Bruno, a 9-year-old German boy, and his family move to Auschwitz during World War II where his father’s the new commandant. Bruno is unhappy without his friends from Berlin, but he makes a new friend: Shmuel. The only problem is, Shmuel is on the other side of a fence, so they can’t play together. But they can talk, and they do. And Bruno brings his friend food.
Bruno’s mother is unhappy with her husband’s job and eventually manages to get him to allow them to go back to Berlin. Bruno finds out and is devastated because he has a new best friend now. He plans an escapade with Shmuel. He’ll slip under the fence in this one area where it’s weak, and help Shmuel look for his father (who’s missing). I should mention that Bruno had lice, so his hair had been shaved off, making him look like the people in the “pajamas” on the other side of the fence. Shmuel brought Bruno clothes, so Bruno changes, slips through the fence, and gets to play with Shmuel for the first—and last—time.
If you don’t know what on in Auschwitz during this time, let me be the first to tell you that prisoners were gassed, murdered. Thousands each day. Nobody was safe on the other side of the fence, not even the son of the commandant. If you’ve watched the movie, you probably have an idea of what happened to the boys.
This book was horrifying in some ways and beautiful in others. In the end, it described war as something that engulfs all, not just adults, not just Jews, not just Nazis. It destroys everything.
I was immediately charmed by Bruno because he was so real. He missed his friends and hated Off-With (he thought that was the name of the camp because the last commandant was fired and was told to take himself “Off-With”—mishearing something is such a child-like thing, something I did often, so the fact the Bruno didn’t know Auschwitz for what it was is very reasonable and strangely endearing). In fact, this whole book was largely told through Bruno’s eyes, so the imprisoned Jews were people in striped pajamas, the Fuhrer was the Fury (both of which are true when talking about Hitler), and Auschwitz was Off-With.
Even Shmuel, who had to understand better what was happening being on the other side of the fence and all, only saw through child eyes (albeit eyes far more cynical than they had been). He didn’t know that bringing Bruno into the camp would be dangerous. He didn’t know that his missing father had likely been “liquidated” earlier (such a cold, clinical word for something so awful).
But despite the obvious differences, the boys were friends. It’s a lesson to us all.
The story was mostly told from Bruno’s point of view, something that changed toward the end. Almost worse than what happened to necessitate this change is that Bruno’s parents never knew for sure what had happened.
This was the story of life for prisoners of camps and their families. So many never found each other again. I read a story about two sisters who were separated at the liberation of Auschwitz, and it took 50 years for one to find out what had happened to the other (spoiler alert: one of the sisters was deathly ill and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. She died within days of liberation).
So many people never returned to their families and friends, lost amid the chaos of war. And this wasn’t just Jews. This was prisoners of war and Poles and other people as well.
I mentioned above how powerful the language was when told from the point-of-view of a child. Those simple mistakes in pronunciation and meaning make more clear than diatribes ever could how devastating war is on children, how confusing, how incomprehensible.
I should mention that this book isn’t terribly accurate. First of all, a child of Shmuel’s age would have been killed immediately. People worked or died. The fence would have been better guarded. The commandant’s house would probably not have been within viewing distance of the camp. There’s more.
But I’m of the opinion that the inaccuracies are irrelevant. They are meant to show the innocence of children, even those belonging to the long arm of the Third Reich. So many of the young were dragged along in a war that they didn’t understand and didn’t condone.
This book was powerful because of the innocence of children, of their strength and ability to look beyond appearances. Yes, children can be cruel, but I think that is because the world has taught them thus. I think their first instinct is of acceptance and love. Of befriending the person on the other side of the fence:
“He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly.
‘You’re my best friend, Shmuel,’ he said. ‘My best friend for life.’
“Despite the mayhem that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let go.”