The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Holocaust through the eyes of two divided boys

Boyne, John. The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. Great Britain: David Fickling Books, 2006.
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John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offers a look at the Holocaust through two different perspectives not often studied in schools. The main character Bruno is a young boy who appears to have little knowledge of the war going on in his home country. He lives in a nice large house and has lots of friends in his neighborhood. When his family must move away to a different house, Bruno is upset because it is ruining his life. Choosing a young character, Boyne has allowed his audience to see the war in a unique light through the eyes of a child.
The other perspective Boyne works with in his novel is from the side of the German army during the war. Bruno is not a Jewish child, but instead he is the son of a high ranking officer in the German Nazi army. During the novel Bruno sees events happen that he doesn’t understand, but through his eyes the audience sees a new perspective of the Holocaust. Bruno’s journey brings him from a safe home in the city to a house outside of a concentration camp in Poland. His life is surrounded by Nazi soldiers, but Bruno does not understand their roles in his new home.
The language in the novel can sometimes make it difficult to understand exactly what is going on, but as the novel progresses the funny, childish words that Bruno uses become clear. For example, throughout the novel Bruno refers to a person who he calls “The fury”. At first, it is unclear who this is but as more details are revealed about who Bruno is you realize he is talking about Adolf Hitler. These words seem a little irritating at first, but when considering Bruno they fit the character well. Overall, the use of this childish language in certain situations helps keep the reader in the child perspective that Boyne intends.
Using two perspectives to write this novel has provided younger audiences with the opportunity to learn about the events of World War II that is different from what they may have learned in history class or in reading classic Holocaust works. Boyne has crafted this piece in order to make it accessible to different levels of young readers in order for them to try and look at the events of the holocaust through a different lens.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a powerful book that brings a unique perspective to a difficult subject. Bruno’s innocence in the book provides a unique look into the Holocaust that students may have not experienced before. This book will hopefully spark some interesting conversations in class that will improve their overall understanding of this important time in our history.

Recommendations for Teachers

My recommendation for this book is that it probably should not be taught by itself in the high school setting. Therefore I would pair it with another Holocaust novel, with my personal preference of Night by Elie Wiesel. I have picked these two because they both deal with the same genre however approach it with completely different perspectives. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a certain innocence about it due to the fact that the story focuses on a German child who doesn’t know what is going on (a representation that aims to say many Germans were unaware of what exactly was going on). On the other hand, Night takes the reader straight into the heart of the concentration camps and gives the reader detailed, occasionally gruesome events of what was going on. Thus, these two books would complement each other very nicely.

Now for a particular lesson plan, what I would suggest that a class do is break into groups of three. From there, the students will take on the ‘role’ of either: Bruno, Elie, or Shmuel and use the information that the book gives to describe their perspectives of the events that are taking place. I would expect that the student who plays Bruno to describe the fun that the people on the other side of the fence are having and how much it isn’t fair. The student who plays Shmuel would have an uncertain knowledge of what is taking place but to know that there are certain “truths” that divide the world and keeps him “lower” than a boy like Bruno. And the student playing Elie would have a much bleaker outlook than the other two and would discuss some of the apathy he has begun to have in regards to the pain and suffering he is becoming desensitized to.

This particular lesson would need to be towards the end of the unit so that they have knowledge of most/all of the texts in order to fully understand the psyches of each character. This role play would take the place of the traditional lit circle and give students some ownership of the material. I would prompt the students a couple days beforehand so they can revisit some of the previous chapters to find specific quotes to support their way of portraying the character. The purpose of this lesson would be to help students realize the perspectives and voice of characters and different novels. They will also learn to use dialogue and specific details to support their claims.

Other books which talk about the holocaust through the eyes of a child, which this could be paired with this one, include (from The Scotsman):
  • The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank – famous memoir of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam.
  • Surviving Hitler, by Andrea Warren – the true story of a Polish boy, Jack Mandelbaum, who was sent to Blechhammer.
  • I Am a Star, by Inge Auerbacher – first-person account by one of the 13 children who survived the Terezin camp.
  • Young Moshe's Diary, by Moshe Flinker – account written by a young Pole sent to Auschwitz with the rest of his family, where they were all killed.
  • Stones in Water, by Donna Jo Napoli – two Italian boys plan their escape from a labour camp.

About the Author: John Boyne
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John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971. He studied at Trinity College in Dublin, and at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He has published about 70 short stories and 8 novels (including 2 novels for young readers). His first novel was published in 2000, and since then his career has escalated. His works have been published in over 42 languages throughout the world.

Boyne has been given a number of awards for his work, including the Curtis Brown Prize and the Hennessy Literary Award. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was made into a feature-length film in 2006, won the Bistro Book of the Year, spent 80 weeks at No. 1 in Ireland, topped the New York Times Best Seller List, and has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.

Boyne's latest book, //Noah Barleywater Runs Away//, has also reached No. 1 on the Irish Bestseller Chart, and has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Award’s Children’s Book of the Year. Boyne’s next novel, //The Absolutist//, will be published in the UK in the late spring of 2011. He has taught creative writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre and the University of East Anglia, and currently lives in Dublin.

References: John Boyne's Website; Wikipedia; and BookBrowse

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

This video is the official trailer for the movie which was released in 2008. It is fairly good, but like most books to movie, just doesn't do the book enough justice (I would have added a narrator voice of Bruno throughout to enhance). Still, worth seeing!

Spoiler alert!!!! This is the final scene of the movie. It is quite a bit different from the book. So if you have read the book and want to guage whether or not to show the movie to your class, guage some of the differences which can be seen in this scene. DON'T WATCH IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK!!!!!!!!!! I CAN'T STRESS THAT ENOUGH, IT WILL RUIN THE BOOK/ MOVIE!

Additional Resources:

  • John Boyne's Website - The author's personal website, includes information about the author, his latest books, his twitter feed, and his personal blog describing the books he has been reading lately.
  • Interview with John Boyne - A detailed interview with the author where he talks about his childhood and struggles with getting published.
  • A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust - A website devoted to teachers, listing stories and testimonies about the Holocaust. A significantly large resource which can be used in a class to gather more information about what happened, and why.
  • Educating Bruno - A review of the novel by Kathryn Hughes.
  • Holocaust Remembrance Day - An article that offers other works of literature that can help students understand the events of the Holocaust.
  • Eyewitness Accounts of the Holocaust - A website with eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.
  • US Holocaust Museum - The website for the United States Holocaust Museum, a large resource regarding the Holocaust.
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum - The website for the museum and memorial at Auschwitz, with information on history, prisoners, and educational resources.
  • The Holocaust Memorial Center- This is the website for the museum in Farmington Hills, Mi which is one of (if not the) closest Holocaust museums to GVSU.
  • IMBD- For more information regarding the film.
  • A Critical Reflection- Though mainly deals with the movie version, this website gives great insight and critical thought about the Holocaust, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and the question if a genocide could happen in today's society.

--Audra Birt, Derek Boillat, Kurt McCool, Aaron Yusten