How many times have you read books from your school syllabus and felt your heartbreak? Well, to be honest, not so often. The academicians play it safe while curating the school syllabi and smartly cut out on tales of horror, suffering, and tragedy. Fortunately, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one such novel that has been a part of many school course books, and rightfully so. Nothing can make for a better first step to get into the history of the holocaust and its horrors. When I started reading it, I knew I was signing up for tear-soaked pages and a broken heart. Sigh! I was right. It has sort of permanently damaged me and here’s why this book will always be special to me.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
This is the first book that I ever read about the holocaust. I have gone through articles and essays, watched movies, and had discussions about it, but when it comes to reading, this is the first and the only book I have read till now about the horrifying history of Europe. Written by John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a story of a young German boy, Bruno moving out of his place with his family and, befriending a Jewish boy, Shmuel. Shmuel is the first, and the only friend Bruno has in an alienated land where he misses his neighborhood, school, and friends.
As the story progresses, we see how the Nazis treat Shmuel and the likes and Bruno being unaware of how different the two worlds are. He would carefully sneak out cakes and pieces of bread to feed Shmuel, who looked malnourished and extremely weak. Their friendship blossoms into a beautiful bond, and it breaks our hearts to see their innocence towards something so horrifying happening around and with them.
The bond that the two young boys share melts my heart and breaks it every time I write about this book. Bruno is a nine-year-old curious boy. He is like a kid in a candy shop and always wants to explore the world. He misses the hustle-bustle of Berlin, his city, but with time, he adjusts to the new house, which becomes the new normal for him. Shmuel resides on the other side of the fence. The fence not only divides the two boys’ geographical worlds but is also a metaphor for how differently they are treated on their respective sides of the fence. They both share their birthdays, but that’s all that’s similar in them—that and the innocence and affection they hold for the world and each other.
I don’t like novels that focus heavily on just two characters, and we see no development in the other people of the story. I like how Boyne, apart from Shmuel and Bruno, keeps us well in sync with other characters that include Gretel, Bruno’s elder sister who is always at loggerheads with her brother, their mother and of course, the father whose promotion as a Commandant changes the lives of everyone in the narrative. It doesn’t get boring and feels organic when you see other people growing and evolving along with the protagonist. That feels so much organic and closer to life. I won’t ruin the book for you by giving you spoilers, so let’s not talk about the ending, which you sure won’t be prepared for while reading through the pages.
Even though many critics blamed Boyne for distorting history and not sticking to facts, we have to give it to Boyne for presenting such a terrifying part of history in such a calming and simple way. Boyne, very smartly, brings out the picture of the holocaust in a way that would not scar the young readers but, at the same time, give them food for thought and coax them into reading more about it. The description of Hitler, the concentration camps, and the ill-practices of Bruno’s father—everything is explained in a very simple yet thought-provoking manner.
This is what makes it a perfect read for kids and adults alike. Your heart would not only melt by seeing the two boys’ bond, but it will ache every time you’d fear what’s in store for them. What saddens me all the more is how these boys can’t even pronounce the names of Hitler, Auschwitz, and other such terms related to the hell they are a part of. Bruno’s ‘Out-With’ is actually Auschwitz – the place that will always be remembered in world history and for all the wrong reasons.
You would wonder if the Nazi families were actually housed as closed to the Jews, as you see in the novel. Surprisingly, they were housed even closer, as Boyne says in an interview. In reality, Commandant’s house was located right inside the camp. It was at such close quarters with the chambers that when Rudolf Hoess’s kids went out to play in the garden, they could hear the Jewish kids and their families being marched to their deaths!
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas deals with the scariest and probably the darkest times of European history, ever known and documented. This novel makes us see this devastating period through the eyes of a nine-year-old who is clueless about Nazis, killing the Jews in the name of ethnic cleansing, what his dad does for a living, and so on. While Bruno struggles to come to terms with what’s happening around him and make sense of it, it is our job to join in the pieces of the jigsaw and see the bigger picture.
Although painful, this tale should be narrated to school children, and they should be provided with the context, the background, and of course, the bigger picture. That is how they would reach the door to something that has become the subject of gazillion movies, books, documentaries, theses, and discussions. This is a black stain in world history, and young adults should be tapped into the chamber of knowledge wherein the chamber of this horror lies. You can get the book here! 📖
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