“Oh, you’ll make other friends,” said Mother, waving her hand in the air dismissively, as if the making of a boy’s three best friends for life was an easy thing.
Throughout the novel, Bruno’s primary focus is his friends, or his lack of access to them. Aside from exploring, Bruno has almost no interest in any part of his life beyond his friendships. He does not like his sister or his studies, and he cannot figure out the importance of his father’s job. The search for friendship drives Bruno and motivates almost everything he does. Until he meets Shmuel, Bruno filters his entire worldview through his three best friends. Bruno has an established routine and social circle in his life, and he clings to that as Berlin begins to change. But as soon as Bruno is separated from Karl, Daniel, and Martin, his knowledge of what the world should and shouldn’t look like becomes muddier. Without friends, Bruno loses his world as he knows it.
[Bruno] sat down on the bed and for a moment wished that Gretel would sit down beside him and put her arm around him and tell him that is was all going to be all right.
Bruno and Gretel do not usually get along, but when confronted with their first glimpse of Auschwitz, they naturally gravitate toward each other for a moment, seeking some sort of explanation. Neither of them understands what they see on the other side of the fence, but they both feel certain it is not something good. Both children feel especially lonely after having been uprooted from their friends and, in that moment, having someone next to them is more important than their sibling rivalry. They each need a friend.
“We’re like twins,” said Bruno
“A little bit,” agreed Shmuel.
Bruno felt very happy all of a sudden . . . and he realized how lonely he had been at Out-With.
Bruno is eager to make friends with Shmuel after discovering the two share a birthday. The primary thing that drives Bruno to explore the fence in the first place is his sense of loneliness, which Shmuel provides a perfect solution for. The two boys come from different places with different traditions and assumptions about the world, and Bruno erroneously feels like Shmuel has it better off because he lives near other boys unlike Bruno in his solitary house. They have different hobbies, habits, and opinions, but they both crave connection, so they quickly and enthusiastically cling to their similarities. That need for connection provides solidarity and comfort to each boy.
“I’m very sorry Shmuel . . . I’ve never let a friend down like that before. Shmuel, I’m ashamed of myself.” And when [Bruno] said that, Shmuel smiled . . . and Bruno knew that he was forgiven . . . and then the two boys shook hands . . . It was the first time they had ever touched.”
After nearly a year of friendship, Bruno betrays Shmuel to Kotler and Shmuel suffers for it. Bruno immediately regrets his decision and seeks out Shmuel as soon as he can to give an honest apology. Bruno does not blame Kotler for his violence or defend his own actions. Instead, Bruno freely acknowledges that he let Shmuel down. Bruno does not understand the significance of a German boy sincerely telling a Jew he is sorry, but Shmuel sees it and is gratified. It is only after Shmuel knows Bruno truly sees him as a friend that he makes the reach to shake Bruno’s hand. In this action, the two boys acknowledge their status as equals.
Bruno got to the end of his sentence and realized that his voice had gone very quiet. These were things that Shmuel had told him, but for some reason he hadn’t really understood at the time how sad that must have made his friend.
The more Bruno comes to see Shmuel as a genuine friend and not just someone to make him less lonely, he begins to better empathize with Shmuel’s situation. When he tells Gretel about Shmuel, who Bruno pretends is his imaginary friend, Bruno realizes he has not been paying enough attention to his friend’s feelings and needs. Bruno makes a point to apologize to Shmuel and begins to invest more in Shmuel’s life rather than just tell Shmuel about his own. It is only as Bruno begins to truly listen to Shmuel and understand more about life inside the fence that he feels comfortable going to help Shmuel look for his dad. Bruno’s empathy leads Shmuel to feel comfortable asking for Bruno’s help.