Irish novelist John Boyne published his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2006. The protagonist, eight-year-old German boy Bruno, has no idea that his father is the kommandant of a concentration camp during the second world war. Bruno and his family are sent to live with their father as he carries out his work.
Bored and lonely, Bruno ventures out to the perimeter of the camp where he meets and befriends a young Jewish camp inmate called Shmuel, the eponymous “boy in the striped pyjamas”.
The two boys – who are of equal age but vastly different backgrounds – develop an unlikely friendship. Completely failing to comprehend the gravity of Shmuel’s situation, Bruno yearns to join and play with his friend on the other side of the wire fence.
One day, his wish is fulfilled. He dons a set of striped pyjamas that Bruno brings him and together they wander about the camp. However, during a roundup, both boys – since they are indistinguishable – are sent to the gas chambers, where they are killed. Bruno’s parents desperately search for him, grief-stricken and are inconsolable when they realise his fate.
The novel was subsequently adapted into a major film in 2008 as well as a ballet in 2016. And in January 2023, Noah Max’s opera, The Child in the Striped Pyjamas opened in London.
Popular but problematic
Despite its popularity – or maybe because of it – the novel and its adaptions have attracted controversy. Because Jew and gentile suffer the same death, it suggests no difference between the two boys and that Bruno is as much a victim as Shmuel. Focusing on the grief of Bruno’s parents generates sympathy for them rather than the faceless Jews who were murdered in their millions.
In 2020, the Auschwitz Museum tweeted that the children’s novel “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust”. Its criticisms of the novel include its portrayal of Jewish victims as one dimensional, passive and “unresisting”. It has also urged readers not to see it as “a fable”.
Writing in The Jewish Chronicle in 2022, author Keren David explained why such stories are problematic.
The centre of these romantic, sentimental stories is an obsession with Nazis. The non-Jewish reader cannot identify fully with the Jewish victim – too scary, too alien – but they do fear the element within themselves that might have become Nazis. The idea that love conquers all, that even a Nazi camp commander possesses a heart capable of love, is a deeply reassuring fantasy.
Yet, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its subsequent adaptations resist and complicate stereotyping of Jews and gentiles. Shmuel and Bruno are virtually identical and interchangeable, suggesting that both can become victims if in the wrong clothing. In this instance, there is no essential difference between victim and victimiser.
This allows the reader to consider what philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt controversially called “the banality of evil”. This is the idea that evil is not metaphysical (existing as an idea outside of human sense perception) but more ordinary, something that we are all capable of in the wrong circumstances.
A deeply personal re-imagining
Noah Max’s 2023 operatic adaptation is deeply personal. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, he explained: “The music explores the destruction of humanity’s innocence by the Holocaust through a father’s inability to face the fact that his own evil actions led directly to the murder of his child.”
Max’s maternal great-grandparents, Chaim and Klara Tennenhaus, left Austria in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power. On Boyne’s novel, Max said:
It’s very hard to convince children to read a book about something as dark and serious as the Holocaust and what I find amazing is that while not all adults get the profound symbolism of the story, kids get it. They pick up on the fact that the children have the same birthday and are the same child.
Of course, Boyne’s book contains fictionalised elements. Given that it is novel, it has to, and artistic licence should be extended to it for that reason. Works of art cannot be judged on the same terms as history books given the limitations of the former in terms of length and audience.
As an expert in the representation of the Holocaust on film, as well as someone involved in Holocaust education, I know from personal experience that it is a very tricky task to translate the magnitude of the Holocaust to a younger audience. Any device, however flawed, should be applauded for attempting to do so even if it does not fully succeed.
It is the task of the reader to go and learn more to put the novel in context by reading some of the scores of scholarship on the Holocaust, watching excellent documentaries like Shoah or the US and the Holocaust, or visiting Holocaust exhibitions like those at the Imperial War Museum in London.
For all the criticisms, and while it is not without its problems, I think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be continued to be read, adapted, staged and performed.
Anything that introduces the Holocaust and its significance to audiences, even if it does not fully succeed in its artistic aims, should be welcomed – not least because the debate about the novel helps us to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive so many years later.