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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.

by

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: 238

(217) Jon H, June 25, 2015 7:57 AM

No children? Sure about that?

If there were no children in Auschwitz, who did Mengele operate on?

(216) William, May 14, 2015 8:19 PM

I agree, but think of the future.

I want to start by saying: I agree with what your saying. This book really dramatizes everything about Auschwitz and The Holocaust. But think about it for a second. In 10 years, there will be no more living survivors of WWII and The Holocaust.

Stories like this will be the only real thing grounding the future generations feelings on the subject. It's comparable to The Crusades, in a sense. Everyone agree's they were horrible. But the difference, is most people just read "The Crusades happened. A bunch of Christians killed a lot of other people for being a different religion."

The Holocaust is a much different, and "better" (for lack of a better word), way to say "this is what NOT to do". Simply because we have these stories. We have many accounts of the horrors that transpired, fictionalized or not, that purvey a sense of how awful this truly was. With the crusades, we don't have anything that says how wrong this was, written within a hundred years of it happening; nor something as powerful as books like this. (At least to my knowledge).

I guess what I'm trying to say, is: sometimes, fiction can be a better detriment than non-fiction. If future generations read this story, and realize just how wrong it was and how it should never be repeated, vs. reading it in a textbook and just thinking "Oh. This happened." maybe it's for the best.

Final note: I'm sorry. I wrote this after having four, very strong, Martini's, and finishing the movie (years later), after reading the book. Please forgive any grammatical errors, and some points may be confusing, but I hope you can see the gist of what I'm trying to get at. If you disagree with what I've said, please let me know (if you read articles this old). I would love to discuss, or at least listen to, anything you have to say.

(215) Jenifer Smith, May 6, 2015 6:36 PM

I was hoping to find an article like this. I have to teach it...

This is the first year that I have taught The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to my 8th grade English class. It is a part of a curriculum that I agreed to teach and contractually am required. However, I kept having to remind my students that it is fiction and children were killed immediately. I have even said that I have problems with the story. We even have author and survivor Yetta Kane come share her story for the Holocaust unit. However, 8th grade students have particular challenges in separating fiction and nonfiction. They talk about the story as if it is nonfiction. I agree with everything you wrote and I don't have to be a survivor to want to weep over the real impact historical fiction can have on young minds.

(214) Solo A., April 25, 2015 12:47 PM

I agree with the article

I did not read the book or see the movie, but I sensed from the cute, sad pictures with which it was advertised that the book would take a fuzzy, impossible view. This review aligns with my thought.

The advertising photos convey the classic trope of the innocent child who sees past the error of his civilization because he has no error to unlearn. It turns the Holocaust from war and murder to soft prejudice and civilized delusion.

We had a nanny whose grandmother lived on a hill above Auschwitz as a child. She could view in. There is no question but that the horror was visible to her. Silence was enforced by fear of soldiers with guns, not by social trepidation.

'm not sure it's acceptable to create a child version of the Holocaust, *at all*. The two people I've been closest to in life are Jewish and German respectively and in no case was the introduction gentle. It was scarring. If it is inappropriate for an 8 year old to see skeletons in a mass grave on the silver screen, how much worse is it to grow up without this sense of horror?

(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.

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