The boy in the striped pajamas

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1.) Complete the quotation from the beginning of the movie:

“Childhood is measured out by _______________ and _______________ and _______________, before the _______________ hour of _______________ grows.” John Betjeman
After you finish watching the movie, explain why you think the director chose to use this quotation at the beginning:


2.) Why and how does little Bruno’s life change so drastically at the beginning of the movie?
3.) What does Bruno’s dad do for a living?
4.) What does Bruno’s father warn his grandma about at the party? As you keep watching the movie, how would you characterize their relationship?
5.) Describe Bruno’s new home in the countryside of Poland with their house in the city of Berlin.

House in Berlin

House in Poland

6.) What does Bruno call the Jews from the nearby concentration camps who work in their yard and kitchen?
7.) What is his father’s explanation for why the farmer’s wear pajamas?
8.) Why is Bruno’s mother upset about the concentration camp being so close, and why does she forbid him to explore in the backyard?
9.) How is the Jewish servant, Pavel, treated? How does Pavel treat Bruno when he hurts himself?
10.) What do we find out about Pavel’s life before the concentration camp?
11.) Whom does Bruno meet on one of his explorations beyond the backyard gates? As you watch the movie, what else do we find out about his new friend?
12.) What is Bruno being taught about the Jews by his tutor?
13.) How does his father explain the smell from the chimneys? What is the smell really?
14.) How and why is the relationship of Bruno’s parents changing?
15.) Why and how does Bruno betray his new friend?
16.) What is Bruno’s plan to make up for letting his friend down?
17.) What happens to Bruno and his friend at the end of the movie?
Discussion Questions after Watching the Movie

For this part of the discussion, you will be divided into five groups. In your groups answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper. Then be prepared to share your answers with the class. It would be helpful if one group member could write or type the answers to the questions on a piece of paper that we can put on the projector to give your classmates a visual aide, for they need to copy down/summarize the answers of your group during your presentation.

Innocence Perspective (Group 1) –

The story includes an interesting contrast of an innocent child’s perspective in a setting with circumstances far from innocent. This section explores the meaning and value of an innocent perspective and how it enables this story to unfold.

• What do “innocent” and “naïve” mean when used to describe children?

• How does the opening scene of Bruno and his friends represent their innocence?

• Can adults be naïve? In what ways can they be naïve? What adults in the movie seemed naïve?

• Can you give an example of a time when you were a young child and saw the world from a more innocent perspective? What are some examples of that? What experiences helped you see the world differently than what you initially thought?

• Does Bruno and Gretel’s tutor take advantage of the children’s innocence in what he teaches them? How? What were these ideas?

• What events and experiences lead Bruno to gradually give up some of his innocence and see things differently?

• Why was it so hard for him to believe that his father could be involved in hurtful acts?

• Neither Bruno nor Shmuel really know going on at the concentration camp. Why is that, and what allows them to keep their innocence?

• Why do you think the movie ended the way it did?
The Essence of Friendship (Group 2) -

Friendship is a central theme of this story, and this section explores the reasons, depths and meaning of friendship explored in this story.

• Why do you think Bruno and Shmuel become friends and stay friends?

• How do the friendships that Bruno has in Berlin at the beginning of the movie compare with his friendship with Shmuel?

• Does the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel evolve in the story? How?

• Why doesn’t Bruno try to protect his friend when Shmuel is attacked by Lieutenant Kotler?

• Have you ever done something to a friend that made you feel bad or ashamed? How does shame and remorse figure into the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel? How does Bruno show his remorse?

• Why does Shmuel forgive Bruno?

• How is it possible for Bruno and Shmuel to have fun together and maintain their friendship in the midst of their circumstances?

• How does Bruno justify continuing his friendship with Shmuel despite what his father, sister, and tutor have said about Jews?

• How do Bruno and Shmuel demonstrate the essence of friendship despite their many differences? What are their differences?

• How can people use the power of friendship to cross boundaries of race, religion, and culture?

Acts of Humanity (Group 3) -

The author of the book and the creators of the movie crafted the story as a fable. A fable is story with a moral, one that teaches a lesson about humanity. The section explores the depths of humanity that are possible in the most trying of circumstances.

• Think about fables you know and the lessons associated with those fables. What are the lessons to be learned from this fable, and the moral of this story?

• Contrast Pavel’s treatment of Bruno when the boy fell from the tire swing with the way Pavel is treated by Bruno’s family.

• Mother saying “thank you” to Pavel for treating Bruno is an important turning point for her. What has changed for the mother at this point?

• At times, Father is shown as a loving parent and husband. How is that possible given his role as a Nazi officer giving orders to treat people inhumanely?

• Bruno tried to help Shmuel find his father despite being frightened and wanting to go home. Why?

• What does Bruno say and do to show his growing understanding of the inhumanity going on around him, including to his friend Shmuel?

• Have you ever been in a situation where a person was mistreated? What actions did you take? How did you feel after acting or not acting?

• Bruno secretly took food from his house to give to Shmuel because it was one concrete way he could help his friend. Have you ever done something to help people who didn’t have enough food? What can people do today to help people who are starving around the world?

• What do you think causes people to treat others in such horrific ways as was done during the Holocaust? Are there people being treated like this anywhere in the world today? What is or can be done to stop it?
Understanding Obedience and Conformity (Group 4) -

This section explores the value of thinking and acting for the benefit of others, and how that can sometimes mean going along with everyone else, and other times not.

• What is peer pressure? Have you been in situations in which you felt compelled to go alongwith a group? Describe those situations and why you acted as you did.

• Grandmother disagrees with the views of the Nazis. How does she stand up for her beliefs?

• What is propaganda? How is propaganda used to “sell” people on a viewpoint?

• The short film shown by Father in the movie to his soldiers is considered propaganda. What was the purpose of this propaganda?

• When Mother learns that Jews are being exterminated at the camp, she questions her husband. “How can you?” she asks. He responds: “Because I’m a soldier.” Contrast these two perspectives.

• Gretel believes the viewpoints of Lieutenant Kotler, the tutor Liszt, and Father about Jews. Although Bruno is younger than his sister, he questions their viewpoints. Why?

• How is obedience constructive and how can it be destructive? Give examples from the story of each.

• What are ways of advancing peace and harmony in life through constructive disobedience?

• List examples in history where civil disobedience has been constructive.
Exploring Prejudice and Discrimination (Group 5) -

The story takes place during a traumatic period in the world’s history. This section explores the damage to humanity that prejudice and discrimination have, and how and why it’s important to fight against them.

• Have you ever been discriminated against? When have you witnessed discrimination against other people or discriminated against someone else?

• What is a stereotype? Why do people stereotype groups that are different from them? How does the movie depict Nazis stereotyping Jews?

• A scapegoat is blamed for things they are not responsible for. During the Holocaust, Jews became scapegoats, blamed for all the troubles in Germany. Why were they made scapegoats?

• Gretel becomes prejudiced against Jews. Who influenced her? How does she show her prejudiced views?

• What is Mother’s reaction when she sees Gretel’s room decorated with Nazi posters?

• What happens to cause Mother to question her own prejudice against Jews?

• When Bruno first finds out that Shmuel is Jewish, he says: “You’re a Jew. You can’t be. I think I should go now.” Why does Bruno react that way at first?

• When you hear someone make a biased comment about a group of people, what do you usually do? How hard is it to stand up to prejudice and discrimination? Why?

• In the story, who fights against prejudice and discrimination? Give examples of people in history who fought against prejudice and discrimination.

• What conflicts around the world today are the result of prejudice? What are its effects on innocent people, including children?

• In your opinion, what does the end of story symbolize? Why?
FINAL QUESTION (Every Group) –

Read the following movie/book review and respond Rabbi Blech’s claim that this well-meaning book ends up distorting the Holocaust in a four paragraph essay.

You may do the brainstorming as a group. Then you need to write your own rough draft. After editing your rough draft, type your final draft and turn it in.
Think about the following questions with your group –

  • What reasons does he give for his opinion?

  • Why is the task/responsibility of the Holocaust author?

  • What is the moral we must exact from the Holocaust according to Rabbi Blech?

  • How does this book distort the moral?

This well-meaning book ends up distorting the Holocaust.

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Soon there will be no more eyewitnesses. The Holocaust is inexorably moving from personal testimony to textual narrative.

Survivors, those who clung to life no matter how unbearable so that they could confirm the unimaginable and attest to the unbelievable, are harder to find after more than half a century. It is the written word that will have to substitute for the heart-rending tales of woe shared by those who endured hell on earth. That is, after all, all that will remain of six million victims.

Holocaust authors have a daunting responsibility. They must speak for those who cannot, but whose suffering demands to be remembered and whose deaths cry out for posthumous meaning. Their task transcends the mere recording of history. It is nothing less than a sacred mission. Holocaust literature, like the biblical admonition to remember the crimes of Amalek, deservedly rises to the level of the holy.

For that reason I admire anyone who is courageous enough to attempt to deal with the subject. No, there will never be too many books about this dreadful period we would rather forget. No, we have no right to ignore the past because it is unpleasant or refuse to let reality intrude on our preference for fun and for laughter. And John Boyne is to be commended for tackling a frightening story that needs to be told to teenagers today in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- a fictional account of the Nazi era that uses the powerful device of a tale told from the perspective of its nine year old hero.

I came to this book fully prepared to love it. Although the publisher insists that all reviewers not reveal its story, the back cover promises "As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank." And indeed the writing is gripping. The style, sharing with Anne Frank the distinctive voice of youth, is extremely effective. One can readily understand why the book has had such a strong impact on countless readers, become required reading in high school Holocaust courses round the country, and is about to be released as a major motion picture.

And yet…

How should one react to a book that ostensibly seeks to inform while it so blatantly distorts? If it is meant as a way of understanding what actually happened -- and indeed for many students it will be the definitive and perhaps only Holocaust account to which they will be exposed -- how will its inaccuracies affect the way in which readers will remain oblivious to the most important moral message we are to discover in the holocaust's aftermath?

Without giving away the plot, it is enough to tell you that Bruno, the nine-year-old son of the Nazi Commandant at Auschwitz (never identified by that name, but rather as "Out-With" -- a lame pun I think out of place in context) lives within yards of the concentration camp his father oversees and actually believes that its inhabitants who wear striped pajamas -- oh, how lucky, he thinks, to be able to be so comfortably dressed --spend their time on vacation drinking in cafes on the premises while their children are happily playing games all day long even as he envies them their carefree lives and friendships! And, oh yes, this son of a Nazi in the mid 1940's does not know what a Jew is, and whether he is one too! And after a year of surreptitious meetings with a same-aged nine-year-old Jewish boy who somehow manages every day to find time to meet him at an unobserved fence (!) (Note to the reader: There were no nine-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz -- the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work) Bruno still doesn't have a clue about what is going on inside this hell -- this after supposedly sharing an intimate friendship with someone surrounded by torture and death every waking moment!

Do you see the most egregious part of this picture? As Elie Wiesel put it, the cruelest lesson of the Holocaust was not man's capacity for inhumanity -- but the far more prevalent and dangerous capacity for indifference. There were millions who knew and did nothing. There were "good people" who watched -- as if passivity in the face of evil was sinless. If there is to be a moral we must exact from the Holocaust it is the "never again" that must henceforth be applied to our cowardice to intervene, our failure to react when evildoers rush in to fill the ethical vacuum.

Yet if we were to believe the premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it was possible to live in the immediate proximity of Auschwitz and simply not know -- the very defense of all those Germans after the war who chose to deny their complicity.

True, Bruno in the story was but a boy. But I have spoken to Auschwitz survivors. They tell me how the stench of burning human flesh and the ashes of corpses from the crematoria filled the air for miles around. The trains traveling with human cargo stacked like cordwood screaming for water as they died standing in their natural wastes without even room to fall to the ground were witnessed throughout every countryside. Nobody, not even little German children who were weaned on hatred of the Jews as subhuman vermin could have been unaware of "The Final Solution." And to suggest that Bruno simply had no idea what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home is to allow the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.

But it's only a fable, a story, and stories don't have to be factually accurate. It's just a naive little boy who makes mistaken assumptions. However that misses the point. This is a story that is supposed to convey truths about one of the most horrendous eras of history. It is meant to lead us to judgments about these events that will determine what lessons we ultimately learn from them.

So what will the students studying this as required reading take away from it? The camps certainly weren't that bad if youngsters like Shmuley, Bruno's friend, were able to walk about freely, have clandestine meetings at a fence (non-electrified, it appears) which even allows for crawling underneath it, never reveals the constant presence of death, and survives without being forced into full-time labor. And as for those people in the striped pajamas -- why if you only saw them from a distance you would never know these weren't happy masqueraders!

My Auschwitz friend read the book at my urging. He wept, and begged me tell everyone 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.

The Holocaust is simply too grim a subject for Grimm fairytales.

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