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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

This well-meaning book ends up distorting the Holocaust.


Soon there will be no more eyewitnesses. The Holocaust is inexorably moving from personal testimony to textual narrative.

Survivors, those who clung to life no matter how unbearable so that they could confirm the unimaginable and attest to the unbelievable, are harder to find after more than half a century. It is the written word that will have to substitute for the heart-rending tales of woe shared by those who endured hell on earth. That is, after all, all that will remain of six million victims.

Holocaust authors have a daunting responsibility.

Holocaust authors have a daunting responsibility. They must speak for those who cannot, but whose suffering demands to be remembered and whose deaths cry out for posthumous meaning. Their task transcends the mere recording of history. It is nothing less than a sacred mission. Holocaust literature, like the biblical admonition to remember the crimes of Amalek, deservedly rises to the level of the holy.

For that reason I admire anyone who is courageous enough to attempt to deal with the subject. No, there will never be too many books about this dreadful period we would rather forget. No, we have no right to ignore the past because it is unpleasant or refuse to let reality intrude on our preference for fun and for laughter. And John Boyne is to be commended for tackling a frightening story that needs to be told to teenagers today in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- a fictional account of the Nazi era that uses the powerful device of a tale told from the perspective of its nine year old hero.

I came to this book fully prepared to love it. Although the publisher insists that all reviewers not reveal its story, the back cover promises "As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank." And indeed the writing is gripping. The style, sharing with Anne Frank the distinctive voice of youth, is extremely effective. One can readily understand why the book has had such a strong impact on countless readers, become required reading in high school Holocaust courses round the country, and is about to be released as a major motion picture.

And yet…

How should one react to a book that ostensibly seeks to inform while it so blatantly distorts? If it is meant as a way of understanding what actually happened -- and indeed for many students it will be the definitive and perhaps only Holocaust account to which they will be exposed -- how will its inaccuracies affect the way in which readers will remain oblivious to the most important moral message we are to discover in the holocaust's aftermath?

Without giving away the plot, it is enough to tell you that Bruno, the nine-year-old son of the Nazi Commandant at Auschwitz (never identified by that name, but rather as "Out-With" -- a lame pun I think out of place in context) lives within yards of the concentration camp his father oversees and actually believes that its inhabitants who wear striped pajamas -- oh, how lucky, he thinks, to be able to be so comfortably dressed --spend their time on vacation drinking in cafes on the premises while their children are happily playing games all day long even as he envies them their carefree lives and friendships! And, oh yes, this son of a Nazi in the mid 1940's does not know what a Jew is, and whether he is one too! And after a year of surreptitious meetings with a same-aged nine-year-old Jewish boy who somehow manages every day to find time to meet him at an unobserved fence (!) (Note to the reader: There were no nine-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz -- the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work) Bruno still doesn't have a clue about what is going on inside this hell -- this after supposedly sharing an intimate friendship with someone surrounded by torture and death every waking moment!

According to the book's premise, it was possible to live in the immediate proximity of Auschwitz and simply not know -- the defense of those Germans who denied their complicity.

Do you see the most egregious part of this picture? As Elie Wiesel put it, the cruelest lesson of the Holocaust was not man's capacity for inhumanity -- but the far more prevalent and dangerous capacity for indifference. There were millions who knew and did nothing. There were "good people" who watched -- as if passivity in the face of evil was sinless. If there is to be a moral we must exact from the Holocaust it is the "never again" that must henceforth be applied to our cowardice to intervene, our failure to react when evildoers rush in to fill the ethical vacuum.

Yet if we were to believe the premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it was possible to live in the immediate proximity of Auschwitz and simply not know -- the very defense of all those Germans after the war who chose to deny their complicity.

True, Bruno in the story was but a boy. But I have spoken to Auschwitz survivors. They tell me how the stench of burning human flesh and the ashes of corpses from the crematoria filled the air for miles around. The trains traveling with human cargo stacked like cordwood screaming for water as they died standing in their natural wastes without even room to fall to the ground were witnessed throughout every countryside. Nobody, not even little German children who were weaned on hatred of the Jews as subhuman vermin could have been unaware of "The Final Solution." And to suggest that Bruno simply had no idea what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home is to allow the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.

But it's only a fable, a story, and stories don't have to be factually accurate. It's just a naive little boy who makes mistaken assumptions. However that misses the point. This is a story that is supposed to convey truths about one of the most horrendous eras of history. It is meant to lead us to judgments about these events that will determine what lessons we ultimately learn from them.

So what will the students studying this as required reading take away from it? The camps certainly weren't that bad if youngsters like Shmuley, Bruno's friend, were able to walk about freely, have clandestine meetings at a fence (non-electrified, it appears) which even allows for crawling underneath it, never reveals the constant presence of death, and survives without being forced into full-time labor. And as for those people in the striped pajamas -- why if you only saw them from a distance you would never know these weren't happy masqueraders!

My Auschwitz friend read the book at my urging. He wept, and begged me tell everyone that this book is not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation. No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives.

The Holocaust is simply too grim a subject for Grimm fairytales.

Published: October 23, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 234

(213) Anonymous, April 11, 2015 1:22 AM

I disagree with him

Growing up in the early 60's, I hardly remember learning anything about the Holocaust so the problem is even more complicated than before because of how much time has passed. This movie allows me to introduce the subject to young students who know so little about the subject- if anything. It starts the discussion. Showing a movie like 'Schindler's List' would not be possible for many reasons like the language and the violence. I show this movie to Japanese university students and they literally do not move when the movie is over. It makes such an impression on them. I am thankful for this movie and for being able to share the truth about the horrors that happened that we just forget about because of how far removed they are from our own lives. How many people are being bombarded with lies regarding what happened, with what is happening today? We all have a responsibility to do what we can to share the truth about the Holocaust (and about killing babies before birth, about killing or injuring people with vaccinations, etc.)....and this is one small way I can do that.

(212) Kayla, February 21, 2015 7:02 AM

Although I do agree that this book should not be read in a classroom for kids while going over the holocaust lesson, -as it can be misleading because of factually untrue occurances- it isn't stated tha this book is in any way a nonfiction, or completely factually supportive. It's a story. A quite beautifully saddening one, I think. And I believe because it isn't too gruesome with true events, it is aimed more for children, who can make connections with the characters easier than that of The Diary of Anne Frank as an example. (No offense toward the Diary of Anne Frank in any way, it is irrevocably outstanding) But the boy, Bruno does notice the awful smell and how the jews are mistreated. But it's in a naïve child's POV. As I said, this makes it much easier for a child to make connections with as a slight introduction to what the holocaust was, and how it affected many many many people, of course as well as children. Don't see it as so much aa a misleading, untrue book of lies. It's more of a way for young kids to understand what the holocaust was in a way that they can understand and connect with.

(211) Anonymous, December 16, 2014 5:28 PM

Innocence meets evil

I can't disagree with Rabbi Blech that the story is a distortion, and unjustly attempts to excuse the 'bystanders'. However I thought that by seeing through a child's eyes', it showed what can happen when innocence meets evil - i.e. If it can't corrupt, then evil will destroy more directly.
I also found that on watching the film, it was the first half that was making my flesh crawl more, as in identifying with the child, the viewer was being introduced to evil 'for the first time'.
Since I learned about the holocaust as a child growing up in the 60s, watching the 'world at war' documentary with Olivier's emotional narration, I have tried many times to learn about it and understand it. In the end, I think it was just a horror that was too big and too evil to ever truly comprehend. To me, the film (and I assume the book) show just one more facet of this horror, albeit from an imaginary perspective. Just as it took a bunch of devils to craft this great horror, it will take the power of the most high God and his heaven to cleanse it.
If we forget it, for sure we are doomed to repeat it, for we -are- mankind. However there are many other evils in the world today, vying to compete with such horror. To my mind however, this remains the worst to date, though 'watch out!'.

(210) Ducky, August 26, 2014 5:58 PM

Absolutely true.

"No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives."

YES!. Just: Yes! What this book does is absolutely awful. And not just for Jews - I am German, and I have grown up in a country which has done it's very best to learn and not repeat past mistakes. Nearly every year in school we had to talk about the reign of the Nazis and the Holocaust, and while that could be a bit tedious for teens - it was and is important. I have had the experience that we do so much to admit to our failures and mistakes and to take precautions against them being repeated, and along comes this book(Which puns "Führer" and "Auschwitz" - perfectly pronouncable words in German. Yes, even by kids.) and says "Haha, look, there's no need for you to do all that!".
I think it is way too generous from Rabbi Blech to suspect high motives in John Boyne. That man has no respect for anything, least of all his job. And I am convinced that this book would not have been published if written by a German and sent to a publisher in Germany. They publish trash all the time, but trash about the Holocaust is a whole different level.

And what really pains me is that the same young people who had to read this book in school have come here to defend it. It says everything one needs to know about the quality of their history lessons. And _that_ is just counterproductive. What is the need of learning from past mistakes if only very few people do it?

It really makes me sad. At least through articles like this I can see that there are still responsible people out there - so thank you, Rabbi Blech, and keep up the good work!

(209) Redteddy, March 18, 2014 4:33 AM

They still don't understand...

Even a beautifully written, well meaning novel can impart dangerous untruths. Rabbi Blech isn't suggesting no one read the book, he is suggesting that these stories have a responsibility towards the truth. I too was disturbed by aspects I simply couldn't believe and that did unwittingly minimize the full horror of the Holocaust and I can completely understand why a survivor would take umbrage towards the novel & film. It offends in the same way of the film "Life is Beautiful". It gives the impression that its somehow possible to ignore and pretend that reality can be avoided and even subverted. These may be moving stories but they shed little light on the sinister tragedy we call the Holocaust. When something is written in the context of history it has a responsibility towards that history.

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