John Boyne’s 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been widely read and adapted into a major film, a ballet, and most recently, an opera. The story follows eight-year-old German boy Bruno, who has no idea that his father is the kommandant of a concentration camp during the second world war. Bruno and his family are sent to live with their father as he carries out his work, and Bruno soon meets and befriends a young Jewish camp inmate called Shmuel, the eponymous “boy in the striped pyjamas”.
The two boys develop an unlikely friendship, and one day Bruno’s wish to join and play with his friend on the other side of the wire fence is fulfilled. However, during a roundup, both boys – since they are indistinguishable – are sent to the gas chambers, where they are killed. Bruno’s parents desperately search for him, grief-stricken and are inconsolable when they realise his fate.
Popular but Problematic
Despite its popularity, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has attracted controversy. Some have criticised its portrayal of Jewish victims as one dimensional, passive and “unresisting”, and its focus on the grief of Bruno’s parents rather than the faceless Jews who were murdered in their millions. The Auschwitz Museum has even tweeted that the children’s novel “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust”.
However, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas also resists and complicates stereotyping of Jews and gentiles. Shmuel and Bruno are virtually identical and interchangeable, suggesting that both can become victims if in the wrong clothing. This allows readers to consider what philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt controversially called “the banality of evil” – the idea that evil is not metaphysical but more ordinary, something that we are all capable of in the wrong circumstances.
Noah Max’s 2023 operatic adaptation is deeply personal. He explained: “The music explores the destruction of humanity’s innocence by the Holocaust through a father’s inability to face the fact that his own evil actions led directly to the murder of his child.” Max’s maternal great-grandparents left Austria in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power, so this adaptation is especially meaningful for him.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should be continued to be read, adapted, staged and performed. It introduces the Holocaust and its significance to audiences, even if it does not fully succeed in its artistic aims. It is then up to readers to learn more to put the novel in context by reading scholarship on the Holocaust, watching documentaries or visiting Holocaust exhibitions. Anything that helps keep the memory of the Holocaust alive should be welcomed – not least because it helps us remember those who suffered so many years later.