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.

One of the main arguments for the book is its theme of innocence. Bruno, as a school-aged child residing in Germany and the son of an important army man, 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.  Antisemitism was explicitly taught in schools at the time, so he and his sister would have had at least some knowledge of the state of the world around him. While extensive brainwashing took place, youth were aware of what was going on, even if they were given a skewed version of it.

This allows young 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. (As Bruno later does in this story) This is just not true.

Everyone knew Jews were banned from public places, being either driven out, killed, or imprisoned.

A similar problem lies with Shmuel. Many victims 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 meant to invoke a strong emotional response based on something historically inaccurate.

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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • This book is unabashedly emotional rape. It was written for no other purpose but pure exploitation of a subject that has enough horrible truths surrounding it.
    The author should be ashamed of himself to fictionalize such an event strictly so he could make a profit.
    This story is about as real as The Easter Bunny having sex with Santa.
    Personally, I think the author should be banned for this exploitation.

  • Samantha,
    I appreciate all you do in helping me be good educator for my kids. I have seen the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” on countless streaming services. I was hesitant to watch with my kids because it sounded so fictional. I am glad you gave a review as well as the one for “The Tattooist of Auschiwitz.” One of our favorite books in our family is “Number the Stars.” Do you have any recommendations for books about the horrors of Communism?

    • Hi Mary,

      Thank you! I used to think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was good too, but later learned it did more harm than good. Number the Stars is amazing and one of my favorites too.
      For communism, for kids, “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” is great.

  • Thank you for this post . I found it interesting to read and don’t disagree with your statements. I do think there is one aspect of the work that needs to be acknowledged, however: the author clearly classifies the work as a “fable” and even ends it with the idea that there are many “fences,” much like the one Bruno and Shmuel talked through, around the world, even now.

    I have taught this book several times, but never as a piece of Holocaust literature, rather as a fable about humanity and man’s injustice to man. The value of the work comes when we examine the beautiful, profound conversations the boys have amid the atrocities that surround them. I would not discount its value to address global themes and spark relevant conversations- as long as it isn’t presented as historical fiction or memoir.

    I’d also add Gerda Weismann Klein’s memoir, All But My Life, to your list of must read Holocaust lit. It is beautifully written and truly inspiring.

    • Thank you Margaret! And yes, you make an excellent point. The story itself has a lot of merit, I do wish it would’ve been set during a different time period since some people have confused it with fact.
      I have read Klein’s memoir – it’s really good!

    • Hi Jane, thanks for your comment. As a writer I take copyright and inspiration very seriously and I always credit my sources and inspiration, as I have done with previous posts. I reference several others in this post, including the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial’s post which I read from. I haven’t seen this site.

    • This post was based on several conversations I had with people regarding The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the natural way the conversation progressed when we talked about it: the characters, the “but it’s fiction!” argument, and then alternatives.

  • I wonder why so many millions of people are devoted to this book. It could be because it’s so clearly written for this century: the author’s primary concern is to create empathy between reader and protagonist. This he does with remarkable and sustained skill: Bruno is a mixture of ignorance, sensitivity and selfishness. He misses his friends. He’s angry with his father and deeply frustrated because – as a child – he has no power. I have witnessed the magic this book creates in the classroom, as readers understand what Bruno cannot understand and feel increasing terror as well as astonishment. We care for Bruno, and as the plot unfolds we watch the horror get closer and closer: that is the author’s purpose – we experience fear as characters we’ve come to love move towards a destruction they can’t avoid. Ultimately, Bruno’s family are forced to contemplate grief and loss: their precious son has, in committing himself to the Jewish boy’s predicament, shown an empathy and trust that kills him. Sentimental? Yes. Good books often are. Teachers use the book not to suggest young Jewish boys sat listlessly on the edge of concentration camps, chatting to passing strangers…nor that you could escape incarceration by digging a quick hole under the fence. They use the book to galvanise their pupils into taking an interest and making emotional connections to the human beings in a complicated situation. The book doesn’t seek to replace serious studies of the holocaust. It is a doorway in, and roughly 11 million people (I am told) have appreciated the opportunity to go through that door. I find this blog pedantic and cheerless. It fails to understand the spirit of a small, important masterpiece. You know, ANIMAL FARM is a bit rubbish too: it’s so inaccurate, coz animals can’t talk and Orwell suggests they can.

  • What are your thoughts on The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang as being an appropriate choice for 7th graders. My honors class reads The Diary of Anne Frank. I have no question on that as a fitting read for them developmentally and emotionally. However, I am just reading The Final Journey found in my classroom closet and need advising.

    Thank you!