From the Author’s collection.
I did my 5th ‘Meet and Greet’ book signing last weekend for my new book, A Train Near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust, and the reuniting of the survivors and liberators, 70 years on.
At my first event a couple of months back, a customer mentioned that a young relative was learning about the Holocaust in middle school in conjunction with the book/film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I told her I had been thinking about writing a blog post about the use of this story in the classroom, but not because I thought it was a good idea. She was intrigued and wanted to know more, and while I had put together draft after draft of this post, I had not published it, because I feared coming off like a ‘know-it-all’.
Since then, three more times a person at a book signing has cited TBITSP as a major basis for their understanding of the Holocaust. One person went so far as to describe scene after scene for me, so I nodded in acknowledgement before gently directing the conversation to the fact that it was a work of fiction. She seemed surprised to know this, but grateful I had informed her. So yesterday, when a person picked up my book from the table and also mentioned a ‘wonderfully moving book’ about the Holocaust, I knew that the next words out of her mouth were going to be “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. As soon as she said it I blurted out, ‘but you know it is not true, right?’ Mildly flustered, she acknowledged that she did not.
In the ten years since its release The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the 2006 novel by Irish writer John Boyle, has seemingly become a bellwether of sorts, some middle school rite of passage in “learning about the Holocaust”. It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and it is the book that has ‘introduced’ millions to the subject, and apparently not just children, though it is used in tandem with the horrific 2008 film based on it in literally thousands of classrooms across the country. So, I’ll get right to it-
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is NOT a book about the Holocaust and should not be used as a vehicle to introduce children to the subject of the Holocaust.
If you are not familiar with the story, here are a couple ‘blurbs’ found online….
For the book:
“Powerful and unsettling. . . . As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank.” —USA Today
Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
And the film:
Through the lens of an eight-year-old boy largely shielded from the reality of World War II, we witness a forbidden friendship that forms between Bruno, the son of Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy held captive in a concentration camp. Though the two are separated physically by a barbed wire fence, their lives become inescapably intertwined. The imagined story of Bruno and Shmuel sheds light on the brutality, senselessness and devastating consequences of war from an unusual point of view. Together, their tragic journey helps recall the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.
[Spoiler alert: the ‘devastating consequences’ in the final scene we have the protagonist, the innocent German boy Bruno, being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz by his new-found friend, the Jewish boy Shmuel, as his agitated parents (the new commandant of Auschwitz) and German staff search frantically for little Bruno.]
‘Unsettling’ it is indeed. It’s even more unsettling to think that people think it is true. The author conceived and executed the first draft of his novel in less than three days, and labels it plainly as a ‘fable’ (though why one would use that word in writing about the Holocaust, which many attack as ‘exaggerated’ or an outright untruth already, is beyond me).
Most of the teachers I know work very hard—but I find it unsettling to learn that so many are using TBITSP in the classroom. Part of the confusion among instructors comes from an inadequate grounding in their own knowledge of the scope and uniqueness of the Holocaust, the watershed event in the history of mankind. This is an observation, not an indictment. Teachers can’t be experts in all fields, and are constantly being pulled in several directions. Even people who have studied the Holocaust for years have their own assumptions challenged as they delve deeper into the topic, me included.
It’s safe to say that the story is a home run on the affective level of raw emotion. Unfortunately it has little to do with understanding the Holocaust on the cognitive level, and the last scene is frankly cheap and downright exploitative. Here it is from YouTube, I think perhaps posted by a kid. I also post some of the comments that I found afterwards, many of them from kids who apparently watched this in class.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas gas chamber scene
- my heart felt like it was getting slugged by a bowling ball when the mother was crying
- the sad part to me was when bruno says “dont worry we are just in here to get out of the rain” poor boy
- I think he wanted to save him or was it just me i cried my head off
- Sad movie. Does anyone else think that Schmall knew his father was gone but wanted to have a friend (Bruno) with him? That maybe he was given false hope even though he knew? I do not think he knew they would die though. They were hidden in the crowd of old/mental men and could have possibly survived had they not been in that barrack. Gas chambers were used for mass killings of mental or sick jews
- Me before video Hey, I’m reading this, there’s a gas chamber scene….Me after video … Well uhm that was… Unexpected. Well I’m going to cry myself to sleep tonight
- ….a kid broke down in tears 😔😔😔 Yeah they also killed the commanders kid
- I watched this in my school today every body cried
- in the book Burno’s body was already burned his parents never found out what happened to him.
- watched this movie in class today and it f*cked me up big time.
Frankly, I think that if we are using the story in the classroom to introduce young minds to the the Holocaust, we are doing our students a disservice. Are they to assume that every eight year old growing up in Nazi Germany was as naïve and dumb as poor Bruno? More importantly, it is incumbent on us to challenge with our students the remarks featured in the glowing reviews and the harmful inferences perpetrated by this work.
- “Powerful and unsettling. . . . As memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank.” —USA Today Really? The book is a work of fiction, and presents a narrative with a backdrop of serious historical fallacies. There is no way that fiction should replace the compelling narrative of the real survivors who lived through this era, when fiction like this that paints a misleading, emotionally manipulative, self serving portrait. There were not a heck of a lot of children sitting by the wire undisturbed in a place called Auschwitz, bored and waiting for a new friend to pop out of the woods, one who can burrow under off-limits barbed wire boundaries with ease.
- If I was a young student, I would certainly ask, why didn’t those Jews just dig under and escape? No guards are around—were they all stupid? Maybe it’s their own fault for going to their deaths….And maybe the Jewish boy, encouraging Bruno to come into the camp and handing him a striped uniform, has something to do with the death of our main character? “the real question is would u go with the Jew and go to the gas chamber or stay home and not get in the gas chamber I would chose the last one because I wouldn’t want to go to the gas chamber and I would love to stay healthy …..”
- “The imagined story of Bruno and Shmuel sheds light on the brutality, senselessness and devastating consequences of war from an unusual point of view. Together, their tragic journey helps recall the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.” The point of view is ‘unusual’ because it is preposterous, and some Holocaust education professionals I know refer to it quite strongly as ‘reprehensible’ in its pandering manipulation of the emotions of its young readers. Having read the book and seen the movie more than once, it doesn’t do anything to ‘recall the millions’. The ‘imagined story shedding light on the devastating consequences of war’? Unfortunately it misdirects our sympathies. “the sad part to me was when bruno says ‘dont worry we are just in here to get out of the rain’ poor boy”/’my heart felt like it was getting slugged by a bowling ball when the mother [of the German boy] was crying’ Does the student feel bad about the Jews or the perpetrators, as Bruno wanders into the gas chamber with his new friend? Where is the backstory of the little Jewish boy inside of the camp? Who were the real victims? What were their lives like?
- Why would you teach something ‘about the Holocaust’ if it were not true? Aren’t there enough out there who say that it never happened?
Ironically and unfortunately, the use of this story in the classroom has been encouraged by the very agents of critical thinking in the classroom, the Common Core standard bearers. I well remember sitting through a faculty meeting where the following exemplar was held aloft and distributed to every faculty member present as the new way to engage students in critical analysis and writing.
From the Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects [www.uen.org/commoncore/downloads/StudentWritingSample9th.pdf]:
Student Sample: Grade 9, Argument
This argument was written in response to a classroom assignment. The students were asked to compare a book they read on their own to a movie about the same story and to prove which was better. Students had six weeks to read and one and a half weeks to write, both in and out of class.
The True Meaning of Friendship
John Boyne’s story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, tells the tale of an incredible friendship between
two eight-year old boys during the Holocaust. One of the boys is Bruno, the son of an important German
commander who is put in charge of Auschwitz Camp, and the other is Shmuel, a Jewish boy inside the
camp. Throughout the story their forbidden friendship grows, and the two boys unknowingly break the
incredible racial boundaries of the time. They remain best friends until Bruno goes under the fence to
help Shmuel find his father when they are both killed in the gas showers of the camp.
In some ways the book and the movie have similar aspects, and one of these aspects is how irony is
used to emphasize Bruno’s innocence and to greatly emphasize the tragic mood of the story. In the final
climactic scene of the movie—just after Bruno has gone under the fence to help Shmuel find his father—
the two boys are led to the gas showers to be killed. Unaware of what is about to happen to them, Bruno
tells Shmuel that his father must have ordered this so it must be for a good reason, and that they are going
into the air-tight rooms to stay out of the rain and avoid getting sick. This statement is incredibly ironic
because, unbeknownst to Bruno, his father has unknowingly commenced his own son’s death sentence. In
addition to this, the soldiers have no intention of keeping their prisoners healthy. It never occurs to Bruno
that anyone would want to destroy another human being or treat them badly, and his innocence makes
his premature death all the more tragic.
The movie ends with a race against time as Bruno’s
family searches for him in the camp, trying to find him before he is killed. They are too late, and Bruno
and Shmuel die together like so many other anonymous children during the Holocaust. The theme of the
movie is how so many children died at the ruthless hands of their captors; but the book’s theme has a
deeper meaning. As Bruno and Shmuel die together in the chamber, “ . . . the room went very dark, and
in the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing
in the world would have persuaded him to let it go” (242). Bruno loves Schmuel, and he is willing to stay
with him no matter what the consequences, even if it means dying with him in the camp that his father
controls. They have conquered all boundaries, and this makes the two boys more than just two more
individuals who died in Auschwitz. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not the story of two children who
died in a concentration camp; this story is about an incredible friendship that triumphed over racism
and lasted until the very end. It is the story of what should have been between Jews and Germans, a
friendship between two groups of people in one nation who used their strengths to help each other.
Nowhere in this Common Core standard exemplar is it acknowledged that TBITSP is a work of fiction, and therefore nowhere has the true critical analysis taken place. This has led me to actually use it in the classroom for the REAL analysis with my own high school students—empowering them to uncover the fictional, untrue aspects of this work in the larger study of the Holocaust, to discuss the points made earlier, so as to be properly equipped with the skills to be able to debunk untruths everywhere.
So, what can we take away from all of this?
The teacher needs to ask the ultimate question for every single unit of study, and not just the Holocaust- why am I teaching this? Is it just to practice a supposed skill set for the requirements of a high stakes examination? The Holocaust as a topic is very well suited to practicing these critical thinking skills— however, if we lose sight of the reasons for studying the topic in the first place—then we risk losing the big picture. From the USHMM, here are some of the questions that should guide a teacher’s decision.
- Why should students learn this history?
- What are the most significant lessons students should learn from studying the Holocaust?
- Why is a particular reading, image, document, or film an appropriate medium for conveying the topics that you wish to teach? For help with the reasons, go to www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust. Be sure to review the “Guidelines”, and below also is a video that I and another teacher created with student input, illustrating the USHMM Guidelines.
‘This Is For Remembrance’ 4.31
And if you are a serious teacher of the Holocaust, consider obtaining a copy of Essentials of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches (Totten and Feinberg, 2016). For alternatives for classroom use to TBITSP, see Shawn, Karen, What Books Shall We Choose for Our Children? A Selective, Annotated Guide to 30 Years of Holocaust Narratives for Students in Grades Four Through Eight.
The nice lady who had been leafing through my book (also a good adult/high school vehicle for learning about the Holocaust from real survivor narratives!) set it down and moved on to another book table. So I guess I lost the sale, but I’m thankful to her for the push to let people know that I can no longer stand by with “PJs” passing as a legitimate vehicle for Holocaust education in so many classrooms nationwide. It’s just so wrong on so many levels.