The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by author John Boyne

The Heartbreaking Story of Innocence and Friendship During the Holocaust


Over 75 years later, the Holocaust still manages to shock us. The systematic murder of around 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II defies humanity. We all ask ourselves—how could such atrocities happen right under people’s noses? How could some stand by while others suffered? Why didn’t more people speak out or try to stop it? The story told in John Boyne’s immensely popular novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas examines these complicated questions of morality through the innocent eyes of two 9-year-old boys.

You can find The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by author John Boyne on your favorite bookstore, including and Amazon UK.

About author John Boyne

Author John Boyne

Irish novelist John Boyne has become one of the most prominent writers of historical fiction in recent years, exploring powerful themes of identity, belonging, and human rights struggles through his award-winning novels set during World War II and other pivotal eras.

Born in Dublin in 1971, Boyne developed a passion for reading and writing from a young age. He wrote his first book, The Thief of Time, while still in college and began working as a book editor after graduating.

Boyne achieved breakthrough success in 2006 with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, his unforgettable story of the unlikely friendship between the son of a Nazi commandant and a Jewish concentration camp inmate. Adapted into an acclaimed feature film, this sensitive and emotionally devastating novel established Boyne as a leading voice in historical fiction and an author capable of illuminating the past while speaking to enduring moral and ethical questions.

Since then, Boyne has solidified his reputation with bestselling novels including The Absolutist, A History of Loneliness, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies. His books have been published in over 50 languages, cementing his status as an internationally renowned storyteller.

While diverse in their settings and subject matter, Boyne’s novels share a commitment to giving voice to marginalized perspectives silenced by prejudice and injustice. From the homophobia of mid-20th century Ireland in The Heart’s Invisible Furies to the impact of racism and xenophobia explored in stories like The Echo Chamber, his compassionate works challenge readers to reflect on issues of human dignity and equality that still resonate powerfully today.

As a Booker Prize nominee and four-time Irish Book Awards winner, Boyne has racked up an impressive array of honors. Adding to his acclaim is a string of successful YA books like Stay Where You Are and Then, the Nazi-era mystery Wreckers Gate, and transgender identity story My Brother’s Name is Jessica.

Now in his 50s, John Boyne shows no signs of slowing down as a chronicler of little-known histories and unsung experience. Besides regularly publishing new fiction, in recent years he has also released short story collections like Beneath the Earth and contributed nonfiction like the memoir This House is Mine. From children to elders, LGBTQ communities to those persecuted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs, Boyne continues working to ensure a diversity of stories are heard.

Getting Drawn into the Main Character’s World

We experience this heart wrenching story along with the protagonist—a young boy in Berlin named Bruno. At the start, Bruno’s world seems normal. He comes from a well-to-do family, his father is a high-ranking Nazi officer, and he enjoys all the comforts of his social status. But his twist of fate arrives when his father receives a promotion—to Commandant of a concentration camp called “Out-With.”

Can you feel Bruno’s confusion as his family is uprooted? In his child’s mind he leaves behind his home, his friends, and everything dear to him in the vibrant city of Berlin. And for what? To be taken away deep into the unfamiliar countryside near a place he learns is called “Auschwitz.”

Arriving to a Shocking and Unfriendly New World

When the family arrives at their new home near the camp, we experience Bruno’s innocent sense of dismay right alongside him. His feelings of dislocation and loneliness increase as he struggles to adjust. Boyne expertly contrasts Bruno’s perspective of his unfamiliar new world with that of us as readers—we immediately recognize the horrific reality of this place, though Bruno does not.

Through Bruno’s eyes, the camp seems bizarre and unfriendly. He thinks the people inside who wear “striped pajamas” are farmers, and he cannot understand why his family doesn’t befriend them. His childish misinterpretations make the truth seem even more dreadful to us. We read with a sense of dread, just waiting for the moment this young boy loses his innocence and realizes the true darkness around him.

A Rare Bright Spot Emerges

A rare bright spot soon emerges that provides temporary relief both for Bruno and us readers. Right beside the wire fence at the camp, Bruno meets another 9-year-old boy named Shmuel. Where Bruno is bored and lonely on his side of the fence, Shmuel and others interned seem “far worse.” Bruno thinks they seem almost like animals in cages.

This poorly nourished and nearly bald Jewish boy in his dirty, striped uniform nevertheless attaches himself to Bruno immediately. An unlikely friendship develops between the two lonely youths. For a while they meet every day, talking, playing simple games, and accepting each other. We start to see some light and kindness in the dismal camp as Bruno shares his food to aid his new friend’s survival. Their innocent camaraderie lets us temporarily forget the vicious cruelty surrounding them.

The Darkest Truths Emerge

Of course this glimmer of lightness amidst the darkness cannot last. Eventually Bruno must wake up and confront the ugly truths around him. His friendship with Shmuel gives him more chances to view real horrors inside the camp his father oversees—the harsh living conditions, severe mistreatment and sickness. Confused emotions course through us—How could Bruno’s own father allow such suffering? Will Bruno continue their friendship once he realizes the painful reality?

We ache knowing these boys don’t understand the extent of misery and death surrounding their innocent games. And despite ourselves, we start to hope Bruno will keep visiting Shmuel anyway, to ease his wretched loneliness. Like them, we discover childish hope almost impossible to destroy.

The Story Speeds to Its Inevitable End

The plot speeds up then, turning like a ruthless wheel towards its inevitable awful end. Unexpected events lead first to Shmuel’s disappearance into the camp, then to Bruno’s search for his friend inside that forbidden area. His dangerous venture culminates in his karmic demise at the hands of Nazi brutality, thus ending his naïve innocence in the cruelest possible way.

We reach the conclusion almost breathless, minds reeling over the loss of innocent life and friendship. Boyne refrains from graphic depictions, keeping the full blunt force trauma of the Holocaust in the background. Nevertheless its grim presence hoovers over every page, a spectral harbinger of doomed fate we cannot outrun. What chance do such tender shoots of humanity ever have to bloom inside places meant to crush souls?

An Unforgettable Fable With Powerful Life Lessons

While fictional, Boyne’s tale takes inspiration from unthinkable true events, thus creating an unforgettable fable for our times. The author keeps his prose clean and sparse to match the young narrator’s voice, while allowing the full emotional weight to fall heavily upon us. Such masterful storytelling offers much to ponder within its slight volume.

At just over 200 pages, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas delivers a swift kick of empathy coupled with lingering queasiness. It cries out against the world’s harsh injustice. Boyne reminds us how normally kind human beings can display unimaginable capacity for evil, especially while following toxic orders. Focused blame falls on the husband/father and Nazi commander who fails his civilian duty to reject cruel tyranny aimed at the vulnerable and powerless. Father and son suffer for not questioning authority run murderously amok.

But despite such somber themes, a small strain of hope manages to assert itself. Like a tiny flower growing miraculously through pavement cracks, the unlikely friendship between Bruno and Shmuel becomes a redeeming counterbalance to man’s potential for wickedness. Love and innocence still manage to spark even in the bleakest corners. This might be the most meaningful lesson Boyne wishes to impart—the all but impossible task of destroying human compassion, no matter how brutal the methods.

An Ache That Must Be Shared

I agree wholeheartedly with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ multitude of fans. This story packs a highly concentrated emotional punch that throbs long after reading. It offers an accessible window for people of all ages into one of history’s pivotal nightmares. As Bruno’s innocence dies, our protective layers get stripped back as well.

Few works of Holocaust fiction feel so immediate and personal, hitting us at emotional depths we hardly knew existed before. I highly recommend John Boyne’s fable to experience for yourself, then pass along so its sobering ache gets shared. This vital, heartrending book should occupy an important spot on every reader’s list of impactful, historically meaningful fiction. It feels destined to influence humanity positively for generations to come.

More Holocaust Literature for Greater Understanding

After reading Boyne’s slim novella, you will likely crave a deeper look into literature based on WW II’s genocide against Jews and other marginalized groups. Many excellent options await, once you feel ready to broaden personal understanding around how such horrors evolved. Here are 5 more acclaimed picks:

  • “The Diary of Anne Frank” by Anne Frank – The journal of a Jewish teen hiding from Nazis with her family for two years remains required reading across schools globally. It puts a relatable face on Holocaust horrors.
  • The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak – In this profoundly moving novel, young Liesel finds her life forever changed, along with those around her, as Nazi oppression grips her German town.
  • “Night” by Elie Wiesel – The Nobel Peace Prize winner presents his internationally renowned memoir recounting teen experiences in Nazi death camps. Prepare for explicit darkness but also hope.
  • “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman – This Pulitizer Prize winning graphic novel relates the author’s parents’ shocking Holocaust survival story emerging from horror with humanity intact.
  • “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay – Parallel stories unfold layering connections between Sarah, a 10 year old victim of 1942 French arrests, and a modern journalist investigating that dark history.


What is the genre and reading level of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is historical fiction typically studied in middle school. While approachable for younger readers, its serious subject matter including the Holocaust makes it most appropriate for ages 12 and up. The novel tells a fictional story set during a factual historical event from an innocent child’s perspective.

What literary devices are used in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

John Boyne uses several literary devices effectively in this novel. There is significant foreshadowing and irony throughout as we see events unfold from the naive perspective of a child. Metaphors help contrast the two very different worlds the boys come from. There is also symbolism associated with the fence, the striped pyjamas, and Bruno’s innocence.

What is the setting of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is set during World War II in Germany. It begins in Berlin when the family must move because of the father’s job as a high-ranking official. Most of the book takes place at their new home near a concentration camp called Out-With where Bruno will fatefully encounter the boy in the striped pyjamas.

How would you describe Bruno’s character in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

Bruno is an innocent 9-year old boy focused on his own world of fun and games. He does not understand the war and horrific events surrounding him. Bruno seeks adventure and companionship which leads him to befriend Shmuel, a Jewish boy prisoner. His naivety makes Bruno an unreliable narrator during very serious times.

What does the fence symbolize in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

The fence separating Bruno from the concentration camp symbolizes segregation, confinement, and division. While the physical fence keeps prisoners trapped and isolated, Bruno’s innocence also creates a figurative fence preventing him from understanding reality. The two boys bond through a hole beneath the formidable fence.

Why is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas told through Bruno’s perspective?

Bruno’s perspective as the narrator gives the story childlike innocence and curiosity. Since he is sheltered from the war atrocities, his point of view allows irony and discovery through foreshadowing. As Bruno slowly realizes the horrors around him, the reader gains insight along with him, growing the tension and empathy.

How would you describe the tone shift at the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

For most of the novel the tone is innocent and hopeful as we view life through a child’s eyes during a horrific time period. However, in the final chapters the tone shifts dramatically to become tragic, uneasy, and shocking when Bruno enters the concentration camp searching for his friend Shmuel. The ending is emotional and heartbreaking.

Why are the children’s worlds so different in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

Despite becoming friends, the Jewish concentration camp prisoner Shmuel and the commander’s son Bruno come from extremely different backgrounds. This contrasts the cruelty and inhumanity taking place right next to Bruno’s world of privilege. Class divisions also highlight how the innocent children are not yet corrupted by hateful ideology.

How do the boys’ friendship and plan to find Shmuel’s father lead to tragedy?

Bruno looks forward to exploring the forbidden area beyond the fence where he hopes to help Shmuel find his missing father. Their tragic fate results from the boys’ innocence about the horrors that lie behind the wire fence, combined with the cruelty of the Nazi agenda Bruno doesn’t understand. Together, they walk mistakenly to their deaths.

Why are fables and morality tales common companion texts for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

As a Holocaust fable with themes surrounding morality, consequences, and appreciating humanity, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is often paired with literary moral tales analyzing good vs evil. Like fables which use animals to highlight moral flaws, Bruno’s innocence reveals how prejudice corrupted morality and destroyed lives.

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