Nazis into Victims

Holocaust Fiction Without Perpetrators: John Boyne’s „The Boy in the Striped Pajamas“

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This short think piece discusses a relatively new trend in the contemporary imagination that divorces Hitler and the Germans from their genocidal crimes and re-images the Holocaust as a traumatic event without agency or perpetrators. One example in the realm of historical fiction is The Boy in the Striped Pajama by Irish novelist John Boyne. Published in 2006 to great international acclaim, Boyne’s self-declared “fable” (or morality tale) quickly became a New York Times bestseller and has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. The novel was adapted into a historical drama film by Max Herman in 2008, a ballet by Daniel de Andrade in 2017, and an opera by Noah Max in 2023. Boyne’s sequel to the book, which extends the plotline into the post-war era, has failed to replicate the initial work’s massive success.

Set in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of an eight- or nine-year-old German boy named Bruno, who lives a comfortable and happy life in Nazi Berlin. The boy’s circumstances change dramatically when Hitler (the Führer or, as Bruno pronounces it: the “Fury”) appoints his father Ralf to run a death camp in Poland. Uprooted from his upper-middle-class home in the German capital, Bruno finds himself isolated in a barren Nazi death camp headquarter, which doubles as a family residence.

When Things Turn Sour for Bruno

While the narrative revolves around Bruno’s perception of the world, it also develops a number of significant sub-plots: Bruno’s twelve-year old sister Gretel, for instance, transforms from a little girl that loves her dolls into a Hitler youth regurgitating Nazi ideology. Bruno’s grandmother, who seems to be a critical spirit, dies and is posthumously honored by the “Fury.” A kind-hearted Jewish prisoner named Pavel, who aids Bruno when he falls from a swing, is beaten to death by young SS lieutenant Kotler just outside the family’s dining room. In the meantime, Bruno’s mother Elsa realizes the full extent of her husband’s genocidal involvement and eventually decides to move her children back to the Reich, a decision that is eventually supported by her husband.

Throughout these developments, Bruno’s ostensible naïveté shields him from inculcation into Nazism. He simply doesn’t understand. His longing for friendship and adventure drives him to journey into a forbidden forest that separates the commander’s residence from what Bruno believes is a farm inhabited by people who wear striped pajamas. He eventually meets Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner his own age at the fence. Bruno strikes up a conversation and the two boys become friends.

Things start to turn sour for Bruno when Shmuel is brought into the residence to clean glasses. He encourages his friend to help himself to a cookie, then lies about it to SS lieutenant Kotler. At the next meeting several days later at the fence, Shmuel’s face is badly swollen, presumably from a vicious beating by the young SS lieutenant. Bruno finds a way to redeem himself when Shmuel tells him that his father is missing. He suggests digging underneath the fence to help with the search on the next day. It happens to be the day of his departure back to the Reich. As his mother finalizes travel preparations, Bruno escapes to the fence, dresses in prisoner clothing provided by Shmuel, and crosses over into the death camp. Soon enough, the boys are caught in a round-up leading to the gas chamber. Unaware of their fate, Bruno and Shmuel hold hands as deadly poison is poured into the crowded space from above. In the meantime, Bruno’s parents have noticed his absence and are increasingly desperate in their search for their missing child. The commander’s order to open the camp’s gates to find his son comes too late. The film ends by juxtaposing images of Bruno’s grief-stricken mother with a still of the closed gas chamber door.

A Lively Reception, to Say the Least

The reception of the novel and its adaptations has been lively, to say the least. Critical reviews tend to include strong emotive language expressing deep concern with the subject matter. Andreas Kilb, in a review for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), responded to the film release with demonstrated outrage. Lamenting willful boundary transgressions of a variety of sorts, he exclaimed:

This film is the height of impudence (eine Frechheit; could also be translated as “is a joke”). A slap in the face for anyone who believed there was a limit (Grenze) to cinema’s handling of the Holocaust, a threshold (Schwelle) separating historical evidence (das historisch Belegete) from pure speculation. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas crosses that threshold. And it (the film) does it so bluntly (unverblümt) that after the credits roll, it takes a while to comprehend what one just saw. A children’s story in Auschwitz; a morality tale against the background of the gas chamber; a Nazi family drama with a tragic ending—all of this is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Adding substance to this line of critique, historians have noted that death camp fences were guarded, most Jewish children were killed upon arrival, and Nazi boys and girls were heavily indoctrinated. In his review of Boyne’s novel, Holocaust historian David Cesarani concluded that: “The story is utterly implausible” and “a distortion of history.”  The Auschwitz Museum tweeted that the novel “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust.” Alan S. Marcus, in his article for a recent handbook for secondary teachers, discourages the work’s use, lamenting the Boy’s gross historical distortions, as well as the lack of voice and agency for Holocaust victims. Reminding the public that “Holocaust authors have a daunting responsibility… to speak out for those whose deaths cry out for posthumous meaning,” New York Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote that “this book is not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation… No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives.” According to Robert Eaglestone, works such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are Holocaust kitsch that sit like a “fungus on the memory of the Holocaust.”

Interestingly enough, the strong criticism has not stymied The Boy’s striking popularity with the general public and especially school teachers. According to some estimates, The Boy is the third most used Holocaust feature film in the United States after Schindlers List (1993) and The Pianist (2002). Positive reviews of Boyne’s work tend to emphasize the novel’s designation as a fable and its author’s invocation of a higher emotional truth. Asserting that works of art cannot be judged on the same terms as history books, film studies professor Nathan Abrams argues that the two boys in The Boy are virtually identical and interchangeable. This erasure of the essential difference between victim and victimizer, Abrams argues, undermines stereotypical views of Jews and Gentiles and allows the reader to consider what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”  For Abrams, this is the idea that “evil is not metaphysical (existing as an idea outside of human sense perception) but more ordinary, something that we are all capable of in the wrong circumstances.”

Zooming in on the ballet adaption of The Boy, Abrams shares the choreographer’s notion that: “It’s very hard to convince children to read a book about something as dark and serious as the Holocaust and what I find amazing is that while not all adults get the profound symbolism of the story, kids get it. They pick up on the fact that the children have the same birthday and are the same child.” It remains unsubstantiated, however, whether the artist’s hopes for his work are verified by reality. As Rabbi Blech noted in his assessment of Boyne’s novel, good intentions and actual impact do not necessarily coincide. One might consider here the US-American television miniseries Holocaust of the late 1970, which removes the victims’ Jewishness from the view of a predominantly gentile audience. Is the erasure of difference productive? Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann certainly didn’t think so. Neither did Hannah Arendt, whose “empathetic critical thinking” (Jack Madden) embraces the perspective of others in an effort to better understand learned behaviors and biases. For Arendt, the ideal subjects of totalitarian rule are people for whom the distinction between true and false or fact and fiction no longer exists (see Madden).

What, then, is the effect of The Boy on broader audiences that are not trained to read or view the work from a critical distance? A tentative survey of German and English Google reviews points to a rather distinct film reception amongst young audiences. While children clearly distinguish between the two boys, with Bruno serving as the focus of their empathy, they do not differentiate between history and fiction. On the contrary: young audiences understand The Boy in terms of historical reality and then separate this perceived past from a present that in comparison appears in a positive light. As The Boy’s fictional character is not recognized, the question of its metaphorical meanings is moot. To give a few examples:

Karen Heintz, in her five-star Google review of January 20, 2015, writes (originally in German): “I watched the film with my class and we were all speechless. The movie is really so sad but unfortunately everything that happened in the movie is true. You can’t go back in time and change it, but that’s the way it is.”

Similarly, Julia.H04, in her five-star Google review of September 19, 2015, relates (originally in German): “I watched the film at school and we were all very fascinated by the film. Even if you don’t know much about history, you can easily understand the film because it shows very well what it was really like back then.”

Hannah Zelle, in her five-star Google review of June 6, 2014, shares (also originally in German): “well I am in sixth grade and the end is very sad almost everyone cried but then you can see how great things are today.”

Aline Schneider, in her five-star review of August 22, 2016, writes in a similar vein: “a film that touches you so deeply that you can hardly believe that this was once reality. Today people are just too well off to appreciate the circumstances today.”

And a review by a middle schooler, published by a teacher on Common Sense media in April 2023 relates (English original): “It was a completely unexpected ending since most main characters live in other movies. I was even kind of surprised by it. They were conned into the gas chamber thinking they were going to a shower. The thing I liked about this movie is how it’s based in real life instead of being fictional. I love non fiction movies more than fiction movies.”

Affective Logics that Shape Our Understanding of the Holocaust

My interest in The Boy and its adaptations is part of a larger exploration of the affective logics and representational regimes that have shaped, and continue to shape, our understanding of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. At this early stage in my research, I see at least two factors that do not necessarily align although they reinforce each other. On the one hand, the novel and film satisfy an ardent desire especially amongst emerging generations to witness—or have a witness experience—of the Holocaust. This desire is especially urgent at a time of generational transition when the last remaining survivors are passing and “cultural memory” (Jan Assmann) becomes dominant. On the other hand, The Boy is symptomatic of the transformation of Holocaust memory into a broad and elastic culture of victimhood that erases the historical specificity of the Holocaust together with the idea of perpetration. In a way, Bruno is the ultimate embodiment of white saviorism transposed onto Holocaust fiction for children. The film inadvertently reveals this logic when Bruno rejects Shmuel’s suggestion to cross over to his side with the question: “What’s the point in that?”. Another particular striking example in the novel is a conversation between the boys that renders Shmuel a “thing” worth finding and exploring (like America). Agency and knowledge, to the extent that they are allowed to exist in this work of historical fiction, are on Bruno’s side. It’s his journey that must be followed to the end.

Noah Berlatsky has shown that the Gentile Savior trope is not new. In The Boy, however, gentile saviorism comes with a particular twist. As the children are swept up in a crowd of frightened adult prisoners, the desperate attempts of Bruno’s parents to change their son’s fate turn out to be in vain; the killing machine moves on. The boys’ sanitized death in the gas chamber and the universalization of parental grief—both fully exposed to the viewer’s gaze in the film—supersede all differences between Jewish victimhood and Nazi perpetration. The sentimental reconciliation though shared suffering reassures because it overrides and voids the dehumanization of Jews together with the need to better understand learned behaviors and biases. The evil perpetrated by Germans against Jews becomes a generic evil that sweeps up everything in its path, like the storm that overshadows The Boy’s final scenes. (I am grateful to Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich for helping me bring out this aspect of my argument more strongly.)

The universalization of suffering and victimhood in The Boy chimes in interesting ways with wider national and transnational developments that favor the “pajamafication” (Gwen C. Katz) of Holocaust memory. This includes far-right attempts in the United States and elsewhere to ban anti-racist education and purge more complex Holocaust literature, such as Anne Frank’s diary or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, from school curricular. It is the simultaneous reduction of complexity both in The Boy and the general culture that is at issue here. If everybody is a victim, there is no urgency to expose specific histories of racist violence and our own implication in their legacies. Identification with fictionalized historical suffering and loss becomes not only cathartic, but also redemptive, thus replacing critical understanding. The children’s Google reviews express it quite bluntly: things are different and better today. It is like it is.

Print Literature

John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A Fable, Oxford and New York: David Fickling Books (2006).

Robert Eaglestone, “Post-Holocaust Kitsch,” The Broken Voice: Reading Post-Holocaust Literature (Oxford, 2017), pp. 139-158; accessed online edition 10 May 2023. 2/25

Alan S. Marcus, “The Grey Zone of Holocaust Education: Teaching with Film,” in Laura Hilton and Avinoam Patt (eds), Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020, 243-260.

Gavriel Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler! How the Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Pres s, 2019.

Online Literature

Jan Assmann, “Communicative and Cultural Memory,” in: Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ed. Astrid Erll, and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, 109-118;

Nathan Abrams, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is now an opera – the case for adapting the book that the Auschwitz Museum said ‘should be avoided’”, The Conversation, January 27, 2023;

Noah Berlatsky, “’The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Is Yet Another Gentile Savior Story,” BuzzFeed. News, April 1, 2017;

Benjamin Blech, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,”, May 9, 2009;

David Cesarani, “Striped Pyjamas,” Literary Review, October 2008,

Jack Madden, “Hannah Arendt on Standing Up to the Banality of Evil,” Philosophy Break, May 2020;

Gwen C. Katz, “Maus and the Pajamafication of Literature,” Storytime Solidarity, October 2023 (updated),

Andreas Kilb, “Auschwitz als Fiktion: ‘Der Junge im gestreiften Pajama,’” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 6, 2009 (aktualisiert);

David Mead, “Northern Ballet takes on the Holocaust with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” Seeing Dance, June 5, 2017;