Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.


Over the course of his time at Out-With (Auschwitz), Bruno develops a full understanding of the importance of self-honesty. Bruno’s mother taught him from a young age that he should always remain polite with other people, no matter his feelings. Although he adheres closely to her advice, Bruno also intuitively grasps the need to be honest with himself. Bruno’s commitment to self-honesty faces a challenge when his family leaves their beloved house in Berlin for Out-With. He has a strong, negative reaction to the new home and feels obliged to express his honest opinion, but he also knows he must express his opinion politely. Though his objections have little effect, he feels contented that he has voiced his honest thoughts—something that almost none of the other characters in the novel do. Bruno’s struggle to remain honest with himself continues once he befriends Shmuel. Over time, Bruno slowly realizes his own tendency to be self-centered. By examining his own behavior honestly, Bruno grows as a person and becomes a better friend to Shmuel.

The Guilt Caused by Silence

Whereas Grandmother vocally criticizes Father’s involvement with the Nazi Party, other characters who share her disapproval refuse to speak up. For example, both Mother and Maria are silent witnesses. In Chapter 2, when Bruno asks Mother what she thinks about the family’s new home, she responds by telling him, “We don’t have the luxury of thinking.” Her comment seeks to put an end to Bruno’s complaints, but it also reflects her defeatist attitude about influencing Father. Although Mother frequently challenges Father on family matters, she knows it would be dangerous to speak out against his work. Like Mother, Maria thinks it best to ignore what is happening on the other side of the fence. Her personal debt to Father makes her refuse to speak a word against him. She therefore pledges to keep her head down and wait until the ordeal is over. Both women remain silent even as they bear witness to the atrocities committed at Out-With Camp. Thus, despite their inward objection to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, their silence means they share in the guilt.

Read more about the power of words during wartime in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

The Power of Friendship

Bruno has a strong commitment to his friends. When he learns his family has to leave Berlin, his first thought is that he will lose his three best friends, whose companionship anchored his life. Once the family moves and Bruno loses contact with his friends, he feels isolated, lonely, and increasingly depressed. Bruno languishes for weeks, worried that he will go mad for lack of friends. But then he meets Shmuel, and everything changes. Bruno makes the daily trek along the fence to meet his new friend and talk about the challenges they face. Just as Shmuel brightens Bruno’s life, Bruno’s companionship also provides a ray of hope in Shmuel’s otherwise hopeless existence. As with any relationship, Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship has its moments of tension and conflict. Ultimately, however, their commitment to each other helps them overcome their differences, and, in the end, the boys’ friendship gives them the power to face death with courage.