The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is a cautionary tale about two boys, one the son of a commandant in Hitler’s army and the other a Jew, who come face-to-face at a barbed wire fence that separates, and eventually intertwines their lives. Set during the Holocaust, Bruno is only nine-years-old when his father, a commandant in Hitler’s army, is transferred from Berlin to Auschwitz. The house at “Out-With,” as Bruno calls it, is small, dark, and strange. He spends long days gazing out the window of his new bedroom, where he notices people dressed in striped pajamas and rows of barracks surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Bored and lonely, and not really understanding the circumstance of his new existence, Bruno sets out to explore the area and discovers Shmuel, a very thin Jewish boy who lives on the other side of the fence. An unlikely friendship develops between the two boys, but when Bruno learns that his mother plans to take her children back to Berlin, he makes a last effort to explore the forbidden territory where the boy in the striped pajamas lives.
1. Discuss the relationship between Bruno and Gretel. Why does Bruno seem younger than nine? In a traditional fable, characters are usually one-sided. How might Bruno and Gretel be considered one-dimensional?
2. At age 12, Gretel is the proper age for membership in the League of Young Girls, a branch of Hitler’s Youth Organization. Why do you think she is not a member, especially since her father is a high-ranking officer in Hitler's army?
3. What is it about the house at Out-With that makes Bruno feel “cold and unsafe”? How is this feeling perpetuated as he encounters people like Pavel, Maria, Lt. Kotler, and Shmuel?
4. Describe Bruno's reaction when he first sees the people in the striped pajamas. Bruno asks his father about the people outside their house at Auschwitz. His father answers, “They’re not people at all Bruno.” (p. 53) Discuss the horror of this attitude. How does his father’s statement make Bruno more curious about Out-With?
5. Explain what Bruno’s mother means when she says, “We don’t have the luxury of thinking.” (p. 13) Identify scenes from the novel that Bruno’s mother isn’t happy about their life at Out-With. Debate whether she is unhappy being away from Berlin, or whether she is angry about her husband’s position. How does Bruno’s grandmother react to her son’s military role?