THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS
SUBJECTS — World/WWII & Germany; ELA (irony);
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Friendship;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Responsibility; Caring.
AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust;
Drama; 2008, 94 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
The time is WWII; the place, Germany. Bruno is an 8 year old boy whose father is promoted to be commandant of a death camp. The family lives in a luxurious house isolated in the country. The only person Bruno’s age to play with is Shmuel, a boy behind the barbed wire of the camp. Bruno is told by his family that the camp is a farm and refers to the uniforms of the incarcerated Jews as “striped pajamas.” Slowly and reluctantly he comes to know part of the truth about the camp and his father. Bruno’s attempt to make up for an earlier betrayal of his friend causes Bruno to don the “pajamas” and sneak into the camp to help search for Shmuel’s lost father. While Bruno’s father frantically searches for his son, the boys are herded with a group of inmates into one of the gas chambers. Holding hands, they die together.
This film is based on a work of historical fiction by Irish novelist John Boyne.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This film presents a child’s point of view of the Holocaust and serves as a valuable supplement for any study of Germany’s effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The relationship between the two boys demonstrates the absurdity of judgments based on bloodline. The innocence of childhood is a concept which dominates the movie and supports a perspective on the Holocaust that is important for a full understanding of German atrocities during the Second World War.
Social Studies Classes: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is one of many films designed to make the Holocaust personal for today’s students. It is not intended to reflect historical accuracy. Instead, it illuminates the following points about the events of the European theatre in WWII:
- The disregard for the plight of the Jews by common German people during the Holocaust;
- The denial process applied to the immorality of what Germany was doing to the Jews;
- The propaganda used in educating German children, including the propagation of anti-Semitism;
- The existence and suppression of dissenting points of view; (for more on this, see The White Rose);
- The callous and casual manner in which the Germans developed more efficient killing methods;
- The ironies involved in the failure to adhere to well-developed standards of ethics, such as in the treatment of children.
The Discussion Questions provided in this Learning Guide will help explore these areas of focus. Suggested Research Assignments can be given to individuals or to groups of students.
English Language Arts Classes: The film and the discussions suggested below will motivate students to apply themselves to essay and research assignments, encouraging them to practice several skills required by ELA Curriculum standards. When used in a literature class, the movie provides an excellent example of theme and plot based on situational irony. The film also provides cross-curricular benefits for the study of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
This film is appropriate for viewing only by children who already have some knowledge of the Holocaust. People can accept the story and the tone of the film better when they have some acquaintance with the concepts and the sadness they will encounter.
Ask and answer the Quick Discussion Question and talk about any other points in the film that might interest your child.
More than a million Jewish children below the age of 16 died in the Holocaust. Some historians estimate the loss at more than 1.5 million. Children from Gypsy communities and the mentally and physically disabled were also targeted for death by the Nazis. The death rate for children was higher than that for adults; it is estimated that 89 to 94 percent of the total population of Jewish children in German-occupied areas were murdered in Germany’s effort to eliminate Jews from Europe, whereas only two-thirds, or about 67 percent, of the adult Jews died.
Jewish children living in German-controlled areas began to suffer from the Nazi ideology years before the camps were built. In 1933, for example, a law was passed that limited the number of Jewish children in public schools to 1.5 percent of the total of all children attending school. This figure included university students. Within five years, legislation was passed that prohibited Jews from attending German school altogether and Jewish schools were closed entirely in l942. The first concentration camp devoted entirely to killing Jews was opened in December 1941.
Children suffered terribly from the isolation and hardship forced upon their families by German legislators prior to the creation of the death camps. There were efforts to help Jewish children, but they only scratched the surface of the problem. “Kindertransports” transferred nearly 10,000 mostly-Jewish children to safe countries before war broke out in 1939. The United Kingdom was alone among the countries willing to help fund the process of rescuing the endangered children. British citizens paid nearly 250 dollars per child to move children between the ages of 3 and 17 out of threatened areas of Europe. Without the highly organized and perilous assistance of the Quakers, many of these children would have been forced to remain behind due to a Nazi edict that made it virtually impossible for Jews to use trams, trains, and port facilities. Aside from the assistance of the Quakers, there were individuals who came forward to assist in the effort to save the threatened children. One British citizen of German-Jewish ancestry, Nicholas Winton, established a rescue effort for Czech children that managed to send several hundred endangered children to safety. Only about 20% of the children who participated in the various rescue operations were eventually returned to their home countries and reunited with what remained of their families.
Efforts in the U.S. to help the Jews of Europe were limited by the entrenched anti-Semitism of the time. The most visible effort was called “One Thousand Children,” a pitifully small number given the size of the United States and number of children in need. The plan was in effect between l934 and 1945, but efforts to expand the program met with difficulty when the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have permitted the admission of 20,000 Jewish refugee children, was rejected by Congress in 1939.
Before the war, European Jewish children were persecuted and isolated from the rest of society. After the onset of war, ghettos and transit camps were established in every country occupied by Germany and children began to suffer and die from malnutrition, disease, exposure, and eventually from outright murder in the death camps. Anne Frank, sent to a concentration camp after her family’s hiding place was betrayed by an informant, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March of 1945, just two months before the War in Europe ended.
Non-Jewish German children faced a different sort of deprivation, which is in no way comparable to the difficulties faced by their Jewish or Gypsy counterparts. The boys were required to join the Hitler Youth organization and subjected to the militaristic mentality that would feed them directly into the Nazi party. The propaganda machine worked tirelessly on these children to remove any values or beliefs other than those promulgated by the Nazi party. Some reports indicate that boys as young as 12 years old participated in military units and fought directly against Allied forces. Girls, too, were expected to support Hitler’s war efforts. Those between 10 and 18 years old were taught homemaking and nursing skills and were used to tend German troops injured on the battlefield. In the film, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” the methods used by the German propaganda machine are clearly portrayed in the scenes involving Gretel, the 12-year-old sister of the film’s protagonist. The few young people who tried to resist that Nazi regime were dealt with cruelly. See Learning Guide to “The White Rose”.
For more about the fate of children in the Holocaust, see Learning Guide to Four Films About Anne Frank and the websites listed in the Links to the Internet section below. For other films about the experience of children in the Holocaust, see Europa! Europa!, and Au Revoir Les Enfants.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
The Germans killed children below the age of ten as soon as they arrived at the concentration camps. In addition, very few German children had fathers who were concentration camp directors. There is no record of a German child dressing like a concentration camp inmate and being accidentally gassed. Why does this story, about two boys who probably could never have existed, make sense?
There is no one right answer. A good answer is that the boys and Bruno’s parents act in ways that people would have acted had they been in this situation. It didn’t happen, but it could have happened.
1. In the opening scene of the film, boys are running happily through an upper-class area of Berlin. They run past a group of Jews carrying their meager belongings being herded into a truck. What irony can be found in this scene?
There are several levels of irony. The first is that by the end of the film, Bruno will suffer the same fate as the people being ignored. The second is that many of the prosperous German children and adults who are ignoring the destruction of the lives of the Jews will, in a few years, suffer a similar fate when the Allies reduced large parts of German cities to rubble.\
2. What ethical problem is foreshadowed when Bruno’s father tells him, “Life is more about duties than choices?”
Answers will vary. Students should be able to note that choices are made in part by considering the ethics of the proposed action. When people do not take their own ethics into account, they are abandoning the obligation to act ethically. Bruno’s father is little more than a slave if he believes he has no choice in the actions that he takes and if he leaves it up to others to make decisions for him. Some students may suggest that adherence to duty, for example to one’s country in time of war, disallows all ethical considerations. However, even in warfare there are ethical decisions to be made by common soldiers as well as by leaders. For example, U.S. soldiers are instructed that they are not to obey an order from a superior instructing them to commit a crime against humanity or a war crime.
3. When Bruno’s father comes down the elegant staircase in his home, he is met by the classic Nazi salute. His mother sneers and asks him if he is still that little boy who loved dressing up. She asks him if uniforms still make him feel special. What is she suggesting here?
Bruno’s father has been promoted to commandant of a death camp and is being honored for the distinction. His mother is clearly opposed to the Hitler regime and seems to be saying that the participants are little boys who need attention.
4. When Bruno sees people in striped pajamas across a fence that he assumes marks the boundary of a farm, he questions his father and is told that they are inferior beings and not worth being considered as people. Later Bruno hears the sentiment echoed by his tutor. How is this concept important to any genocide and what causes Bruno to see things differently?
Genocides occur when society denies the humanity of a minority and decides to exterminate the minority. This conception of the Jews is never really adopted by Bruno. Incidents that cause Bruno to see things differently from his father and his society include his meeting with Pavel, the man who works as a servant in his home and who is wearing the Striped pajamas under his servant’s clothing. Pavel helps Bruno make a tire swing and when Bruno is injured, Pavel dresses the wound. Bruno learns that Pavel was a doctor before working as a servant. Later, Bruno meets Shmuel and is happy to have a friend his own age. Learning about them, Bruno does not see these two individuals as different, non-human, or inferior. Thus, the suggestion is made that knowing an individual can shift the attitude about a group that is held by society.
5. Gretel, Bruno’s sister, is seen several times with her dolls and then one day Bruno finds the discarded dolls ominously piled into a dark corner of the cellar. What does this image tell the film’s viewers about the changes the girl is experiencing?
Gretel is losing her innocence. She has developed a crush on the German soldier, Karl, who guards her home and washes the cars. She wants to impress him. She accepts the anti-Semitic propaganda she reads with her tutor without question and fills the wall space of her room with Nazi posters. The image of the discarded dolls in the cellar creates a powerful symbol for her lost compassion.
6. His tongue loosened by alcohol, Karl reveals information about his father’s exodus from Germany. This information threatens Karl, despite his clear loyalty to the Nazi party and his role in the household as the brutal disciplinarian of the camp inmates who serve the household. What is revealed about Karl’s cruelty in his brutal attack on Pavel, the servant who spills wine at the dinner table. Why does Karl beat Pavel so brutally? What is the irony in what happens to Karl in this story?
Karl understands that he has talked too much and takes his fears out on the old man by beating him brutally as the family continues its meal in the next room. In addition, Karl is trying to demonstrate his hatred of Jews and his loyalty to Nazi principles. However, Karl’s fate is cast by his admission that he did not report his father to the authorities. Bruno’s father then reports Karl and the young man is transferred to the Eastern front where he will likely be killed. The irony in what happens to Karl is that he is trying to live up to the Nazi ideal, but it is those ideals that send him to his likely death.
7. The beating of Pavel serves as a turning point for Bruno’s mother who is increasingly opposed to her husband’s work in the military. What solution does her husband offer to help her cope with her disillusion and fear?
Bruno’s father decides to send his family to live with an aunt in Berlin. He seems to think that being away from the situation will make his wife feel better. He is unwilling to accept her beliefs, as he was unwilling to accept his mother’s beliefs. He chooses to offer a distraction rather than a solution to the problem.
8. What is revealed in the characters of both Bruno and Shmuel in the episode in which Karl finds the two boys together in the family home and questions their actions?
When Karl demands to know where Shmuel got the food he is eating, Bruno is afraid and lies, thus betraying his friendship with Shmuel. Shmuel is beaten and sent back behind the barbed wire. When Bruno apologizes to Shmuel for his betrayal, he is readily forgiven. This shows both the fear in which Bruno is living and his growing awareness of his father’s complicity in the misery suffered by Pavel as well as Shmuel. It also shows the innocence of children in the ease with which they can forgive. It indicates the importance of forgiveness and loyalty in friendship, which can surpass betrayal.
9. An important element of irony can be seen when Bruno spies on the viewing of the propaganda film which shows the camps to be comfortable places where Jews are treated fairly and not made to suffer the hardships that truly existed. Bruno knows the difference and is disturbed. What is revealed in this scene?
Suggested Response: Bruno is beginning to understand but is still fighting the reality that is unfolding around him. His mother is fading as she grows increasingly disturbed by her husband’s role in maintaining the camp. Bruno no longer feels proud of his father. Bruno is struggling to make sense out of two conflicting views of reality. His innocence is slowly starting to give way.
10. The film’s final episode is filled with several stark ironies. List three of the ironies.
Here are several ironies in the final episode. There may be more. It is ironic that while the family is preparing to move the children to Berlin for safety, Bruno is preparing to move into danger by entering the camp to help his friend Shmuel find his father. It is ironic that the goal of Bruno’s father in his work is to kill Jewish people in the gas chambers and his son becomes a victim of one of those gas chambers. It is ironic that Bruno’s effort to help his friend Shmuel, a loving and selfless act of friendship, will result in Bruno’s death. It is ironic that some of the men herding the Jews into the camp are inmates, wearing the same striped pajamas as the people they are hearding to their deaths, and that their own fates are not assured by this betrayal.
11. The plot of this film turns on one basic irony that is central to an important theme of the work. What is it? Can you identify any other stories in which the plot turns on a major irony that is central to an important theme?
The overriding irony in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is that Bruno dies in a death camp which his father is administering for the purpose of killing Jews. This irony is important to the theme that if you commit wrong to others, you or persons dear to you may suffer as a result. Note that there is no one correct way to describe the theme, but that it must relate to the fundamental irony of Bruno’s death in the gas chambers. There are may stories in which the plot turns on a basic irony that is central to an important theme. Here are a few: Cyrano de Bergerac; To Kill a Mockingbird; All My Sons; Billy Budd; The Scarlet Letter; and Fahrenheit 451.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See Discussion Question 2 above.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
See Discussion Question 4 above.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See Discussion Question 1 above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Topics for further study by both Social Studies and ELA classes:
- Efforts to rescue or to hide children in German-occupied Europe during World War II;
- Individuals involved in the efforts to rescue Jewish children from Europe during Hitler’s years;
- The efforts of religions, such as the Quakers, the French Protestants, or others in helping Jewish children during WWII;
- The operation of the Death Camps;
- Hitler’s propaganda machinery;
- The increasing persecution of the Jews up to the declaration of war;
- The persecution of the Jews after the declaration of War;
- Hitler youth organizations for both boys and girls;
- Survivor’s stories;
- Psychological studies of camp survivors;
- The ethical arguments for and against the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a haven for the Jews of Europe; and
- The role of Adolph Eichman in the “Final Solution,” his capture decades after the war in Argentina, and his trial and execution in Israel.
Essays can be written on any of the above topics or any others that are suggested by the film. The essays must be researched carefully and written using the class rubric for formal essays. Students can also be required to present the results of their research to the class.
ELA classes may want to deal with “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” as a work of art in itself and some teachers may want to assign students to read the book from which the film has been adapted. The following topics may be assigned for written work and oral presentations:
- Write an essay showing Bruno’s progress from complete innocence to an awakening of understanding about what is going on around him.
- Write an essay on the use of irony in the film and how it lends to overall theme.
- Write a persuasive essay in which you argue for or against the use of a non-Jew as a protagonist in a film showing the evils of the Holocaust.
- Write a review of the film which includes well-sourced information about the controversies associated with the film’s production. Be sure to show both points of view including those who object to what they see as trivialization of the Jews’ experiences in the Holocaust and those who believe that the facts fully justify the presentation of the story.
- Write an essay in which you illustrate the power of the various images used by the director to tell the film’s story. Cite specific scenes and describe in detail what makes each image so powerful.
BRIDGES TO READING
See The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Reader by John Boyne and The Boy In the Striped Pajamas (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Random House Movie Tie-In Books).
An excellent novel that is easily read by students as young as 12 and appreciated by adult readers as well is The Book Thief by Mark Zuzak, an Australian writer. This book tells the story of a German girl who serves as a witness to the crimes committed by the Nazi system. Death, personified as trying to cast itself as a compassionate and philosophical character, narrates the story in the first person. The book serves to illuminate many of the ideas suggested in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but has other important lessons as well.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- The Plight of Jewish Children During the Holocaust from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; contains links to many other web pages;
- A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust — Children; with links to many other web pages relating to the experience of children during the Holocaust;
- Life in the Shadows from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; contains links to many other web pages;
- Hidden Children and the Holocaust from the Jewish Virtual Library