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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of Bruno, a young German boy growing up during World War II. As a nine-year-old, Bruno lived in his own world of imagination. He enjoyed reading adventure stories and going on expeditions to explore the lesser-known corners of his family’s massive house in Berlin. Although his father served as an officer in Germany’s Nazi Party, Bruno understood little about his work. Nor did he understand anything about the war. Bruno’s main concerns in life were to follow the strict rules set forth by his parents and to steer clear of his older sister, Gretel. Otherwise, he enjoyed seeing the hustle and bustle of Berlin and spending time with his three best friends: Karl, Daniel, and Martin.
Normal life suddenly shattered when Bruno came home from school one day and found the family maid, Maria, packing his belongings. Bruno’s mother explained that Father would soon begin a new job and that the family needed to move immediately. Several days later, the family boarded a train and traveled to their new home. Bruno disapproved of the new house. Not only was it smaller than their Berlin home, but it also struck him as cold and lonely. And to make matters worse, there were soldiers everywhere.
On the day of the family’s arrival, Bruno looked out the window of his new bedroom and witnessed an odd sight. On the other side of a very tall fence that stretched far into the distance, he saw a large number of boys and men of all ages wearing striped pajamas and matching caps. Bruno went to consult his sister about their new life. Gretel knew that their new home was called “Out-With,” but other than that, she remained as much in the dark as Bruno. Bruno decided to speak with Father. After voicing his frustration about the new house and arguing for the family’s return to Berlin, Bruno asked who the people on the other side of the fence were. Father explained that they were “not people at all” and that Bruno shouldn’t worry about them.
Bruno persisted in his complaints about the new house. One day, he tried to get Maria to express disapproval of the family’s move, but she refused. She told Bruno that Father was a good man and that he had helped her and her family in their time of greatest need. For this reason, she would not speak a word against him. Maria had never told Bruno about her life before, and her story made him realize that she was a complete person with her own life history and experience.
Weeks passed, and Bruno struggled to keep himself occupied. One day, he decided to erect a tire swing. While playing on his new swing, Bruno fell and scraped his leg. An older Jewish man named Pavel saw the accident from the kitchen window. Pavel, who used to be a doctor but now helped prepare and serve the family’s meals, brought Bruno in and dressed his wound. Bruno felt grateful for Pavel’s help, but he also wondered why a doctor would bother working as a servant.
More weeks passed, and Bruno decided to go exploring. In the afternoon, after history and geography lessons with his tutor, Herr Liszt, Bruno set out walking along the fence that he could see from his window. He walked for an hour before coming upon a boy who introduced himself as Shmuel. Bruno and Shmuel sat on either side of the fence and told each other about their lives. Shmuel explained how his family had been forced to move into a crowded ghetto and then again to get on a train to come to this camp in a remote part of Poland.
Excited to have made a friend, Bruno returned to the same spot along the fence nearly every day over the coming weeks and months. As time passed, Bruno noticed that Shmuel grew thinner and weaker. His skin looked increasingly gray. Bruno started stealing bread and cheese for his hungry friend.
One day, in the midst of preparations for a party to celebrate Father’s birthday, Bruno walked into the kitchen and found Shmuel there polishing glasses. Bruno gave Shmuel some chicken to eat, but a young soldier named Lieutenant Kotler came in and caught Shmuel in the act. Bruno hated and feared Lieutenant Kotler, who seemed especially cruel. In a moment of panic, Bruno denied knowing Shmuel, and Lieutenant Kotler threatened to teach Shmuel a lesson later. Shmuel didn’t appear at the fence for nearly a week, and when he did, he had bruises everywhere.
A year after the family’s arrival at Out-With, Mother grew increasingly listless and frustrated with life there. When both children got lice, Mother convinced Father that it was time for her to take the kids back to Berlin.
Bruno told Shmuel the bad news about his impending departure, and he lamented the fact that they had never gotten to play together properly. Shmuel had bad news of his own: his father had gone missing. The two boys made a plan for their last day together. Shmuel would bring a pair of striped pajamas, and Bruno would crawl through the small opening at the bottom of the fence in disguise to help his friend look for his father. They enacted their plan the following day. After searching in vain for clues that would lead to Shmuel’s missing father, Bruno wanted to go home. Just then, a group of soldiers surrounded the area in which Bruno and Shmuel stood and forced everyone to march into a long, dark building. As the doors were locked and terror erupted around the two boys, Bruno took Shmuel’s hand and told him he was his best friend.
Bruno was never heard from again.