Young Zionist Editor Charles Burton explores how damaging Holocaust fiction is as an educational resource through the case study of John Boyne's 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'
John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is a matter of much controversy in the academic community, as many disagree on whether the book is a positive or negative academic resource. Written in 2006 by Irish author John Boyne, the book is set primarily in Auschwitz concentration camp, and it features two main characters: Bruno, the German son of Auschwitz Camp Commandant ‘Ralf’ and Jewish child Shmuel. The book itself has received much acclaim internationally and is a popular educational resource, particularly in the UK.
Statistics show the book’s incredible popularity amongst students and teachers alike; as, according to the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s 2016 study of English schoolchildren, 43% of students had read books about the Holocaust, of which, almost 75% of students had read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
In fact- those were not even the most staggering statistics, as over 75% of students had watched films about the Holocaust, of which 84.4% had watched the film adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
These numbers may be perceived as positives, however, the book is not without controversy, as Boyne’s book is seen by some to be fabricating some of the aspects of the Holocaust, as Kathryn Hughes writes, ‘there is the oddness of Auschwitz security being so lax that a child prisoner could make a weekly date with the commandant's son without anyone noticing’. These aberrations from the truth are, in fact, mirrored throughout the book. Another worry about the novel is its sympathy towards the family of the Auschwitz Camp Commandant, as it demands empathy and concern for their plight.
British philosopher Gillian Rose posits in her 1996 book, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘[if ] a film [was created] which follow[ed] the life story of a member of the SS in all its pathos, disappointments and rage, [sic] when it comes to killing, we [would] put our hands on the trigger with him, wanting him to get what he wants’, quite simply, she argues that, if one gives credence to the woes of the most evil people, one begins to understand and even sympathise with them. This, of course, is a worry with Boyne’s novel- as a significant and extended passage of the book deals with the grief of Bruno’s (Shmuel’s German friend and son of Auschwitz Camp Commandant, Ralph) family, including that of his father in the wake of his death. This is nearly a verbatim copy of Rose’s warning in her aforementioned thought experiment, as Boyne clearly creates sympathy for such an evil person, and, by extension, the regime as a whole.
In fact, the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre even goes as far as to actively discourage the use of the book as an educational resource, stating that, ‘Bruno’s characterisation perpetuates the belief that most German civilians were ignorant of what was happening around them. [In reality,] the general public in Germany and in occupied Europe were well aware that Jewish people were being persecuted’. This presents a clear problem, especially when dealing with such a sensitive topic- and with impressionable children.
The book is indisputably written as a child’s tale or fable (as is mentioned in the preface and alternative title) but deals with real world issues. This dichotomy between truth and fiction is most potently realised in the book’s final line; ‘all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.’ Whether this is irony or satire or neither, the subtlety of this line (or lack thereof) could easily be misinterpreted by children. This phrase, too, entirely negates the whole purpose of Holocaust Remembrance- ‘Never Again’ and reinforces to the reader a sense of complacency around the capabilities of human evil.
Boyne also creates for the reader a sense of sympathy for Bruno’s father Ralph (who essentially runs the day-to-day operations in Auschwitz in his role as Camp Commandant) when Bruno dies. This is clearly ill-judged as the humanisation of these evil characters creates a sense of understanding in their judgement, especially for younger, less critically aware readers. This belief was reinforced in 2022 with a UCL Centre for Holocaust Education report, stating that ‘the story by John Boyne regularly elicited misplaced sympathy for Nazis [amongst schoolchildren]’. Note that this same sympathy is not shown for Shmuel’s family after he dies along with Ralph in a gas chamber- in fact, his family are not mentioned a single time after his death, despite his grandfather, father, and brother being (presumably) still alive. This is concerning as younger readers may believe that Bruno’s family are the true victims of this story, rather than Shmuel’s family, or indeed any of the prisoners of the concentration camp. In fact, the book even goes so far as to detail the torment that Bruno’s death brings upon their family. This creates a painful moment near the end of the book where Shmuel is (in a convoluted sense) blamed for Bruno’s father’s renewed ruthlessness in his punishment of the Jewish prisoners- this may even suggest that alternatively, had Bruno not died, his father would’ve become kinder to the inmates, further reducing his culpability in the evils of Auschwitz.
The book also contains many historical inaccuracies. This is perhaps understandable for what is a fiction book, however, a study from 2009 suggested that 75% of surveyees believed the book was a true story. Some of the (many) inaccuracies include; The German people’s perceived cluelessness about the camps and what went on inside them, Shmuel being able to regularly escape work, sadly, the fact that Shmuel even survived the selection process is unlikely and the book contains a myriad other falsifications. To be clear- these are not just light-hearted mistakes that are created (whether intentionally or otherwise) to help children to better understand the Holocaust and its tragedies- this is, at heart, damaging to the memories of Jewish resistance to Nazi rule and even verges on sympathy for the Nazis, as the book is ultimately written from Bruno’s family’s points of view. Quite simply, this book is a travesty. Perhaps worst of all- Boyne even admits to having done no research whatsoever in the writing of his book.
In conclusion, it is clear that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should not, in most cases, be used as an educational resource, due to its insensitive storytelling, its clear disregard for the truth and finally, and most importantly, for the sense of sympathy, it implants in young children for the Nazis and their actions.