NOTE: There are spoilers in this article, so if you haven’t yet read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I’d suggest doing that first!
I’m sure every adult, let alone every parent, has run into the roadblock of having to explain a tough subject to a curious little one. Kids are uncannily perceptive, and just when we think they’re not paying attention…..Wham! They hit you between the eyes with a probing question that you’d rather not answer. On the flip side, each of us as children have experienced the frustration of being told, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “You’re too little to understand right now,” or the classic, “How about you ask your Mom?“
Most of the time, these responses emanate from adults who have lost the language of childhood, and therefore have trouble translating difficult topics into digestible amounts for children. The real challenge is to preserve their innocence and sense of wonder without treating the topic as if it must be a hidden, uncomfortable subject. Unless quite young, kids usually deserve some kind of intelligent answer to an honest question.
The Holocaust is undoubtedly one of these tough subjects. How does one explain to a child the genocide of an entire group of people? Is there ever an easy way to explain things like Hitler, the Nazis, or the gas chambers? As it turns out, there is a way. What better tactic can one use than to explain such atrocities from a child’s viewpoint?
I feel that John Boyne has conquered this challenging task in his book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It tells the story of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi official, who must move from his lovely home in Berlin to a place called “Out-With” because “The Fury” told his father so (see where this is going?). At first, the only trouble in Bruno’s young life is that he must leave his room, his friends, his school, and everything he knows to live in a dreary place, where his “backyard” is filled with sad men wearing pajamas and there are no children to play with.
That is, until he meets Shmuel. Finally, a boy his own age! In true childlike fashion, Bruno complains that Shmuel gets to play with as many boys as he desires on the other side of the fence, while he is stuck in a big house surrounded by adults and shadowed by the mean figure of a certain Lieutenant Kotler. All throughout the book, adults will notice that Bruno and Shmuel don’t usually make the connection between their external circumstances and the broader political and social reasons why those things occurred in the first place. At other times, their upbringing and different ways of life clash. Bruno has never heard of Shmuel’s country of Poland, and so declares that Germany must be better. After all, he’s heard a hundred times about how superior Germany is to the rest of the world! In a way that adults seem to have forgotten about, Bruno and Shmuel agree to disagree. They’d rather keep their new friendship than spoil it with arguments about things they don’t truly understand.
So the two boys secretly meet by the fence as often as they can. Shmuel tells Bruno about how all the men and boys are made to work, although he doesn’t know what for, and Bruno shares his dreams of becoming an explorer. Things carry on fairly well in this way, and both boys see their visit by the fence as the lone bright spot in their day. Eventually, Bruno becomes completely fed up with grown-up rules that make no sense and have no purpose. Ever the explorer, he makes the decision to get to Shmuel’s side of the fence. He slips underneath and changes into the set of “pajamas” that Shmuel has provided. While in the process of searching for Shmuel’s father, the two boys are swept up in a crowd being marched through the rain and into a long, airtight room….. and are never seen again.
This story is both heartbreaking and a source of hope. Even though Bruno and Shmuel suffer the same fate, their friendship is proof that we are not born hating others. There is nothing in our DNA that says that one group of people is more valuable and worthy of life than another. Children who don’t understand WWII may still be mystified by the ending of this book, but I think that by the time they reach it, the author has made it easier for parents to answer the tough questions that must follow. He has taken his young readers by the hand and led them softly down the path of understanding big concepts like hate, sorrow, and imprisonment. He has also successfully given to adults the camera lens of childhood with which they can find the innate kindness and blossoming of friendship amidst the ashes of human destruction and suffering.