This morning I read a review of the book entitled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by Irish author John Boyne in 2006. You can read the review here. In 2008, the book was made into a movie.
The film was advertised as a “family movie,” rated PG13, which parents were encouraged to take their older children to see. The author of the book classified The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a fable. Libraries classify the book as Teen Fiction, and the movie producer called the story a fantasy.
A fable is a fictional story that has a moral. For example, the German fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” is a fable: the story couldn’t possible be true because it includes a wicked witch who lives in an edible gingerbread house and cooks and eats little children. Likewise, the story of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” has a moral, but it includes many details that are not credible, so it has been correctly classified as a fable.
The title of the movie refers to an 8-year-old Jewish boy named Schmuel, who is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, dressed in a striped blue and gray prison uniform, but the story is actually about Bruno, the 8-year-old son of the Commandant of the camp, his sister Gretel, who is a true believer in Nazi ideology, and the wicked Nazis who gas little children.
Why did the author choose the name Bruno, instead of Hansel? Bruno is an old German name, which means “brown” in English, but it is used today in many countries. Did the author intend the character of Bruno to represent a little boy from the 21st century who knows nothing about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust? Is this a literary device, an anachronism, a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, which is used to show the horror experienced by children today as they lose their innocence when they learn about the Holocaust?
When the movie starts, Bruno is shown to be totally clueless. He knows nothing about German nationalism nor Hitler’s “war against the Jews.” This is strange because Bruno lives in Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, and presumably he goes to a public school where children were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology at an early age. He must have seen park benches with a sign saying that they were for “Aryans only.” He must have seen Jews being denied access to street cars in Berlin, but he apparently knows nothing about what is going on in Germany in the 1940s.
Bruno lives in the heart of Berlin and in the book, he is 9 years old. He would have been 5 years old on November 9, 1938 when the store windows of all the Jewish stores were smashed; he would have walked through the broken glass on his way to kindergarten the morning after.
As a German boy, Bruno would have been thrilled at the sight of “der Führer” riding through the streets of Berlin, standing up in his Mercedes, while the German people, who worshiped him, pelted him with flowers. In the book, Bruno calls Hitler “Fury” because he can’t pronounce “der Führer.” In the movie, Bruno is like an 8-year-old boy in America today, who knows nothing about Nazi Germany.
When a tutor is hired to teach Bruno about why the Nazis hated International Jewry, he couldn’t care less. His older sister, Gretel, tries to explain to Bruno that the Jews are “the enemy,” and that the Jews are the reason that Germany lost “the Great War” (World War I).
One of the reasons that the Nazis gained power is because Hitler gave the German people back their pride and their self respect after their defeat in World War I. But we see none of the German nationalism and hear none of the Nazi marching songs in the opening scene of the movie. There is a huge Nazi flag in the first scene, but that’s all. In a later scene, Bruno’s mother turns off the radio as soon as she hears a few bars of the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied.
At the start of the movie, the audience is as clueless as Bruno. There is a fleeting glimpse of people on the street being forced into trucks, but there is no indication that these are Jews being rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. The “asocials” and homeless vagrants were also taken off the streets in Nazi Germany and sent to a camp where they were put to work.
In the opening scene, Bruno and his little friends are shown running through the streets of Berlin with no adult supervision, even though the scene is taking place in the middle of a war in which Berlin is the main target for Allied bombing. In fact, Bruno’s anti-Nazi grandmother is killed during a bombing raid on Berlin, but that comes later.
The story line is that Bruno’s father, Ralf, has been promoted to the job of Commandant of an unnamed concentration camp. In the book, the camp is identified as Auschwitz, which Bruno pronounces “out-with,” another indication that Bruno is supposed to be a non-German boy today, since there is no th sound in the German language.
In order for Ralf to have been given such an important position as the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, he would have had to have been in a lower position in another concentration camp, or he would have had to have spent some time in the training school for camp administrators at Dachau. The real life Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess, was trained at Dachau and he had worked in the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin before being promoted.
Before he was promoted, Ralf could not have been making enough money to afford a mansion in the heart of Berlin, such as the one shown in the movie scene which was filmed in Budapest. Unless, of course, this mansion had been taken away from a Jewish family and given to him, as was frequently the case, although this is not explained in the movie because the story is told from Bruno’s point of view.
Little Bruno is not told about the family’s relocation until the day that the movers are there carrying out the furniture, and he is not told that the family will be living just outside a concentration camp. For the trip to the camp, Bruno and his family take a train pulled by a steam locomotive. We see a cloud of ominous black smoke pouring out of the locomotive as the train approaches the concentration camp, the first hint of something horrible that is about to happen. Remember the train in the opening scene of Schindler’s List?
In the sleeper car of the train, Bruno is shown wearing blue and white striped pajamas that look like the prison uniforms that the Jews wear in the concentration camps – another harbinger of things to come. The inmates in all the prisons in Germany had worn blue and gray striped uniforms for years, something that everyone in Germany would have known, even the children, but Bruno’s father allows his son to wear blue and white striped pajamas. Like I said, this is a fable.
Hitler hated modern art and modern architecture, which he called “degenerate.” One of the first things Hitler did was to close down the Bauhaus school of modern architecture in Weimar and the Bauhaus architects later moved to America. Yet, in this movie, the Commandant’s house near the concentration camp is ultra modern, inside and out. The house is a fortress guarded by armed soldiers and vicious dogs. Rudolf Hoess, the real life Commandant of both the Auschwitz main camp and the Birkenau camp, lived with his family in a house just outside the fence around the Auschwitz main camp.
With no playmates in the vicinity of his new home, Bruno soon gets bored; then he sees what he thinks is a farm from his bedroom window. Actually, there was a farm near the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, where some of the prisoners worked, and the real Commandant of Auschwitz was a farmer before he joined the SS. However, the Birkenau camp was far enough away from the Auschwitz main camp that the farm and the camp were not visible from the Commandant’s house.
Unlike the real Birkenau, which this fictional camp vaguely resembles, there are no fenced off sections inside the camp, so the unguarded perimeter fence is all that separates the Jews from freedom. In the movie, anyone can tunnel underneath the barbed wire fence because there is only one guard tower in sight, and it is unmanned.
Bruno goes exploring and meets Schmuel, an 8-year-old Jewish boy, who is a prisoner in the concentration camp where Bruno’s father is the Commandant. Schmuel works in construction in the camp, pushing an empty wheel barrow, and lives in the barracks with his father.
Only boys who were at least 15 years old were chosen to work at Auschwitz; younger children were immediately gassed, but not Schmuel. Schmuel was chosen to work, and he is allowed to work completely unsupervised, so that he does nothing but sit near the perimeter fence and stare out at the trees surrounding the camp. Since the movie was filmed in Hungary, these are not birch trees, like at the real Auschwitz II camp.
Schmuel wears a number on his uniform, which Bruno thinks is part of a game. Unlike the prisoners at the real Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Jews in the movie do not have their ID numbers tattooed on their arms, and they do not wear badges to identify them as Jews.
The concentration camp prisoners who worked in the homes of the SS staff were usually German inmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were chosen to work as servants in the SS homes because they were considered trustworthy. The other inmates of the concentration camps were assigned jobs based on their work skills. The Nazis used Hollerith cards to keep track of the prisoners and their assignments, based on their skills and education, which were coded on the cards. Doctors were always assigned to work in the camp hospitals, never in German homes.
In this fable, a Jewish doctor is assigned to work in the home of the Commandant, where he peels potatoes unsupervised in the kitchen, and pours wine at the table when the Commandant has guests, even though the family also has a German maid. This Jewish doctor could have easily poisoned the wine, or slit Bruno’s throat with a paring knife, but instead he bandages the little boy’s knee when he falls off a swing. Bruno’s mother says “Thank you.” and we get the first hint that she is becoming a traitor who will soon turn against her Nazi husband.
To top it all off, in the Striped Pajamas movie fable, 8-year-old Schmuel is pulled from his construction job of pushing an empty wheel barrel and assigned to clean a whole table full of expensive crystal glasses, completely unsupervised, in the Commandant’s home. In real life, Schmuel would already have been selected for the gas chamber because he is too young to work, but there are no selections at Birkenau in this fable: as we will soon learn, children and skilled workers are crammed into the gas chamber together and gassed at the same time.
In the real Auschwitz main camp, the crematorium was wedged in between the Gestapo building and the SS Hospital where any billowing black smoke or smell of burning flesh would have driven the SS men out of the camp, but apparently this never happened because there is no smoke and no smell from the burning of bodies in crematoria in real life.
In John Boyne’s fable, Bruno’s mother eventually figures out what is going on at the camp because she smells the odor from a crematorium and sees black smoke. Instead of telling her that the bodies had to be burned to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic in the camp, her husband, the Commandant, tells her that sometimes they burn rubbish at the camp.
As the fable comes to an end, Bruno peeks through a transom (a glass window at the top of a door) and sees his father and other SS officers watching a movie about the concentration camps in which it is shown that they had orchestras, libraries, soccer matches and a cafe for the inmates. Actually, this movie is based on real life because the Nazis did make a film of the Theresienstadt concentration camp where the prisoners enjoyed all these things before many of them were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.
The place, where the orchestra practiced at Birkenau, was close enough to the Crematorium III gas chamber that the prisoners could hear classical music as they descended into the undressing room. The soccer field at Birkenau was a stone’s throw from the Crematorium III gas chamber. There were large libraries for the prisoners at Dachau and Buchenwald and at the Auschwitz main camp, although not at Birkenau.
After seeing part of this movie, Bruno sneaks off to the concentration camp, taking an American style Subway sandwich with him for his friend Schmuel. (Back then, the Germans typically ate one slice of bread with a slice of sausage on top and German cookbooks had to explain how to make an American “sandwich.”)
Then we see Bruno’s father as he consults with other SS men in his office. There is an architectural drawing on the table, labeled Crematorium IV, which shows a gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
As the music gets louder and louder, we know that the unthinkable is about to happen.
Unlike the Hansel and Gretel fable, this one ends badly. I can’t reveal the ending because readers might want to watch this movie on DVD.