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Bruno’s sister, Gretel, was three years older and always in charge. Although Bruno frequently dismissed Gretel as a “Hopeless Case,” in moments of self-honesty, he would admit he felt a bit scared of her. Gretel had mean friends who made fun of him for his small stature. She also had a large collection of dolls that Bruno imagined could spy on him.
Bruno burst into Gretel’s room uninvited while she was unpacking and asked if she had brought her dolls. Gretel said she had since it would be weeks before they returned to Berlin. She explained that Father had told her the family would stay for “the foreseeable future,” which meant weeks. Bruno feigned disappointment but secretly felt pleased since he’d thought “the foreseeable future” meant a whole month.
Bruno said he hated their new house, and Gretel agreed, though she suspected the house would look better once they had fully moved in. She explained that the previous occupants of the place, called “Out-With,” hadn’t stayed long enough to settle in properly. Bruno wanted to know what “Out-With” meant, and Gretel responded: “Out with the people who lived here before us, I expect.”
The siblings commiserated about having to leave their friends. Bruno added that the other children didn’t look at all friendly. Gretel asked Bruno what he meant by “the other children.” He took his time, savoring the fact that he knew more than her for once. Eventually, he led her to his room across the hall and indicated that the other children were outside his bedroom window. Gretel hesitated, then approached the window.
The people Gretel saw from Bruno’s window weren’t just children. In addition to small boys, there were adult men, both fathers and grandfathers. Gretel asked who these people were and where all the girls and women were, but Bruno had no answers.
The narrator describes the view from the window. Directly beneath the window lay a large garden full of flowers. Past the garden was a wooden bench with a plaque on it. About twenty feet behind the bench was a huge wire fence, taller than the house and extending far into the distance. Tangled spirals of barbed wire snaked along the top of the fence, the sight of which made Gretel uncomfortable. Beyond the fence there was no grass, only dirt, and aside from the people, the only things on the other side were low huts, square buildings, and a couple of smokestacks.
Gretel suggested they were in the countryside since it looked so different from the city, but Bruno pointed out that Out-With had no farmers or animals and that the soil didn’t look like it could grow anything. Gretel reluctantly agreed as Bruno joined her at the window. There were hundreds of people. Some stood in groups, some hobbled on crutches, and others carried spades. Bruno and Gretel watched as a soldier dispersed a group of huddling children. The children were dirty, and some were crying. Gretel announced that she didn’t want to play with these children, then she left. Bruno remained at the window, marveling at the fact that all the people were wearing the same outfit: a pair of striped pajamas and a grey striped cap.
Chapters 3 and 4 introduce the relationship between Bruno and Gretel, which ranges between typical sibling rivalry and occasional displays of solidarity. Back in Berlin, Bruno and Gretel were habitual enemies. They each had three best friends who assisted them in tormenting one another. Gretel frequently made fun of Bruno’s small size and liked to call him stupid. Bruno defended himself against his sister’s cruelty and know-it-all attitude by dismissing her a “Hopeless Case.” When Bruno burst into Gretel’s room without knocking, it appeared as if their rivalry would continue unabated in the new house. However, their shared anxiety about the sudden, dramatic change in their lives brought them together. Cut off from their friends and the only life they’d ever known, they only had each other to commiserate with. And though Bruno enjoyed the momentary pleasure of knowing about “the other children” when his sister didn’t, both of them felt completely in the dark. Lacking a clear sense of where they were and why so many people lived on the other side of the fence behind the house, Bruno and Gretel stood together in solidarity, physically and metaphorically.
Read more about the fence as a symbol.
The narrator’s remark that Bruno always tried to be honest with himself has contradictory implications and underscores the irony of Bruno’s naïveté. Bruno’s desire always to be honest with himself signals a commitment to avoiding self-delusion. And yet, as a nine-year-old who perceived the world from a child’s limited perspective, Bruno inevitably failed to see things as they really were. Bruno interpreted events solely in terms of their effect on him. For instance, he didn’t want to leave Berlin because it meant leaving his friends and the luxuries of his family’s life. And when he saw the children in the striped pajamas from his new bedroom window, his first thought wasn’t about their living conditions but about whether he’d be able to play with them. Bruno didn’t consciously understand what was going on. Unconsciously, however, he did sense something inherently wrong about his family’s new home and about the fence that separated the new house from the people in striped pajamas. This unconscious feeling indicates a spark of self-honesty that will, against his Father’s teachings, enable Bruno to embrace the people in striped pajamas with an open mind and heart.
Read more about the striped pajamas as a symbol.
The discussion between Bruno and Gretel about the meaning of “Out-With” showcases their naïve misunderstanding of their situation. Any reader familiar with the history of World War II and the Holocaust will recognize that “Out-With” strongly resembles the name of the most infamous German concentration camp: Auschwitz. Both Bruno and Gretel mishear the word “Auschwitz” as a nonsense composite of two more familiar words, which leaves them feeling confused about their new home. With no other information to go on, they debate the meaning of “Out-With,” concluding that the place-name must simply refer to the departure of the previous residents. The children’s failure to properly hear the name “Auschwitz” parallels their failure to understand what they see from Bruno’s window. Whereas they see groups of people playing games and walking around with spades, the reader with knowledge of the Holocaust sees a prison where soldiers terrorize Jews and force them to perform hard labor. However, the narrator does briefly indicate this discrepancy between what the children think they see and what they actually see. When Gretel suggests that a group of children are rehearsing for a performance, Bruno realizes that the children are crying real tears.
Read more about the symbolism behind mispronunciations.