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Book Review: The Boy in Striped Pajamas

The Holocaust greatly impacted numerous people’s lives, and left scars on them, mentally and

physically. This event brought suffering to millions of individuals in Europe and shaped them into people

they would never be again. In the film, many directors have attempted to captivate the impact this horrible

event had on people inside the camps. In Mark Herman’s film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Herman

has justly portrayed the influence of the Nazi regime, and the effect the events of the Holocaust has had

on all types of people. The theme of childhood innocence and how this is corrupted is presented in this

film and is portrayed by Bruno and his sister, Gretel. Herman presented this theme to explain the impact

this event had on children inside and outside of the camps.

Naivety can be a powerful tool for some people, or, in some cases, it can be their weakness. For

Bruno, his naivety was his weakness, which also led to that being his untimely ending. Believing the reel

his father created was the truth that sent him down that path in penetrating the barbed wire of the camp,

and wanting to play with the kids in the camps. False propaganda, as well as a lack of knowledge, played

a major role in the sequence of events that turned into the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. A figure of love

and support, Bruno’s father, chose to corrupt his children into believing Nazi-Germany is a better place.

He used the same propaganda Hitler used to get into power, and against the Jews. It made Bruno believe

that he and Shmuel are not allowed to be friends, and gives the audience a sense of their friendship being

star-crossed. While visiting Shmuel one day, Bruno says to him through the barbed wire, “We’re not

supposed to be friends. Did you know that? We are thought to be enemies” (Herman). The information

about Jews ruining the Nation seeped into Bruno’s mind and corrupted his thinking. Another example of
this is when Lieutenant Kotler saw Shmuel digging into food on the table. Bruno’s fear took over and he

lied that Shmuel was helping himself. However, Bruno eventually apologized to Shmuel because their

friendship was stronger than what society had forced them to believe. Because Bruno chose not to judge a

book by their cover, they remained friends until the end.

Bruno also became close with Pavel over the small amount of time they spent together. He

learned who Pavel was by listening to what he said, instead of reading fiction and discriminating against

an entire population. After Bruno falls off the swing and Pavel brings him inside and bandages him up,

Bruno learns about Pavel’s past; before World War II. After some arguing with them about whether

Bruno should go to a doctor, Bruno asks how he would know since he is not a doctor. Pavel stares at the

floor, and says without making any eye contact, “Yes I am . . . I practiced as a doctor. Before I . . . Before

I came here” (Herman). This befuddles Bruno because he believes that Pavel is simply a potato peeler.

This is one of many examples of the corrupted minds of children and the prejudice they have learned from

their elders. This also relates to today’s society and the racial and cultural prejudices still occurring right

now. It is similar to the article in the textbook written by Teja Arboleda called, Race Is a Four Letter

Word. Arboleda speaks about the prejudice he has encountered throughout his life, even as a successful

American. “I’ve been told to be carefully mopping the floors at the television station where I was

directing a show” (290). Arboleda’s experience with racial judgment is simply because of the color of his

skin. This prejudice is a learned behavior, and if everyone stopped this constant judgment based on a

person’s skin, this behavior would cease to exist. Bruno learned this behavior by witnessing it being done

to those who wore striped pajamas.

Nazi propaganda had a different, more prominent, effect on Bruno’s sister, Gretel. By keeping up

with the news, Gretel took on a whole new lifestyle. She put up new posters in her room showing her

admiration for Nazi power. The hair that she used to wear down in ribbons, an image of innocence, was

also changed to two braids to match her poster of the ideal Aryan race, hanging in the center of the wall in

her room. Her innocence was swept away by her nationalism and a crush on a German soldier. Along
with putting up her new posters supporting Nazism, she took all her dolls out of her room and brought

them downstairs. They were piled high in the corner of the basement with no clothes on, neglected and

unwanted. The stacked dolls could symbolize two events in the film. The first could be the theme of

coming of age for Gretel and wanting to act mature, mainly to get the attention of the older Lieutenant

Kotler. Throwing her dolls away was one example of her maturation. “Dolls are for little girls. It’s not

right to play with silly toys while people are away risking their lives for the Fatherland” (Herman). Gretel

has been influenced greatly by her tainted education of current events, and her desire for becoming a

mature, young adult. The second event this could symbolize is the foreshadowing of the mass bodies that

died at the end of the film, Bruno is one of them. After American troops liberated every death camp, the

heaps of dead bodies were documented with pictures and video. They were similar to the dolls in the

basement; no clothes, no dignity, and abandoned. It is not only until the sudden death of Bruno that she

realized the Nazi rule is immoral and is the incorrect solution for Germany. Now, her state of maturity is

reverted to a state of childhood dependency again. At that moment, she and her mother knew Bruno had

died, she immediately searched for the comfort of her mother’s arms and hugged her, both crying into

each other. This event left a scar on Gretel and it will be a part of her life that she will never forget.

During the time of the Nazi regime, this was a part of life for millions of people. “… it is undeniable that

war, misery, and the loss of family had left the young in a visible state of destitution and trauma” (Kalb).

People educated on the Holocaust may think that it would not have a greater impact on children because

they cannot comprehend as well what is going on.

The emotional toll the events of the Holocaust has put on individuals is depicted with not only

those within the camps. It was also depicted by those living close to the camps and did not know what

was happening. The impact that this tremendous event has had on innocent children is often not thought

of. In his essay, Martin Kalb comments on the oppressed youth in Germany post World War II.

A dichotomy became apparent: during the war, the young spent their days at school and in

supervised youth organizations, like the Hitler Youth. Once the war came to an end, the lack of
adequate facilities, ongoing processes of de-Nazification, and missing parental supervision kept

schools and youth groups closed. These restrictions left the young on the streets. Not surprisingly,

local authorities and the public at large perceived and described the increased visibility of the

young as abnormal. (1)

Before the liberation of every Nazi camp and the defeat of the Nazi empire, children were being

taught Hitler’s beliefs. They learned about the evils of the Jewish population and how they have ruined

the Nation, corrupting their minds to use prejudice against the entire Jewish population, as well as hate

them. The purpose of German schooling during World War II was mainly to pivot the blame of

Germany’s devastated economy onto that one population which one man despised. After the allies won

the war, all that was left to do was fix the individuals that were impacted by the Holocaust mentally and

physically. This also meant derailing the teachings of Nazism to German children. Part of the teachings is

the constant judgment of others, which is sadly still around today. In Race Is a Four Letter Word,

Arboleda comments on the encounters he has had first hand on this issue. “’I know you’re something,’

someone once said. ‘You have some black in you,’ another offered. ‘He must be ethnic or something,’

I’ve overheard. ‘I’ve got such a boring family compared to yours,’ another confided. ‘You’re messed-up,’

an elementary school girl decided. ‘Do you love your race?’ her classmate wondered” (292). There are

young children, as young as eight years old, who are speaking this way to ethnically diverse individuals.

Many of the times they say this without thinking about the repercussions it could have on those who they

spoke this way too. This dialogue is what older generations are handing down to younger generations. It

is what causes hatred, fighting, and trauma among people with different ethnicities, races, or cultures, as

exemplified in the Holocaust and in the film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

In an article written by Peter Beauomont, he describes this trauma that children in another country

have experience; the emotional and physical turmoil children either in or surrounded by, war suffer from.

This article, in particular, spoke of the impact of the Liberian Civil War on children. “This is what war

does to children. It robs them of their faces, their lives, their limbs, and minds. It robs them of parents and
siblings. It steals homes and hope and education. It turns children into killers” (Beaumont). This trauma

corrupts their morally sound mind into one filled with chaos, hatred, and war. Witnessing a loved one’s

death is traumatic, even for the strongest of people. An innocent child witnessing their mother, father,

brother, or sister’s death is unbearable.

This emotional fragility relates to the Holocaust. The children put in the camps had to experience

the same thing as children who are victims of war because those children were victims of war as well. A

woman in Beaumont’s article whom he interviewed spoke about how she took in hundreds of those

children during the Liberian Civil War. She created a special bond between the children because they

were parentless, and had no one else in their life to take care of them. “I love them, but I cannot love them

like a mother” (1). Parents are being lost at a very young age due to war, leaving children motherless or

fatherless, and constantly feeling the need to fill the void in their hearts. They still crave attention and

love, however, er it cannot satisfy their needs as much as having their parents’ unconditional love. This

lack of unconditional love can deter and desensitize a child’s feelings, altering who they truly are inside.

This theme of childhood corruption is brought to light in all wars, and their innocent mind is tainted in

hopes of a country defeating their enemy.

The theme of corruption of childhood innocence is presented in the film, The Boy in the Striped

Pajamas, and is portrayed by Bruno and Gretel. Mark Herman has displayed the influence of the Nazi

regime, and the effect they have had on individuals inside the camps, as well as outside. He is one of the

varieties of directors who have attempted to capture the emotional, and physical turmoil of the events of

the Holocaust based on books, or on individuals who have actually lived through it. It was one of the most

important events that have happened in history and has left scars on millions of people around the globe.
Reference:

1. Boyne, J. (2016). The boy in the striped pajamas:. Oxford: David Fickling Books.