The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells two overlapping stories, one of Bruno’s search for boyhood companions and a return to his ordinary life, and one of the horrors of the Holocaust. The tension in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas comes from understanding that Bruno witnesses and experiences a far greater tragedy than he realizes.
Bruno struggles with his family’s departure from Berlin and must leave behind all the things he feels are necessary for boyhood. When Bruno’s family moves to Out-With (a mispronunciation of Auschwitz), they leave behind their large house, their neighborhood and its daily rhythms, and, most importantly to Bruno, his three best friends for life. In more existential terms, Bruno loses his community, his understanding of home, and his companionship. He is isolated, confused, and lonely. At the beginning of the novel, Bruno thinks he wants to return to his home in Berlin, but his real goal is to reestablish those lost aspects of his life.
After the Fury—Bruno’s name for Hitler, the Führer—comes to their home in Berlin for dinner, Bruno’s father is promoted to the position of Commandant at Out-With The family must move from Berlin to an isolated house just outside the concentration camp with no community besides the soldiers under Father’s command. No one in their family is enthusiastic about the move, but Father, Mother, and Gretel all stress to Bruno that Father’s job is extremely important, and they are needed there.
At first, Bruno and Gretel have no one to socialize with and no way to spend their time. They are restless, lonely, and temperamental. They soon get a tutor and slowly develop new rhythms in their new house. Bruno gets used to the fact that it is smaller with less to explore, partly because he begins to explore outside the house instead. On his adventures, Bruno meets a boy on the other side of the fence named Shmuel. Bruno notices that Shmuel looks terribly unhealthy and sad, but he does not inquire because he doesn’t want to appear rude. Instead, the boys talk about what they have in common, and their lives before Out-With. The two become fast friends, and Bruno walks to meet Shmuel nearly every day, bringing food at Shmuel’s request.
When Bruno meets Shmuel, he is delighted to find they have so much in common because Bruno hears echoes of all his same losses in Shmuel’s story. Like Bruno, Shmuel was forced to leave his home and was separated from his community and friends. What Bruno does not understand, however, is the vast difference in scale between his life shift and Shmuel’s. The audience understands the far greater cost of what has been taken from Shmuel, a Jew in a concentration camp. He too has lost his community, his sense of home, and his companionship, but he has also been stripped of his basic human dignity, which Bruno retains. Shmuel was brought to Out-With as a prisoner, not as the son of a high-ranking military official.
After nearly a year of friendship, Shmuel’s father goes missing and Shmuel asks for Bruno’s help in looking for him. Bruno agrees to go under the fence into Out-With disguised as a Jew to help Shmuel search. Bruno recently had lice, so his hair is shaved like Shmuel’s and Shmuel steals clothes for Bruno to wear. Bruno successfully sneaks in and the two boys look for evidence that might lead to Shmuel’s dad. They find nothing, but a group of guards forces them on a march before Bruno can return home. Bruno and Shmuel, along with others in the camp, are marched into a gas chamber and the door closes. The reader with any knowledge of Holocaust history will understand the foreshadowing here: Bruno will never return home, but will instead be treated as a Jew and violently killed.
Ultimately, Bruno is a child in search of his childhood. When he moves to Out-With, he feels he has lost everything. Although Bruno knows nothing of the Holocaust, the novel assumes the reader does. Therefore, Bruno’s loss of childhood stands in for—and illuminates—the significantly larger loss of humanity on the other side of the fence. In Bruno’s relationship with Shmuel, connection and empathy become the glue that binds them. Bruno differs from the adults around him when he seeks a friend, while Father and the other soldiers treat the Jews as less than human. In the end, this deliberate dehumanization takes Shmuel’s and Bruno’s lives at the same time.
The novel ends with this: “Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” We are meant to look beyond these simple, final words and see the dark, tongue-in-cheek truth. The tragedies of Bruno’s and Shmuel’s stories—and that of the Holocaust as a whole—are always possible as long as people lack empathy The storybook ending would leave Bruno and Shmuel’s tragic fate in the past, but this use of a limited narrator reminds us that life is not as tidy. The novel suggests the best way to ensure people live with human dignity is to continually seek community and connection in the people we meet, however we meet them.