Bruno, the main character of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is a nine-year-old boy who is the son of a German Commandant (Father) during World War II. Father has been rising in the ranks of the Nazi army, and Bruno has lived a sheltered life in Berlin with his Mother, sister Gretel, maid Maria, and butler Lars. The story, which is a fictional “fable” of the Holocaust, features Bruno as the narrator. Though he attends school, Bruno is mostly ignorant of the political situation at the time. He refers to Hitler, who visits their home with “a beautiful blond woman” (Eva Braun) for dinner, as “the Fury,” the young boy’s incorrect pronunciation for “the Führer.” When the family is moved to Auschwitz (which is only ever referred to as “Out-With” by Bruno, another mispronunciation), Bruno continues to be left in the dark as to why they had to leave Berlin to be near the camp full of people in “striped pajamas”—the Jews and other prisoners brought to the camp to work or be killed. Though Bruno and his sister Gretel, three years his elder, have a private tutor, Bruno has little to no idea as to what is going on in the camp, or in Germany as a whole. He thinks that Shmuel, the identically-aged Jewish boy whom he befriends through the fence to the concentration camp, lives there with his family voluntarily, and Bruno never understands exactly why Shmuel is there, or why he is so thin.
Bruno’s enduring innocence, and his sense that perhaps there are some questions best left unasked, is a prevailing theme throughout the novel. Bruno’s Mother and Father, as well as his sister Gretel, continually answer his questions about what is happening in Berlin and “Out-With” with overgeneralizations and euphemisms. When Bruno asks Gretel who the people on the other side of the fence are, she tells him that they are Jews, and are simply the “opposite” of what she and Bruno are. When he asks, over and over again, why the family must leave Berlin, his Mother tells him that Hitler has “big plans” for his father, but never explains what those plans are. The nature of what Bruno’s father is (a Commandant in the SS, and a director of the concentration camp Auschwitz) and why people are scared of him is never explained in the novel either. Presumably, Bruno is left in the dark about so much of what his family does and why they do it in order to preserve his innocence. However, this innocence is entirely based on ignorance, and it ultimately leads to his death.
Many critics have claimed that the novel is unrealistic and oversimplified in its portrayal of the Holocaust, but it mostly functions as a “fable”—almost an allegory. Thus Bruno’s ignorance of what is happening in Germany during the 1940s comes to represent the German soldiers and citizens who, for whatever reason, complied with, did not interfere with, or otherwise stopped themselves from even thinking about the realities of the Nazi Party’s actions. The innocence enforced on Bruno becomes a damning echo of the ignorance that so many others enforced on themselves.
Innocence and Ignorance ThemeTracker
Innocence and Ignorance 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.
“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.”
…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.
“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.”
Herr Liszt made a hissing sound through his teeth and shook his head angrily. “Then this is what I am here to change,” he said in a sinister voice. “To get your head out of your storybooks and teach you more about where you come from. About the great wrongs that have been done to you.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.