Bruno’s world in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is filled with places he is not allowed to go, and the reasons for these boundaries are rarely explained to him. He is never allowed into his Father’s office, “with no exceptions,” and he and his sister Gretel are often shooed away from dinner parties and important conversations behind closed doors. Bruno, as a nine-year-old boy, loves nothing more than to explore, and this is how he comes to meet Shmuel through the fence of the concentration camp. Despite the barrier between them, the boys develop a relationship based on conversation, rather than the rough-and-tumble games that Bruno enjoyed with his three best friends back in Berlin.
The boundaries in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—whether they are social boundaries, such as the inability to ask certain questions, or physical ones, such as a closed door or a fence—all lead to dire consequences. Because Bruno does not feel that he can ask his family who the people in the “striped pajamas” on the other side of the fence are, and his parents and sister do not feel that he deserves an adequate response, Bruno has no idea what the outcome may be when he follows Shmuel in the “march” inside the death camp.
The only time the imposed boundaries within the world of the book are broken down are when Bruno crawls under the fence and blends in with the rest of the prisoners, an act of curiosity and bravery that leads to his death and Shmuel’s. However, one small comfort of the bleak ending is that Shmuel, for all of his terror in the concentration camp, dies in the company of a good friend who has supported him throughout the last year of his life.
As is the case for much of the text, the idea of boundaries acts as an allegory for one aspect of the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that decades now separate the carnage and terror of camps such as Auschwitz from the world today, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows how dangerously easy it can be to get caught up in such acts when people are forcibly divided, and when people are unable to openly discuss the consequences of current affairs. Human rights violations aren’t often that far away—just on the other side of a fence.
Boundaries Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“We don’t have the luxury of thinking,” said Mother. “…Some people make all the decisions for us.”
He put his face to the glass and saw what was out there, and this time when his eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an O, his hands stayed by his sides because something made him feel very cold and unsafe.
…all of them—the small boys, the big boys, the fathers, the grandfathers, the uncles, the people who lived on their own on everybody’s road but didn’t seem to have any relatives at all—were wearing the same clothes as each other: a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads.
“Ah, those people,” said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.”
“Bruno, if you have any sense at all, you will stay quiet and concentrate on your schoolwork and do whatever your father tells you. We must all just keep ourselves safe until this is all over. That’s what I intend to do anyway. What more can we do than that after all? It’s not up to us to change things.”
“Young man,” said Pavel (and Bruno appreciated the fact that he had the courtesy to call him ‘young man’ instead of ‘little man’ as Lieutenant Kotler had), “I certainly am a doctor. Just because a man glances up at the sky at night does not make him an astronomer, you know.”
Bruno was sure that he had never seen a skinnier or sadder boy in his life but decided that he had better talk to him.
“Poland,” said Bruno thoughtfully, weighing up the word on his tongue. “That’s not as good as Germany, is it?”
Shmuel frowned. “Why isn’t it?” he asked.
“Well, because Germany is the greatest of all countries,” Bruno replied, remembering something that he had overheard Father discussing with Grandfather on any number of occasions. “We’re superior.”
Shmuel looked very sad when he told this story and Bruno didn’t know why; it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing to him, and after all much the same thing had happened to him.
“Dinner isn’t served until half past six. What time do you have yours?”
Shmuel shrugged his shoulders and pulled himself to his feet. “I think I’d better get back,” he said.
“Perhaps you can come to dinner with us one evening,” said Bruno, although he wasn’t sure it was a very good idea.
“Perhaps,” said Shmuel, although he didn’t sound convinced.
“There aren’t any good soldiers,” said Shmuel.
“Of course there are,” said Bruno.
“Well, Father, for one,” said Bruno. “That’s why he has such an impressive uniform and why everyone calls him Commandant and does whatever he says. The Fury has big things in mind for him because he’s such a good soldier.”
“There aren’t any good soldiers,” repeated Shmuel.
“Except Father,” repeated Bruno, who was hoping that Shmuel wouldn’t say that again because he didn’t want to have to argue with him. After all, he was the only friend he had here at Out-With. But Father was Father, and Bruno didn’t think it was right for someone to say something bad about him.
What happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. Lieutenant Kotler grew very angry with Pavel and no one—not Bruno, not Gretel, not Mother and not even Father—stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch. Even though it made Bruno cry and Gretel grow pale.
Bruno tried to return to his book, but he’d lost interest in it for now and stared out at the rain instead and wondered whether Shmuel, wherever he was, was thinking about him too and missing their conversations as much as he was.
“What are you doing here?” repeated Bruno, for although he still didn’t quite understand what took place on the other side of the fence, there was something about the people from there that made him think they shouldn’t be here in his house.
It was the first time they had ever touched.
“I’m asking you, if we’re not Jews, what were we instead?”
“We’re the opposite,” said Gretel, answering quickly and sounding a lot more satisfied with this answer. “Yes, that’s it. We’re the opposite.”
“I look just like you now,” said Bruno sadly, as if this was a terrible thing to admit.
“Only fatter,” admitted Shmuel.
He paused for a moment and looked out the window to his left—the window that led off to a view of the camp on the other side of the fence. “When I think about it, perhaps she is right. Perhaps this is not a place for children.”
Shmuel bit his lip and said nothing. He had seen Bruno’s father on any number of occasions and couldn’t understand how such a man could have a son who was so friendly and kind.
Bruno had an urge to give Shmuel a hug, just to let him know how much he liked him and how much he’d enjoyed talking to him over the last year.
Shmuel had an urge to give Bruno a hug too, just to thank him for all his many kindnesses, and his gifts of food, and the fact that he was going to help him find Papa.
Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let it go.
Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.