Family and friendship are both important themes for Bruno, as he struggles to determine what role he plays in his household, and how to approach his friendship with Shmuel. Bruno has not been indoctrinated with a hatred for Jews, despite the fact that his father is high-ranking Nazi officer, but his parents do stress that he is not allowed to go near the fence, and his father refers to the people in the “striped pajamas” as “not really people at all.” Bruno then feels a tension between what his family has told him about staying away from the fence, and the bond he feels with Shmuel, the skinny boy on the other side of the fence. Though Bruno knows very little about why Shmuel is in the camp or why he is not supposed to talk to him, Bruno ultimately allows his friendship to supersede his obedience to his parents and Gretel.
While Bruno feels respect for his Mother and Father, he understands that all is not well in the family dynamic. Mother is very unhappy when they move away from Berlin, and Father becomes even more secretive and commanding around the household. Bruno is horrified when Pavel, an old man who seems to live in the camp at night but do work in the household during the day, is harshly reprimanded for spilling wine. Pavel was once very kind to Bruno when he fell off a swing, bandaging Bruno’s knee and telling Bruno that he used to be a doctor. Bruno is thus torn between his positive experiences with the prisoners as very kind but sad people, and his parents’ descriptions of them as subhuman, and somehow the “opposite” of Bruno. This tension ultimately serves as an allegory for the pseudoscience and indoctrination spread by the Nazi Party during World War II, claiming the Germans to be greater than all other nationalities, particularly in respect to the “Jewish problem” in Europe. At the end of the story, with his head shaven, Bruno can find very few differences between himself and his new best friend. Despite Father’s exalted rank within the German army, his son dies the same death as the people he puts into the concentration camp. Thus the book’s “moral” ultimately declares that despite differences of nationality, race, gender, or religion, at a basic level we all desire compassion and companionship, and deserve the same level of dignity and human rights.
Family and Friendship ThemeTracker
Family and Friendship Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“But what does it mean?” he asked in exasperation. “Out with what?”
“Out with the people who lived here before us, I expect,” said Gretel. “It must have to do with the fact that he didn’t do a very good job and someone said out with him and let’s get a man in who can do it right.”
“You mean Father.”
“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.
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.
He looked into the distance then and followed it through logically, step by step by step, and when he did he found that his legs seemed to stop working right—as if they couldn’t hold his body up any longer—and he ended up sitting on the ground in almost exactly the same position as Bruno had every afternoon for a year, although he didn’t cross his legs beneath him.
Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.