may believe the camps "weren't that bad" if a boy could conduct a clandestine friendship with a Jewish captive of the same age, unaware of "the constant presence of death."[33]

Holocaust scholar Henry Gonshak rebuts Blech's historical contention in his book, Hollywood and the Holocaust. He writes that "the rabbi found implausible Shmuel's very existence in the camp," but states that "Blech is factually incorrect."[34] While there were no female children, records have shown that in 1944 "there were 619 male children at the camp, ranging in age from one month to fourteen years old."[34]

Gonshak acknowledges that this presence of children does not take away from the thousands who were murdered in the gas chambers.[34]

In other media[edit]

In 2008, two years after being published, the novel was made into a movie The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, directed by Mark Herman.[10]

In 2017, the novel was adapted into a ballet by the Northern Ballet. The score is produced by Gary Yershon.[11] Reviews of the ballet are generally negative with Zo and Euml Anderson of The Independent stating the casting of children's parts as adults works against "the naivety of a child's viewpoint," which the novel captures.[35] The Yorkshire Post's review described the score as "a relentless assault on the ears," but apart from the music, it stated that it has redeemable quality in the cast, despite being depressing.[11]

In 2023 the novel was adapted into an opera entitled A Child In Striped Pyjamas by Noah Max.[12] He says of Boyne's book: "It's very hard to convince children to read a book about something as dark and serious as the Holocaust and what I find amazing is that while not all adults get the profound symbolism of the story, kids get it. They pick up on the fact that the children have the same birthday and are the same child."[36] On the appropriateness of depicting the Holocaust through opera, Max says: "the only way to convey its magnitude – and in such a way that people understood it was symbolic and not real – was through opera."[13] The piece was positively received by critics. Barry Millington gave A Child In Striped Pyjamas four stars in the London Evening Standard, describing the work as "intense, harrowing drama... [which] invites universal grief".[14] In The Telegraph Sir Nicholas Kenyon wrote that the piece was "emotionally ambitious... vocally eloquent... there can be no doubt of the integrity with which the tight-knit company deliver it."[15]


  1. ^ a b "Interview with Children's Author John Boyne". 2006. Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  2. ^ "John Boyne talks About The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas". Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  3. ^ Gray, Michael (1 December 2014). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: A Blessing or Curse for Holocaust Education?". Holocaust Studies. 20 (3): 109–136. doi:10.1080/17504902.2014.11435377. ISSN 1750-4902. S2CID 143231358.
  4. ^ Sherwood, Harriet (27 January 2022). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas 'may fuel dangerous Holocaust fallacies'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 23 February 2023.
  5. ^ a b c Hughes, Kathryn (21 January 2006). "Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by David Fickling". The Guardian.
  6. ^ Agnew, Trevor (9 May 2008). "John Boyne Interview". Agnew Reading.
  7. ^ a b Hannah May Randall (31 May 2019). "The Problem with 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'". Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  8. ^ Stuart J. Foster; Andy Pearce; Alice Pettigrew (2020). Holocaust Education: Contemporary Challenges and controversies. London: UCL Press. ISBN 978-1-78735-798-3. OCLC 1159166150.
  9. ^ "Biography". John Boyne. Retrieved 15 March 2016.
  10. ^ a b The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  11. ^ a b c "Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas". Yorkshire Post. 4 June 2017.
  12. ^ a b North, Nic (21 April 2022). "Hollywood giant relents over $1m demand to stage Holocaust opera". The Jewish Chronicle. p. 3.
  13. ^ a b Coghlan, Alexandra. "Noah Max: my fight to make A Child in Striped Pyjamas". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  14. ^ a b Millington, Barry (13 January 2023). "A Child in Striped Pyjamas at the Cockpit review - intense, harrowing drama". Evening Standard. Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  15. ^ a b Kenyon, Nicholas (12 January 2023). "A Child In Striped Pyjamas: Holocaust drama that's emotionally ambitious and diligently delivered". The Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  16. ^ Devlin, Martina (22 September 2022). "All The Broken Places by John Boyne: A sister's lifetime in the shadow of the death camps". Irish Independent. Retrieved 9 January 2023.
  17. ^ a b Boyne, John (1 April 2017). "My working day 'I began on Wednesday morning and continued for 60 hours'". The Guardian.
  18. ^ Bayer, Gerd (2011). "World War II Fiction and the Ethics of Trauma". DQR Studies in Literature. 48: 155–174, 164. ProQuest 896482224.
  19. ^ a b c "A debate over the 'limits of representation'". Retrieved 5 December 2019.
  20. ^ a b Bayer, Gerd (2011). "World War II Fiction and the Ethics of Trauma". DQR Studies in Literature. 48: 155–174, 299. ProQuest 896482224.
  21. ^ a b c d Seidel, Marc-David L.; Greve, Henrich R. (24 March 2017). "Emergence: How Novelty, Growth, and Formation Shape Organizations and Their Ecosystems". Emergence. Research in the Sociology of Organizations. Vol. 50. pp. 1–27. doi:10.1108/S0733-558X20170000050020. ISBN 978-1-78635-915-5.
  22. ^ Topography of Terror: A Documentation, trans. by Pamela Selwyn, (Eberl Print: Immenstadt, 2008)[page needed]
  23. ^ a b Gray, Michael (December 2014). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: A Blessing or Curse for Holocaust Education?". Holocaust Studies. 20 (3): 109–136. doi:10.1080/17504902.2014.11435377. S2CID 143231358.
  24. ^ The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: A Blessing or Curse for Holocaust Education?, Michael Gray
  25. ^ Max, Noah (4 April 2023). "'Why I stand by my opera version of Striped Pyjamas'". The Jewish Chronicle. p. 18.
  26. ^ McGreevy, Ronan (5 January 2020). "Avoid John Boyne's Holocaust novel, Auschwitz Museum advises". The Irish Times. Dublin, Ireland.
  27. ^ How to study ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ in the classroom
  28. ^ The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in English secondary schools
  29. ^ "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is now an opera – the case for adapting the book that the Auschwitz Museum said 'should be avoided'". Bangor University. Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  30. ^ Tucker, Nicholas (13 January 2006). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne". The Independent.
  31. ^ Wright, Ed (3 January 2006). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas". The Age.
  32. ^ a b c d Scott, A. O. (12 November 2006). "Something Is Happening". The New York Times.
  33. ^ a b Blech, Benjamin (23 October 2008). "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Aish.
  34. ^ a b c Gonshak, Henry (16 October 2015). Hollywood and the Holocaust. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442252240.
  35. ^ Anderson, Zoë (12 June 2017). "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas review: Clumsy staging of novel". The Independent.
  36. ^ Galton, Bridget (4 May 2022). "Composer to stage opera of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas". Ham & High.

Further reading[edit]