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“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne: The rest of us live on the other side of the fence…

There are countless of Holocaust stories that have been written, but arguably the most popular one is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If it’s not deeply remembered for the novel then it’s because the film was a worldwide sensation. It’s a heart breaking story full of innocence and naivety and, yet, laced with the irrevocable loss of childhood and life in what was a very terrible and bleak time of our history.

John Boyne took a very real story and portrayed it to us from the eyes of a nine-year-old child. How could a child understand what was going on during the time of Nazi Germany? When so few adults knew how to process the horrors themselves? Boyne navigates these waters incredibly cleverly with a portrayal of the Holocaust unlike any other.

Berlin 1942

When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy, Shmuel, whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

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Taking on a story like Holocaust from the viewpoint of a young child is a very brave thing to do, and for that reason the story hits so close to home. We’ve all been a child; we all know the curiosity that claims us as we’re growing up and we have all had that desire to make new friends and explore. Bruno doesn’t want to hurt anyone and doesn’t want to get hurt – he just wants a friend, whatever shape or form that friend comes in is practically irrelevant

That’s the beauty of this story. Children are adventurous and brave and they believe in magic. They are full of forgiveness and openness. They are, simply, incredibly innocent. Before life and prejudice get in the way and before others tell you how you should behave towards others who are different from you. You’re not born prejudiced; you’re taught it. Through the character of Bruno, Boyne shows that love, equality and humanity equates in everyone no matter what age, culture, race, background, religious beliefs or nationality. He reminds us that a true nationalism is a humanitarian one.

“Were they really so different? All the people in the camp wore the same clothes, those pyjamas and their striped cloth caps too; and all the people who wandered through his house (with the exception of Mother, Gretel and him) wore uniforms of varying quality and decoration and caps and helmets with bright red-and black armbands and carried guns and always looked terribly stern, as if it was all very important really and no one should think otherwise.
What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pyjamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
– John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has frequently been criticised for not properly covering the events that happened and the horrors that those who survived the German concentration camps were subjected to. In my opinion, this criticism is unfair – yes, the story was there to show the horrors of the Holocaust, and it did. It just didn’t go into detail.

As mentioned, the story is told from the viewpoint of a nine year old child. And as such, Bruno touches on the horrors he sees: the bruises on Shmuel, the beatings given to Jew servants, guns being fired about at “nothing in particular”, the sad unhappy people on the other side of the fence…

Bruno doesn’t know anything about Final Solution or the Holocaust – as a child he is naively oblivious to most of the appalling cruelties around him. But with children this is usually the case with things in life. So he doesn’t know what to make of the violence around him. I mean, he calls the Fuhrer “fury”, Auschwitz “Out-With” and thought “Heil Hitler” was just another way to say “Have a good day”.

If Boyne wanted to do yet another Holocaust story that goes into detail about the depth of every single horror he would have. But he wasn’t there, and if he tried to then he wouldn’t have managed to convey the message of the story as well, which was this: most of us, those who didn’t live through it, live on the other side of the fence, trying to make sense of what happened in our own way.

In the Author’s Note, Boyne wrote:

“Throughout the writing and rewriting of the novel, I believed that the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a rather naïve child who couldn’t possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him. After all, only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable place, trying in our own clumsy ways to make sense of it all.”
– John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a powerful story that will continue to transcend time because of the truth at its heart and the echo of our real life history that flows through its pages. It acts as a mirror, reflecting the worst and best of humanity, but also acts as a warning that we can’t let our prejudices guide us in the future.

“Fences such as the one at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas still exist; it is unlikely that they will ever fully disappear. But whatever reaction you have to this story, I hope that the voices of Bruno and Shmuel will continue to resonate with you as they have with me. Their lost voices must continue to be heard; their untold stories must continue to be recounted. For they represent the ones who didn’t live to tell their stories themselves.”
― John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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