It has been almost one year since Bruno found Maria packing his things, and most of his memories about Berlin have faded. The family returns to their old house for two days to attend the funeral of Grandmother, whom Bruno had not seen since their last Christmas pageant. Father is particularly sad, since he and his mother had not reconciled from their fight before she died. The Fury delivers a wreath in condolence, but Mother says Grandmother would have rolled over in her grave if she had known.
This is the first time that Bruno has returned to Berlin since leaving for Auschwitz. He never got to say goodbye to his Grandmother, and she never reconciled with Father before she died. Grandmother remains the only one in the family to speak out against Father’s Nazism, and her death (marked with a wreath from Hitler, no less) shows how impotent her disapproval really was in the end. The fact that almost a whole year has passed is another reminder of the factual improbability of Shmuel as a character at Auschwitz—even if a nine-year-old boy wasn’t immediately killed, it’s highly unlikely that he would have continued to survive for an entire year.
Bruno feels almost happy when they return to Out-With, since it has now become his home. He realizes it isn’t so bad, now that he has Shmuel as a friend. Lieutenant Kotler has been transferred away from Out-With, much to the dismay of Mother and Gretel and to the delight of Bruno. Gretel is now going through “a phase” that means she bothers Bruno much less than before.
Though the reasons for Kotler’s transfer are never stated, it may be inferred that Kotler is removed because of his own father’s “disloyalty” in fleeing to Switzerland—or perhaps Father has learned of Kotler’s affair with Mother.
Bruno is pleased to see that Shmuel seems happier lately, though he is still very skinny. Bruno remarks that this is the strangest friendship he has ever had, since the boys only talk, and cannot play with each other. They still enjoy talking, though Bruno also still feels awful for how he treated Shmuel that day when he was in the house. Shmuel says that maybe one day they can play, if he is ever let out of the camp. Bruno considers talking to his parents about letting Shmuel out, but decides to talk to Gretel instead.
Shmuel is in higher spirits, seemingly due to his continued friendship with Bruno and the extra food that comes with it. Shmuel doesn’t have the luxury of being indignant about Bruno’s betrayal in the house—if he stops being friends with Bruno, he loses out on far more than Bruno will. Bruno feels guilty for his actions, and wants to make it up to Shmuel, but still doesn’t seem to understand how much danger he put his friend in. He continues in his well-meaning but almost unbelievable ignorance, thinking that he might be able to get Shmuel released from behind the fence so they can play together.
Gretel had become obsessed with maps and following events in the newspaper, and has thrown away all of her dolls. Bruno asks her why the people are on the other side of the fence, and she is shocked that he still doesn’t know. She explains that they are Jews, who must be “kept together” with their “own kind” behind the fence. Bruno asks if he and Gretel are Jews, and Gretel, aghast, says that they are “the Opposite” of Jews.
Gretel apparently becomes obsessed with the movements of the Nazi army, thanks to the indoctrination of Father and Herr Liszt. She, like Bruno, repeats German nationalistic and anti-Semitic rhetoric without understanding what she is saying. The war is sufficiently removed from her life that she can follow its progress like a game, and never see any fighting.
Bruno is still confused, but Gretel interrupts their conversation to shriek that she has found a tiny egg in her hair. Mother comes in and realizes that both Gretel and Bruno have lice. While Gretel’s hair is treated with special shampoo, Father decides that Bruno’s head should be shaven. Bruno hates the way he looks, but the next time he sees Shmuel, the two boys admit that now they look even more alike—even though Bruno is a lot fatter.
The fact that the two boys now look similar with shaved heads serves to underscore both their differences and their similarities. Shmuel is on the brink of starvation while Bruno, though small for his age, remains well-nourished. At the same time, Boyne uses this opportunity to hammer home his “moral” that all humans are essentially equal—there is no difference between a Jewish child and a Nazi child, except for the differences society imposes upon them. This then makes the nationalism and racism of the Nazis seem especially feeble, shallow, and tragic.