Teaching the Holocaust: The boys on opposite sides of the fence

Boyne, John. The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. New York: Random House, 2006.

About the Novel

As kids, no words can be more devastating than "We're moving" spilling from a parent's mouth. It's impossible to bear the thought of leaving friends, family, and familiar experiences behind to star anew in a different place. To his dismay, this is how the principle character, Bruno, feels when he comes home and finds his maid, Maria, packing up his room. The story is told from the eyes of Bruno, a nine year old boy, who moves from Berlin to "Out-With" (Auschwitz) because of his father's high-ranking job in the military. Bruno does not like his new surroundings at all. He often is bored; he does not have any friends to play with besides his "hopeless case" of a sister, Gretel. Disregarding the rules of his mother, one day Bruno decides to go exploring. While running through the trees and without a thought about where he was headed, Bruno finds the "farm" he had seen from afar. As he approaches the electrically-fused iron fence, he notices a young boy sitting on the other side. His name is Shmuel, who is the same age as Bruno. The two quickly become friends and Bruno continues to regularly visit Schmuel at the fence every day. Through their conversations, Bruno begins to learn a little bit about the "farm," but is still naive to the camp's actual intent. However, the integrity of their friendship is tested in Nazi-Germany, as the final events of the novel unfold.

The book is told in third-person, but the voice of Bruno shines right through it with his simple-minded thoughts, his innocence, and his passion for what he believes in. Bruno is an innocent character that does not know much about the situation his family is being put through, but even more-so, what the people on the other side of the fence are going through. The author does a great job of grasping the innocence of a nine-year-old boy in this time of Nazi-Germany. As a young reader, one might not understand the situation either, so he/she may be left unaware of the camp's intent, just the same as Bruno. Conversely, as an adult reader, one may know the background and history of the Holocaust, so he/she may sympathize with the characters much earlier in the book.John Boyne does a wonderful job targeting adolescent readers, because it is such a simple read, but he leaves the complexity open enough with references, metaphors, and other ways in his story for adult readers to enjoy it too.

Recommendations for Teachers

We absolutely recommend using this book in the classroom. This book prompts great discussions regarding the history of the Holocaust and the naivety in which it existed. We do suggest, however, using this book with 9th or 10th graders, as the language is rather direct and simple. Additionally, when discussing the history of the Holocaust, it is important to present as much factual content to help students attempt to comprehend the elusive time. To do so, we recommend that the Holocaust is discussed to some extent in class before the book is read (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is an excellent resource).

Possible discussions before reading:
  • Familiarization with the following terms:
    • Führer, Auschwitz, Hitler Youth, anti-Semitism, the Exodus, Nuremberg Laws, swastika, Gestapo, death trains, death camps, Warsaw Ghetto, genocide, and resistance.
  • Hitler's rise to power
  • Timeline of events (1933-1945)
  • Hitler's Final Solution

We also recommend that this novella is paired with another World War II text, specifically Night by Elie Wiesel. Both books tell the story of the Holocaust, but from different perspectives. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy who lives next door to a death camp, unaware of what is happening to the Jews. In Night, Elie is a young man who tells the story of his life as a persecuted Jew who was forcibly taken to Auschwitz. The dichotomy of the two stories and the perspectives of both characters can lead to great discussions and explorations about the naivety and cruelty of the time.

Additionally, to illustrate the magnitude of the Holocaust and also to provide additionally testimonies, Holocaust films/documentaries may also be helpful to add into the curriculum. Excellent films to show in class include, "The Pianist" and "Shoah."

"The Pianist" (2002) - A film depicting the Holocaust through the experiences of a Jewish-Polish musician.
"Shoah" (1985) - A documentary of interviews and with Holocaust survivors.
A Teachers Guide to "Night" - from Oprah.com
A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust - via Florida State University College of Education

About the Author, John Boyne


John Boyne's writing career all started at Trinity College in Dublin where he studied English Literature. From there, he continued to study creative writing at University of East Anglia, Norwich. He started his writing career with many short stories and developed as a writer into many genres of writing including children's books, young adult novels, fiction novels, and non-fiction. This particular novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, won 2 Irish Book Awards, the Bisto Book of the Year, many other international awards, and became an award winning Miramax film. Boyne’s major target audience is adolescents, but his stories are very heavy, informative topics in many cases.

In an interview published in the back of the book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Boyne expresses his inspiration for writing the novel with his editor and publisher, David Flicking. He explains that it started with an image of the two boys, Bruno and Shmuel, sitting at a fence, a place of division that neither of them belonged. He explains the use of the third person to be a slight observer, but also get the simplistic viewpoint of the nine-year-old to give the book more of a voice. Boyne uses juxtaposition with Bruno’s innocence and confusion of the situation against the harsh reality in Nazi Germany. The story ultimately gives Boyne the opportunity to raise awareness of the genocides going on in our world. Through demonstration of people sitting back and not acting out against the Nazi’s actions, it may speak to someone and help them gain a voice for something they think is wrong, and potentially prevent more genocides from happening. Even simpler, though, raise awareness for the issue.

The information from this section is taken from John Boyne's Official Site and from a survey published in the back of the book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (First Ember Edition 2011).

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas released in 2008 is a historical-drama film based on the novel of the same name by writer John Boyne. Directed by Mark Herman and produced by David Heyman, it stars Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga and Rupert Friend. A Holocaust drama, the film explores the horror of a World War II extermination camp through the eyes of two 8-year old boys; one the son of the camp's Nazi commandant, the other a Jewish inmate.

The following clip is only one part of the documentary, "Shoah," which recorded the voices and experiences of Holocaust survivors.

Additional Resources:
10-15 links pointing to credible and relevant information about the author, the work, its critical reception, or the teaching of it. You may further categorize these with subheadings. Each link should have a brief tag describing the resource, as in:

--Torie Smith, Emily Bock, Jessica Faleni