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 continued 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.
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.
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.