80 pages 2 hours read

John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a historical fiction novel published in 2006 by celebrated Irish author John Boyne, known both for his adult and young adult fiction. Set around the World War II concentration camp Auschwitz, the novel combines realism with parable. It portrays a young German boy, Bruno, whose father is commander of the camp, and his unusual and ultimately tragic friendship with a Jewish boy, Shmuel. The work sold over seven million copies around the world and reached No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in the US. It was also the basis of a popular film in 2008 and a ballet in 2017.

The e-book edition of the novel used for this study guide is a Borzoi book, published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York, in 2017.

Plot Summary

During World War II, a nine-year-old German boy Bruno moves with his family from Berlin to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland—which Bruno calls “Out-With”—as Adolf Hitler appointed Bruno’s father to be commander of the camp. There, he inhabits a lonely house next to a barbed-wire fence that encloses the camp.

One day during his explorations, he comes across a boy his age sitting on the opposite side of the fence and wearing what to Bruno appear to be striped pajamas. The boy’s name is Shmuel, and he is a Jew from Poland. He speaks German, as his mother was a language teacher before the war. The two boys form an unlikely friendship, each sitting on his side of the fence and talking about life and their interests. Bruno instinctively understands that he must keep his friendship a secret from his family and especially from Lieutenant Kotler, his father’s assistant whom Bruno intensely dislikes.

As a year passes, the boys become very close, but Bruno never really understands that Shmuel is a prisoner in the camp, along many thousands of other prisoners. Moreover, he never grasps the role of his father in the working of the camp. Soon, however, Bruno’s mother obtains permission from her husband to take Bruno and his older sister, Gretel, back to Berlin. Bruno decides to have a final adventure before leaving “Out-With” by entering the camp and helping Shmuel find his father. Shmuel supplies Bruno with his own “striped pajamas” and helps him come under the fence into the concentration camp.

Bruno spends the day observing the camp, shocked by the poor conditions and widespread starvation. Before he can make his escape, soldiers round up both Shmuel and Bruno together with a group of other prisoners and take them to the gas chamber, where they are killed.

Bruno’s family cannot understand where Bruno might have gone until one day his father comes across the hole in the fence and understands what happened. He is devastated and soon receives a transfer away from Auschwitz.