The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
UK first edition book cover
AuthorJohn Boyne
GenreHistorical / post modern
PublisherDavid Fickling Books
Publication date
5 January 2006
Media typePrint (hard cover & paper back)
823.914 22
LC ClassCS 2006/45764

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a 2006[1] Holocaust novel by Irish novelist John Boyne. Unlike the months of planning Boyne devoted to his other books, he said that he wrote the entire first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days, barely sleeping until he got to the end.[1] He did, however, commit to nearly 20 years of research, reading and researching about the Holocaust as a teenager before the idea for the novel even came to him. As of March 2010, the novel had sold more than five million copies around the world.[2] In both 2007 and 2008, it was the best selling book of the year in Spain, and it has also reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list,[3] as well as in the UK and Australia.[not verified in body] The book was adapted in 2008 as a film of the same name.


Bruno is a 9-year-old boy growing up during World War II in Berlin. He lives with his parents, his 12-year-old sister Gretel and maids, one of whom is called Maria. After a visit by Adolf Hitler, Bruno's father is promoted to Commandant, and the family has to move to "Out-With" because of the orders of "The Fury" (Bruno's naïve interpretation of the word "Führer"). Bruno is initially upset about moving to Out-With (in actuality, Auschwitz)[4] and leaving his friends, Daniel, Karl and Martin. From the house at Out-With, Bruno sees a camp in which the prisoners wear "striped pyjamas" (prison clothes). One day, Bruno decides to explore the strange wire fence. As he walks along the fence, he meets a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who he learns shares his birthday. Shmuel says that his father, grandfather, and brother are with him on this 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 and his side of the fence. Nearly every day, unless it's raining, Bruno goes to see Shmuel and sneaks him food. As he visits Shmuel more and more, and Shmuel gets more and more skinny, Bruno's naïveté is proved, as he never realizes he is living beside a concentration camp.

The next day Bruno concocts a plan with Shmuel to sneak into the camp to look for Shmuel's father. Shmuel brings a set of prison clothes (which look to Bruno like striped pyjamas), and Bruno leaves his own clothes outside the fence. As they search the camp, both children are rounded up along with a group of prisoners on a "march". They are led into a gas chamber, which Bruno assumes is simply shelter from the outside rainstorm. In the gas chamber, Bruno apologizes to Shmuel for not finding his father and tells Shmuel that he is his best friend for life. It's unknown if Shmuel answers him, because as soon as the door is closed, the lights go out and all is chaos. However, Bruno is determined that even in chaos, he will never let go of Shmuel's hand.

Critics' reviews[edit]

Kathryn Hughes, writing in The Guardian, calls the novel "a small wonder of a book". While she comments on "the oddness of Auschwitz security being so lax that a child prisoner could make a weekly date with the commandant's son without anyone noticing", she 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. It provides an account of a dreadful episode short on actual horror but packed with overtones that remain in the imagination. Plainly and sometimes archly written, it stays just ahead of its readers before delivering its killer punch in the final pages."[6]

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 "Bruno's friendship with Shmuel is rendered with neat awareness of the paradoxes between children's naïve egocentricity, their innate concept of fairness, familial loyalty and obliviousness to the social conventions of discrimination". He concludes by observing that "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is subtitled A Fable and, as in other modern fables such as Antoine de St.-Exupéry's The Little Prince, Boyne uses Bruno to reveal the flaws in an adult world".[7]

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, writing: "Boyne's reluctance to say as much can certainly be defended, not least on the grounds that the characters in a story about the Holocaust are themselves most likely unaware of the scale and historical importance of their experiences. To recreate those experiences faithfully might require undoing some of the readers' preconceptions". However Scott felt this undermined the work, saying: "A young reader who knows little or nothing about the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis will not know much more after reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, while one who has read other books on the topic — Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, say, or Anne Frank's diary — may be irritated by the book’s evasions and euphemisms. There is something awkward about the way Boyne manages to disguise, and then to disclose, the historical context". Scott concludes that "[T]o mold the Holocaust into an allegory, as Boyne does here with perfectly benign intent, is to step away from its reality".[8]

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."[9] 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". Blech acknowledges the objection that a "fable" need not be factually accurate; he counters that the book trivializes the conditions in and around the death camps and perpetuates the "myth that those [...] not directly involved can claim innocence", and thus undermines its moral authority. 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".[10]

Holocaust scholar Henry Gonshak rebuts Blech's historical contention in his book Hollywood and the Holocaust, writing that "[T]he rabbi found implausible Shmuel's very existence in the camp", but stating that "Blech is factually incorrect. In fact, there were male (though apparently not female) children at Auschwitz. In 1944, for example, according to the Nazis' meticulous records, there were 619 male children at the camp, ranging in age from one month to fourteen years old. Some of the boys were employed by the Nazis as camp messengers, while others were simply kept around as mascots and curiosities. Probably some of these children were sexually abused by the guards. Of course, thousands of other children at Auschwitz (including all the girls who arrived at the camp) were gassed".[11]


  1. ^ a b "Interview with Children's Author John Boyne (2006)". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2007-02-23.
  2. ^ "BBC World Service - World Book Club - Downloads". Retrieved 2016-03-15.
  3. ^ "Biography". John Boyne. Retrieved 2016-03-15.
  4. ^ Hughes, Kathryn (20 January 2006). "Educating Bruno". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  5. ^ Hughes, Kathryn (21 January 2006). "Educating Bruno". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 8 February 2012. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Blech, Benjamin (October 23, 2008). "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Archived from the original on August 30, 2009. Retrieved August 30, 2009.
  10. ^ Rabbi Benjamin Blech (October 23, 2008). "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Retrieved February 11, 2013.
  11. ^ Gonshak, Henry (2015-10-16). Hollywood and the Holocaust. ISBN 9781442252240.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gray, Michael (3 June 2015). "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.