The Problems With The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as Holocaust Lit

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Why I Don’t Recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as Holocaust Lit

As an educational blog that frequently recommends Holocaust movies, a topic that gets brought up quite often is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I don’t actually recommend this book for students to use while studying the Holocaust for several reasons. I’m not alone in my opinions, and Holocaust survivors have slammed this book and movie as being emotionally manipulative and flat out deceptive.

I do NOT want this post to seem like it is attacking anyone who likes the book or who has taught using the book. This book is a wide bestseller and insanely popular.

Warning: several spoilers are included.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne tells the story of the friendship between the German son of a Nazi officer and a Jewish boy in a concentration camp. Bruno, son of a high-up Nazi official, moves to a new home with his father who has recently been promoted to oversee the camp of prisoners. After some exploration, he discovers a long barbed-wire fence stretching into the distance. His curiosity gets the best of him, and he gets closer and closer to the fence, trying to see what lies beyond.

Bruno gets closer and discovers that, to his surprise, the speck is actually a boy. The boy, Shmuel, about his age and also wearing the pajama uniform, is living out a miserable existence worlds away from his own. The two form a friendship through the fence that divides them, unknown to Bruno’s father.

One day Bruno decides to enter into the world of his friend, ditching his own clothing at the fence and donning the striped cloth that everyone in the camp wears. He enters the camp and is accidentally rustled into a group of children being herded to the gas chambers. Bruno’s father searches miserably for his son at home, eventually finding the discarded pile of clothing near the barbed wire fence and dissolving into a furious storm of regret and torment. 

So, what’s wrong with it? 

This book certainly provides an engrossing and heartbreaking story for readers fascinated with the Holocaust. It also provides several thought-provoking scenes and encourages readers to see through the Nazi uniform and to the father, husband, and human beyond.

That in itself, however, is one of the major problems with this story. Bruno, as a school-aged child residing in Germany and the son of an important army man, acts as if he has never heard of Jews or Hitler. He doesn’t appear to have any understanding of the war going on around him or the issues therein.

This is impossible as Bruno would have been likely involved in a Hitler Youth group and as a 10-year-old, he would have been required to join a juvenile Hitler Youth group. He would have been attending a school in which pledges to Hitler were commonplace. Antisemitism was explicitly taught in schools at the time, so Bruno would have had at least some knowledge of the state of the world around him.

This allows readers to believe that the average German citizen had no knowledge or understanding of the true situation, and if only they had known, they would have done something. This is just not true.

Everyone knew Jews were banned from public places, being either driven out, killed, or imprisoned, and many were lining their pocketbooks through the illegal takeover of Jewish properties.

A similar problem lies with Shmuel. Shmuel is portrayed as passive, which is the opposite of the victims and survivors DID resist and fight their oppressors in creative and self-sacrificing ways. (One favorite book for middle schoolers is Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport, which gives dozens of examples of resistance.) If Bruno could get under the fence, why didn’t Shmuel just go under? In fact, why didn’t EVERYONE just go under and leave?

Lastly, this book has several glaring historical inaccuracies.

At Auschwitz (why does Bruno call it “out-with,” English words?), the sad reality is that children like Shmuel would have been killed in the gas chambers upon arrival. Practically the only way he would have survived the initial selection is if he was chosen for medical experiments. (Eva Kor was a child survivor of medical experiments with a great memoir.)

And ANY person at ANY of the extermination camps, kid or not, would NOT have had the chance to sit for extended periods by the fence. The fences were filled with electric bolts and armed guards in watchtowers were guarding the fence 24/7. Getting near the fence meant getting shot or committing suicide by touching the fence.

Some camps were more lenient, such as Bergen-Belsen. However, these camps did not have gas chambers. If the book was set there, then the purposefully shocking ending wouldn’t have been able to happen. That is my biggest issue with the ending.

It’s fiction. Can’t it still be taught in schools?

In short, this story is unrealistic to the point of being embarrassing to survivors. In this age when, sadly, antisemitism is still rampant in many places, false tales hurt those who made it through the horrors of the Holocaust and take the stage when true stories should be elevated. The Auschwitz Museum and Memorial has spoken out against it.

One example of this is the children’s picture book Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman, which was based on Angel at the Fence. This “true love story set during the Holocaust” was one that was featured on Oprah – and was ultimately revealed to be fake. The man had claimed a girl had given him apples across a fence in a concentration camp and the two later met on a blind date in America. None of it happened. His memoir and movie deal were canceled, and I believe the picture book was recalled, but my library ended up with a copy.

A final example is the NYT Bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz (see my full review here). Not only was this “fictionalized memoir” unrealistic, it’s been a BESTSELLER and people are believing many of the events happened. The Auschwitz Museum and Memorial released a statement saying they cannot recommend the book due to the high number of inaccuracies. If the point of learning about the Holocaust is to honor the victims, then it might be important when a particular book is getting slammed.

Yes, I love historical fiction.

I’m not opposed to Holocaust fiction and I’ve read several incredible fiction novels that do justice to the subject. For example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had an exhibit for the fictional Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas. Daniel accurately represents the life of a teenager in Auschwitz and his life was heavily inspired by Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. 

Likewise, there are some fictional Holocaust memoirs (stories based on true stories but slightly fictionalized to make it more engaging/because not all details may be remembered) like Schindler’s List or Prisoner B-3087.

Even better, there are so many Holocaust memoirs and accurate stories for every age range. Readers really looking to understand the horrors experienced by those imprisoned in camps and the courageous spirit that kept them fighting day after day would do better to check out some of the true stories that more accurately display the times and the resiliency of the human spirit.

Irena Sendler, Corrie ten Boom, and Anne Frank are just a few examples of the horrors, indomitable human spirit and self-sacrifice that are essential in the study of the Holocaust. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not. The true stories of the amazing Jewish people who endured the worst of humanity and the heroes who risked their lives to help them deserve to be told, read by many, and remembered for generations to come.

A new study showed that over 50% of Gen Z and millennials in South Carolina couldn’t answer basic questions about the Holocaust. I rarely believe these numbers to be as high as these limited studies claim, but the truth remains: the Holocaust needs to be taught in schools.

I recently learned that on Twitter, fake news travels about six times faster than real news. Why? It’s controversial, it tugs on people’s emotions, and it’s attention-grabbing.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas certainly tugs on emotions, and it honestly feels like emotional manipulation while doing a disserve to Holocaust victims, survivors, and rescuers.

For resources on teaching the Holocaust, check out this list.

For Holocaust books for grades 4-9, check out this list.

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Samantha is an entrepreneur and a former homeschool student from Indiana, USA. When not blogging, Samantha can be found reading about WWII, trying to speak Hebrew, and wasting time on Pinterest. Her work can be found on Free Homeschool Deals, Unigo, True Aim Education, Encouraging Moms at Home, and more.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this! I have felt this way for years and as a middle school teacher I have always felt uncomfortable with my students reading it but it’s hard to tell students not to read a book. This is an important conversation to have with them

    • I definitely understand the struggle. I’m also shocked how commonly it’s taught as Holocaust literature. If it does spark an interest, there are so many other great Holocaust novels for middle schoolers out there.

  2. Thank you for writing this well thought out post, Samantha.
    I appreciate it and the energy/thought/work that goes into each one of your posts.

  3. My German husband and I just watched this movie yesterday. We disliked it for similar reasons. We found only one error in your assessment of the movie: kids didn’t begin in the Hitler Youth groups until they were a little older than Bruno in the movie. The official group was 14 years old for boys with a similar group for girls. The group for younger kids began at age 10, which may be why the author had Bruno be 8 years old. Still, you are right. It is very unlikely that a child in Germany at the time would have been unaware of what a Jew was and of how undesirable they were. He would have been eager to join the Hitler groups and would have been learning all of this in school.
    There also would have been train tracks somewhere near by, at least within half a mile of the camp. The kids wouldn’t have had time to fall asleep from the train station to their new home.

  4. Thanks for posting this! I had both the Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the Tattooist of Auschweitz on my to read list based on recommendations. I think I’ll pass on those and pick one of your recommendations. I also appreciate your lists of appropriate holocaust books for kids. It’s a difficult and important topic to introduce to kids and hard to know where to start!

  5. Samantha, I thank you for your blog and information regarding the Holocaust. I stumbled on your blog because I was looking for information for my middle schoolers on the Holocaust and looked at the titles you recommended. Whether historical fiction, fiction, realistic – fiction, or non-fiction, I believe a student should be introduced to the books. I truly empathize with those survivors and understand that generations should understand the importance of the Holocaust timeline, survivors, friendships, racial hate, etc. For the book “the boy in the Striped Pajamas”, while it is fictional, a child is seeing empathy from another peer. Let’s forward that topic today. Students need to have the knowledge and learn empathy for these topics concerning difficult topics discussing the holocaust, slavery, civil rights, LGBT rights, Black lives Matter, etc. There are many books that have a storyline that may not be believable and that’s called fiction. You are still providing the student with a story of an important historical event even though things may be fabricated. In my personal opinion, while I don’t know anyone in this ethnic group nor nationality, I empathize with survivors and their stories. Thank you for providing this information. D. Baker Librarian

    • Thank you! I definitely agree empathy is important. My primary issue with TBITSP is it is exploiting the Holocaust and is being taught as Holocaust literature when the basic premise of the story is impossible and the ending is unnecessary and unrealistically devastating. The Holocaust is a difficult subject and there are thousands of heartbreaking stories, it does not need to be exploited.

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