Bruno, a nine-year-old boy who lives in Berlin, Germany, comes home one day to find his family’s maid, Maria, rummaging through his belongings. He asks her to stop, but she just shakes her head. Bruno’s Mother comes in and explains that Maria is packing all of Bruno’s things. In the next room, Bruno sees that Lars, the butler, is likewise packing Mother’s things. Mother asks Bruno to come downstairs with her so that she may explain what is happening.
The narrator’s voice echoes the voice of the protagonist, Bruno, a nine-year-old boy, so everything is filtered through his naïve perceptions of things. This is essentially the point of the book—to show how someone could try to remain “innocent” even as a German during the Holocaust. Clearly Bruno’s family is rich, as they have both a maid and butler.
Bruno races Mother down to the dining room. She tells him there is nothing to worry about, and that he has done nothing wrong to cause the move. She explains that his Father’s job in the army necessitates their moving far away from Berlin for the time being. Bruno thinks about the jobs that his best friends at school say their fathers have—such as greengrocer and chef—and realizes he is unsure exactly what his father does for a living. He only knows that soldiers are always in and out of the house. Mother tells Bruno that their beautiful five-story house will be closed while they are gone. Bruno is sad that he will have to leave his friends, as he loves to cause mischief with them, but Mother says that this is the end of the matter.
The year is 1942, and it soon becomes clear that Father is a member of the Nazi party. Bruno’s parents never explain to him exactly what his father’s job is, but he knows it is “very important.” This lack of understanding makes it difficult for Bruno to grasp exactly why the family has to move, thus fueling his anger and confusion at the prospect of uprooting the life he has always known. Already Bruno’s “problems” come across as the minimal struggles of the very privileged, but because we see everything through his eyes, the narrative lingers on the difficulties of his move.
Saddened by the news that the family is moving, Bruno climbs all the way to the top of the winding staircase and slides to the bottom floor on the wide polished bannister, one of his favorite activities. The banister, he thinks, is the best part of the house, as well as the fact that his Grandmother and Grandfather live nearby. He privately wishes that instead of bringing along his twelve-year-old sister Gretel, whom he thinks is a “Hopeless Case,” that the family could bring along his grandparents instead. He hears his mother and father talking in Father’s office, which is “Out Of Bounds At All Times.” Feeling defeated, Bruno goes to his room and continues to pack before Mother and Maria discover all the things he has hidden at the back of his wardrobe.
Bruno loves the house’s nooks and crannies, and is saddened by the fact that he will never uncover all of his home’s mysteries before moving away. He is left out of all the decision-making due to his age and because his parents do not discuss the realities of the war or his father’s job with him—and he is lucky enough to be in a situation where he doesn’t have to understand these realities. Like most siblings their age, Gretel and Bruno do not often get along—she treats him like a baby, and Bruno is especially self-conscious because of his smaller-than-average size.