At a Glance
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas key characters:
In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant; he remains innocent of the horrors of the Holocaust and befriends a prisoner at the death camp.
Shmuel is a young Polish Jew who does not understand why he is in the concentration camp. He befriends Bruno and the two share many similarities in spite of their different circumstances.
Gretel is Bruno’s sister and a staunch supporter of Nazi propaganda.
Bruno’s mother is largely ignorant of what goes on in Auschwitz; after realizing that her husband is ordering Jews to be murdered in the gas chambers, she decides to move back to Berlin with her children.
Bruno’s father is proud of his high-ranking position in the German military. Despite his reverence for the Nazi party, he does try to shield his family from the horrors of the death camp.
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Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant who is forced to leave his home in Berlin and move to Auschwitz where his father has been reassigned. He is reluctant to leave Berlin where he has three good friends, is close to his grandparents, and lives in a lovely home. Bruno is characterized by an endearing childhood innocence which becomes especially poignant when he meets a young prisoner on the other side of a fence near his house. Bruno remains strikingly unaffected by the war and unmoved by the Nazi beliefs and propaganda which he confronts daily. This may well be due to his young age or the result of his character. In any case, Bruno represents man’s capacity for kindness and compassion.
Shmuel is a young Polish Jew who is a prisoner in Auschwitz. Bruno meets him at a fence while exploring near his house. Shmuel is as innocent as Bruno and seems not to quite understand why he is a prisoner. Shmuel reveals that his mother is a teacher who speaks German (which she has taught him), French, Italian and English (which she plans to teach him). Until the deportation, Shmuel lived with his mother, father and brother above his father’s watchmaking shop. He tells Bruno about how he came home from school one day to find his mother making armbands for the family which the Nazis forced them to wear. Bruno has a hard time comprehending some of the stories Shmuel tells him because it seems so unimaginable to him. Shmuel becomes worried once his father goes missing in the camp and asks for Bruno’s help in finding him. Bruno’s willingness to help his friend results in both of them dying at the merciless hands of the Nazis.
Bruno and Shmuel seem to lead parallel yet mutually exclusive lives. They share common interests, the same birthday, and a similar perspective on life. Their friendship is not just unlikely; it defies possibility. In a world and a time where people were being told what to think, who to hate and what relationships were acceptable, Bruno and Shmuel demonstrate how resistant and resilient children can be and how important kindness and compassion are.
Gretel, Bruno’s older sister, annoys him a great deal; he refers to her as a “Hopeless Case” who does nothing but cause him grief. Gretel fancies herself far more mature and worldly than Bruno, despite her doll collection which would seem to symbolize her naivete. Gretel is increasingly interested in the beliefs and activities of the Nazi party and, after their move to Auschwitz, befriends one of the Nazi camp guards. In an effort to demonstrate her devotion and dedication to the ideals of the Hitler Youth, Gretel gives up her doll collection for Nazi propaganda posters and literature. Gretel may represent those in German society who were aware of the horrors of the Holocaust but made a conscious choice to do nothing to help others.
Bruno’s mother tries desperately to shield her children from the horrors of the Holocaust which is taking place virtually in their backyard. To some extent, she seems to turn a blind eye to what her husband does for a living and to what is taking place in the camp. She becomes distraught when she learns that Auschwitz is not a concentration camp but rather a death camp. She is furious when she finds out that her husband has been ordering the slaughter of thousands of Jews in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. She concludes that Auschwitz is no place to raise children and decides to move back to Berlin with the children.
Bruno’s father (referred to simply as “Father” throughout the novel) is a Nazi commandant who seems to truly revere Nazi ideology. When Bruno’s grandparents learn of his father’s promotion to Commandant, Bruno’s grandfather is extremely proud of his son’s accomplishments while Bruno’s grandmother is horrified at the thought of what he will be doing. Once the family is settled in their new home, Father is thrilled to host Hitler and his female companion, Eva, for dinner and is determined to make a positive impression. Despite Father’s professional inhumanity, he does try to shield his own family from the nefarious goings-on at Auschwitz.
Pavel is a Jewish servant who works in Bruno’s home. Bruno believes that Pavel and the other people he sees from his bedroom window are pajama-wearing farmers. Pavel had been a well-established doctor before his internment and Bruno cannot understand why he gave up that career to be a farmer who peels potatoes for Bruno’s family. When Bruno falls from a tree swing in the garden Pavel uses his medical skills to care for Bruno. One day, Pavel is beaten by Lieutenant Kotler and no longer comes to the family’s home afterwards; the family’s maid, Maria must clean up the bloody mess.
Lieutenant Kotler is an arrogant Nazi guard with aspirations of greatness. He relishes any opportunity to abuse and demean the prisoners who work in Bruno’s house; not only does he seem to truly believe that he is superior to them but he also seems to enjoy showing off for Gretel.
Herr Liszt is the tutor hired by Bruno’s father who tries to instill him and Gretel with Nazi rhetoric. Gretel is a willing student while Bruno seems skeptical and inquisitive; he is not quite as willing as Gretel to accept Herr Liszt’s version of history, in particular.
Each of the characters, though imbued with individual characteristics and personalities, represents a different stereotype of someone who lived during the Holocaust. For example, Gretel symbolizes the members of the Hitler Youth who blindly accepts the ideology and practiced modeled by the Nazi party. Lieutenant Kotler is but one of countless ardent supporters of Hitler’s policies and practices. Not only does he believe that the Germans are superior to the Jews but he clearly enjoys any chance he gets to point this out whether it is by making anti-Semitic comments or beating prisoners relentlessly. Bruno’s mother is a bystander who likely feels badly about what is happening to the victims but chooses to do and say nothing. This kind of feigned ignorance is one of the reasons Hitler was able to continue his systematic extermination of millions for as long as he did. Had all of the bystanders in Europe stood up against such persecution, it is possible that Hitler could have been stopped.
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Describe the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel.
I think that the friendship between both boys can be described as real. Their friendship is one that cuts through social distinctions, religious distinctions, and historical conditions. Both…
In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which character is in a worse situation, Bruno or…
Although Bruno and Shmuel are both tragic characters who die at the end of the novel, I believe that Shmuel has a more difficult plight throughout the story. Unlike Bruno who lives in relative…
What makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a worthy book to read?What makes The Boy in the Striped…
I think that you could probably pull many different answers for this one. I would say that one reason why the book is a worthy one to read is that it takes one of the most difficult of topics and…
If you were to change the last chapter of the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, how would you…
I think that the existing ending chapter is a fairly good one. I think that the manner in which Boyne has constructed life after Bruno’s death is a good one. I would like to see more…
Describe the main characters John Boyne’s young adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
The little boys whose innocent friendship forms the central plot of the story are named Bruno and Shmuel. Bruno is the nine year old child of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel is a young…
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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
by John Boyne
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Shmuel is Bruno’s dream come true: He’s a kid, a good listener, and he has the same exact birthday as our main man. But Shmuel is no ordinary boy—nope, he’s a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. So even though he doesn’t say so, we know he’s seen horrific things. And because of this, while he and Bruno share a birthday, Shmuel is much more grown-up than Bruno is—Bruno may be pretty ignorant about the horrors unfolding next door, but Shmuel knows fear, starvation, and violence firsthand. In other words, as he’s Bruno’s friend and his foil .
I’m Just a Polish Boy From a Polish Family
If Bruno thinks his life blows, it’s nothing compared to Shmuel’s. While Bruno downgrades from a five-story house to a paltry three stories, prior to being held prisoner in a concentration camp, Shmuel explains:
“All I know is this […] before we came here I lived with my mother and father and my brother Josef in a small flat above the store where Papa makes his watches.” (12.689)
In other words, even before life became truly terrible, Shmuel’s life wasn’t half as full of luxury as Bruno’s. Importantly, this stems from their fathers’ positions in society, positions which it seems fair to connect to their ethno-religious identities: Bruno’s father is a German working for Hitler, while Shmuel’s father is a Jewish man trying to hack it in an anti-Semitic world, even before the Holocaust begins.
Of course, once the Holocaust begins, trouble kicks into high gear for Shmuel and his family. By the time Bruno meets him, Shmuel’s hardships have come to include:
- Nazi soldiers stealing a beautiful watch his father gave him
- His family being forced from their home and into one bedroom shared with another family
- His family being transported by train—as Shmuel notes, “There were too many of us in the carriages for one thing and there was no air to breathe” (12.713)—to Auschwitz
- His mother’s been “taken away,” which we’re pretty sure is a euphemism for killed
- His grandfather’s gone missing, which we’re also pretty sure is connected to death
If you’re keeping score, by the time Shmuel and Bruno meet, the worst thing that we know has happened to Bruno is he’s been forced to move away from his friends into a slightly smaller house. It’s apples and oranges, really, which is kind of the point: Life is consistently easier for Bruno than his Jewish counterpart. If Bruno represents life in the bubble of childhood, Shmuel makes it clear that Jewish children all around him are being completely denied this experience. It’s no wonder Shmuel always looks so sad.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Despite all the nasty stuff he’s been through, Shmuel is the kind of guy you want on your side—he’s sensitive, he’s a good listener, and he’s a loyal friend. And perhaps importantly for Bruno, Shmuel’s not one to go on about the hardships he’s experienced, thereby not shattering the bubble Bruno enjoys living in (more about this on Bruno’s page elsewhere in this section).
While it may be tempting to look at Shmuel and marvel at his resilience in the face of forced adulthood, it’s important to note that despite his pretty smooth veneer, he’s still just a kid. The Holocaust may be able to force him to confront things far beyond his years, but it can’t change the fundamental fact that Shmuel is still just a boy. This is perhaps never made clearer than in the moment when Kotler catches him eating some chicken that Bruno’s just given him. When asked if he stole food from Bruno’s kitchen, Shmuel responds by saying:
“No, sir. [Bruno] gave it to me […] He’s my friend.” (15.1029)
What Shmuel says is true—Bruno is his friend, and he has given him the chicken. But what’s more interesting is that Shmuel fails to anticipate that Bruno won’t back him in this moment. What this shows is that for all of his maturity, Shmuel is still a kid—he’s not cynical or jaded or self-preserving, and while the Holocaust has consumed his family one member at a time, he still fundamentally trusts this little German boy who knows nothing about the camp experience. It is a childlike faith in friendship, demonstrating that in his heart, Shmuel is still just a boy.
And because we can see that Shmuel is just a boy, we’re reminded of the ways in which he’s similar to Bruno. For all that he knows that Bruno does not, he still yearns for company and readily aligns himself with his peers—just like kids do. In this, our attention is drawn to Shmuel’s fundamental humanity. Yes, there are ways in which he operates as a symbolic counterpart to Bruno in this story, but underneath the trimmings and trappings of their respective experiences, a shared youthfulness—and in this, a common humanity—emerges.
In the end, then, when Shmuel stands in the gas chamber holding hands with Bruno, we don’t find ourselves reading through the death of our main character and his symbolic opposite. We find ourselves watching two very young boys, from different walks of life and for different (though both totally absurd) reasons, preparing to die. Shmuel may pack a symbolic punch throughout the book, but when it comes to his death, the horror of the Holocaust is made all the clearer because he greets it as simply a boy with his friend.
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