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Intermittent rain in the coming weeks prevented Bruno and Shmuel from seeing each other every day. On the days they did meet, Bruno felt concerned about Shmuel’s deteriorating physical condition. His friend seemed thinner all the time. Bruno kept bringing bread and cheese for him. One time, he even snuck away with a piece of chocolate cake but ended up eating it all on his way to their meeting place.
Father’s birthday was coming up, and Mother wanted to throw a party for him. Lieutenant Kotler worked closely with her to make the arrangements. Bruno’s hatred for the young soldier grew. He especially disliked the way Mother laughed too hard at his jokes.
On the afternoon of the party, Bruno went down to the living room to read a book. Lieutenant Kotler was there and asked what he was reading. Bruno gave annoyed answers then started toward the living room. Just then, Mother came out of the kitchen and saw Lieutenant Kotler. She addressed him by his first name, Kurt, and called him “precious.” She stopped abruptly when she realized Bruno stood there, then she asked to have “a private word with Lieutenant Kotler” in the living room.
Bruno went to the kitchen seething with anger. There, much to his surprise, he found Shmuel, who had been ordered to polish glasses. Shmuel said they needed someone with small hands to do the job. Bruno held his hand next to Shmuel’s and remarked on how different they looked. Shmuel said he used to look more like Bruno, but like everyone else on his side of the fence, he had changed.
Bruno went to the refrigerator and ate some cold chicken as he complained about Lieutenant Kotler. He noticed Shmuel looking at the chicken then pulled more out and offered it. Shmuel hesitated, fearing that Lieutenant Kotler would catch him. Bruno insisted, and Shmuel gobbled the chicken quickly. Just then, the soldier came in, noticed the grease on Shmuel’s face, and asked if he’d stolen food. Shmuel said Bruno had given him the chicken, and Bruno said Shmuel was his friend. Lieutenant Kotler commanded Bruno to explain how he knew Shmuel. Now terrified, Bruno said he’d never met the boy before. The soldier instructed Shmuel to get back to work and threatened to discuss the incident later. Afterward, Bruno felt deeply ashamed that he’d denied his friendship with Shmuel.
Bruno went to the meeting place at the fence every day after this incident, but Shmuel didn’t show up until nearly a week later. He had bruises all over his face but claimed the wounds didn’t hurt anymore. Bruno apologized repeatedly. Shmuel lifted the fence and reached his hand under. Bruno took Shmuel’s hand and shook it. It was the first time they’d ever touched.
About one year after the family moved to Out-With, news came of Grandmother’s death. Bruno went to Berlin for the funeral but felt glad when he returned to Out-With. He’d grown used to his new life there, and he felt pleased that Lieutenant Kotler had been transferred away from Out-With. Mother had argued with Father about it when it happened, and Gretel felt devastated, but Bruno celebrated the transfer.
One day, Bruno remarked on the strangeness of his friendship with Shmuel and how the fence had prevented them from playing together. He began to think more about the reason for the fence and decided to ask Gretel about it. Gretel was “going through a phase” at the time. She had replaced her dolls with maps of Europe. She moved pins around the maps each day after reading the newspaper. Bruno knocked on her door and said he wanted to ask her something about Out-With. Gretel complained that Bruno kept pronouncing the name wrong but let him ask his question. When Bruno inquired about the fence, Gretel explained that it was meant to keep the Jews together so they couldn’t “mix with us.” Gretel’s answer confused Bruno, who wanted to know if he and Gretel were Jews. Gretel said they were the opposite of Jews and led Bruno to understand that “the Opposite and the Jews don’t get along.”
Gretel suddenly broke off their conversation with a scream. She’d found lice eggs in her hair. Bruno had lice, too, and his parents had to shave his hair off. Mother complained that she knew something like this would happen at Out-With.
Despite the strides he’d previously made to become a more self-reflective and respectful friend to Shmuel, Bruno continues to make mistakes. For instance, the incident with the chocolate cake demonstrates how Bruno still struggled with being selfish and illuminates his lack of understanding of Shmuel’s horrific situation. In a previous conversation, the boys had discussed chocolate. Whereas Bruno ate chocolate frequently, Shmuel admitted he’d only ever tasted chocolate once in his life. It is for this reason that Bruno thought to surprise Shmuel with a piece of chocolate cake. Bruno’s desire to bring Shmuel cake clearly shows his eagerness to be a good friend. But when Bruno ended up eating all but one bit of the cake, he realized how rude it would be to offer his friend so little. Ashamed, he decided to eat the rest of the cake and not tell Shmuel about it at all. The shame of the chocolate cake incident returned in greater force during the confrontation in the kitchen when Bruno claimed not to know Shmuel. Overcome by guilt at having betrayed their friendship, Bruno knew he needed to address the issue directly. In an attempt formally to right the wrong, Bruno apologized to Shmuel. This apology demonstrates Bruno’s growth as a person and a friend even as he continues to make mistakes.
Read more about an important quote from chapter 15.
Chapter 15 focuses on the burgeoning and scandalous relationship between Lieutenant Kotler and Mother. The flirtatious relationship between Lieutenant Kotler and Mother largely escaped Bruno’s attention. Usually, Bruno felt wrapped up in annoyance at the soldier’s self-importance and patronizing manner of calling him “little man.” But Bruno certainly noticed a change in their relationship during the period leading up to a party meant to celebrate Father’s birthday. Initially, Bruno noticed that Lieutenant Kotler and Mother began spending more time together, presumably working on plans for the party. However, on the day when Bruno came downstairs to read in the living room, he heard Mother address Lieutenant Kotler with flirtatious informality, calling him, “Kurt, precious.” When she noticed Bruno was there, she tried to save face by reverting to formal terms, once again calling him Lieutenant Kotler and requesting a private audience with him. Yet despite this uncomfortable exchange, the anger Bruno felt in the wake of it seems linked mainly to his interrupted reading plan. Although he did not fully understand the indiscretion he witnessed between Mother and Lieutenant Kotler, the reader does and recognizes the possible peril of a soldier beginning a relationship with a top officer’s wife.
Read more about Mother and her relationship with Lieutenant Kotler.
Lieutenant Kotler’s sudden disappearance from Out-With confirms the suspicions about him set up during the dinner scene in Chapter 13. In that chapter, Lieutenant Kotler revealed that his father had moved to Switzerland in 1938 just as Germany initiated the military campaigns that would lead to World War II. Lieutenant Kotler’s revelation led Father to believe that the soldier belonged to a family of Jews. Otherwise, there would be no reason for a full-blooded German to flee the Fatherland and seek asylum in politically neutral Switzerland. After briefly interrogating Lieutenant Kotler, Father put an end to the conversation and promised to pick it up again in private. Bruno did not consciously connect Lieutenant Kotler’s sudden disappearance with this earlier incident. He simply rejoiced that he would no longer have to put up with the various annoyances he associated with the man. By contrast, the reader understands that Father has likely ordered the young soldier to be taken into custody. It is even possible that Lieutenant Kotler may have ended up imprisoned in another concentration camp. However, the narrative leaves his fate ambiguous.
Although the fence has already played a prominent symbolic role in the story, it is only in Chapter 16 that Bruno considers what the fence really means. Bruno first saw the fence on the day he arrived at Out-With and looked outside his bedroom window. At the time, he had no idea why the fence might be there or what purpose it might serve. All he understood was its imposing nature, at once taller than the house and extending as far as the eye could see. Later, the fence became tied to Bruno’s desire to explore. He set off on an expedition along the fence, which led to his “discovery” of Shmuel. With time, the fence took on a new meaning in the way it created a division between Bruno and Shmuel that prevented them from playing together. Confused about the purpose of such a division, Bruno finally asked his sister for clarification. Gretel answered that the fence prevented the mixing of two opposed populations: one group called the “Jews” and another group she deduced was the “Opposite” of the Jews. Gretel’s answer didn’t make complete sense, and Bruno felt more confused than ever about the true meaning of the fence.
Read more about the symbolism behind the fence.