Let’s Talk about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”…

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About The Author

Let's Talk about "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"...

Deborah A. Batiste was one of the lead authors of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide (2005 and 2014 editions) and has served as ADL's Echoes and Reflections Project Director since 2005. In that capacity, she is responsible for many of the day-to-day operations of the program, including conducting professional development programs for educators around the country; presenting at regional and national conferences; and developing print and online support materials. Prior to her tenure with ADL, Deborah taught high school English and supervised student teachers in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She holds a BS in Secondary Education and a Master’s degree in Psychology.

08/23/2016

Over the past ten years, I have had the honor of delivering Echoes and Reflections professional development programs to thousands of educators across the United States. During that time, I have seen the differences from state to state with respect to when and how the Holocaust is covered in school or district curriculum; however, my experiences have also taught me that the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Educators care deeply about teaching the Holocaust and feel a profound responsibility to provide accurate, authentic, and sensitive instruction―instruction that honors the memory of the victims and provides an opportunity for students to think critically about what the Holocaust can teach us about the moral and ethical choices people make and the impact of those choices.

Another striking similarity is the selection of texts that teachers across the country have told me they use in their classrooms―namely, The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first two titles have been part of the canon of Holocaust literature for decades, and while there are certainly cautions for how to use these texts effectively, they are the words of those who experienced the events about which they write and show respect for the survivors and the victims. But, let’s talk about that third title.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas calls itself a fable―a story of two young The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Bookboys who meet in a place that most readers understand to be Auschwitz but that the characters do not know as anything other than where they are at a particular moment in time. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” never appears in the text. Soon after the book was published in 2006, Boyne shared in an interview that he was well aware of the complexity of writing about a topic like the Holocaust and was therefore careful not to portray the storyline as anything other than fiction, changing certain aspects of concentration camp history in order to serve the story. Like any fable, there is no expectation that this story be factually accurate; the purpose is to convey universal “truths” and moral lessons. Boyne hoped that his fable would challenge readers―especially young readers―to think about the “fences” that divide groups of people and be inspired to work to dismantle them whenever and wherever possible.

The question that must be asked, however, is whether students are clear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable when they begin reading it? This is particularly important when students have an opportunity to self-select texts for independent reading, a practice used in many language arts classrooms. Without adequate framing, students may believe that they are reading a novel based on fact, and walk away with historical inaccuracies in terms of time, place, and events that result in gross misinformation about the Holocaust in general, and Auschwitz specifically.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can leave students thinking that being in Auschwitz wasn’t that “bad”―after all, the inmates who walk around in pajamas seem “fine,” and children move around freely and have clandestine meetings at a fence that is not electrified and even allows for crawling underneath.  Boyne’s book never reveals or even hints at the constant presence of death that permeated Auschwitz, nor the forced labor, starvation, brutal beatings, and dehumanization. The author’s portrayal of young Bruno’s innocence and naiveté about what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home allows the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.

One can argue that works of fiction set during the Holocaust do not present themselves as attempting to tell the history of the Holocaust; however, a topic as sensitive and tragic as the Holocaust if not presented carefully can disrespect the truth of the experience, lead students to doubt the facts of the Holocaust, or cause confusion. Often when romanticized events compete with factual information, it is the romanticized events that will be remembered. For me, this has been reinforced when adults that I have spoken to do not realize that Chelmno extermination camp had an almost zero survival rate and cite Jane Yolen’s fictional Briar Rose as a their source of understanding about this camp. In lieu of historical knowledge, the romanticized story of a young female protagonist escaping from Chelmno became what readers knew (or believed they knew) about the camp. It is critical for readers of Holocaust fiction to have accurate historical knowledge so that they are not confused by the historical inaccuracies often found in fictional accounts of the Holocaust.

It is for all these reasons that at Echoes and Reflections, we do not recommend using this text in teaching. Instead, we encourage teachers to select authentic memoirs or diaries that can resonate with teenage readers while giving them accurate information about the Holocaust.

That being said, I have discussed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with teachers who use it. They often respond that this is a book that resonates for their students; they are thrilled that students are interested in the story and express empathy toward Bruno and Shmuel. While it is true that we can never truly understand what the victims or survivors experienced or felt, Holocaust fiction can appeal to certain readers whose empathy can be aroused from efforts to imagine themselves in the plot.

In my conversations with teachers, I have asked them how they deconstruct these responses with their students. While all good teachers hope to foster empathy in their students, what exactly can students learn from stepping into the fable-like world of two young boys that leads them to think they understand what happened at Auschwitz? Why does the book engender so much empathy for Bruno?  Are students able to consider how they would have felt at the end of the book if only Shmuel had died? Does the story of Bruno and Shmuel add to their understanding of this tragic time in human history?  If Elie Wiesel’s Night honors how Jews fought for survival in Auschwitz and The Diary of Anne Frank is a testament to the human spirit, does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust?  Such questioning allows students to think more deeply about the text―how and what they are feeling and for whom.

If educators do ultimately make the choice to teach The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with students, it should be done with the greatest care and preparation. Using primary sources including visual history testimony should always be the first choice of teaching materials as they help students be clear about what happened historically and what did not and could not have happened.  In response to queries from teachers about use of the text, Echoes and Reflections recommends that students study the material in our Teacher’s Resource Guide Lesson 5: The “Final Solution.” This will allow students to raise issues and questions about the narrative based on accurate historical knowledge. An activity for helping students analyze fiction about the Holocaust is outlined in Making Connections.

Let’s have a discussion! We invite you to share your experience with this text or others: What literature do you use with students and why? How do you prepare students for reading these texts, and how do you encourage critical analysis of what they have read?

*The focus here is on the text, not the film, even though the commentary here can apply to the film as well. Depiction of the Holocaust in film is a topic that warrants its own discussion.

10 comments

  1. I so totally agree that this book should not be used. I do not know why the USHMM has it in its gift shop. This book is not accurate and the focus is on the wrong boy. There are many nonfiction books that can be used instead.

  2. Brandi Calton says:

    I think this is a great topic to open for discussion. Prior to entering my journey in Holocaust education, I wouldn’t have thought twice about having my students read the novel… simply because I wasn’t taught to appropriately contextualize or emphasize the accuracy of available materials. I think a lot of teachers feel they are doing a good thing by simply exposing them to any material addressing the Holocaust. That being said, I have 9th graders and most have either read the book or seen the movie, so I will be taking the opportunity to have a discussion with them or an activity that leads them to think critically about the accuracy of it or why it might not be a good source to use when learning about the Holocaust.

    I teach Night to the 9th graders — this year I am going to focus on the Holocaust for the first semester. I plan on breaking it up into focus questions and we will read Night at the end of the unit instead of front-loading the unit with Wiesel’s book. I am interested to see the difference in what students take away from the reading having been front-loaded with the lessons from ER. My hypothesis is that it will yield better discussion and result in the students walking away with more questions they wish to be answered.

  3. Jennifer Goss says:

    Janet, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this blog. The USHMM gift shop operates separately from the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education and while they carry books that support the teachings of the Levine Institute, they also aim to generate revenue and thus often make decisions to stock items that are popularly requested by Museum visitors. Inclusion in the gift shop is not an endorsement of an item’s educational value and many of the Museum’s educational programs include a piece about “considering responsible methodological resources” to better educate its teacher visitors about choosing resources in the same vein as you and Deborah are suggesting. Hopefully, as more educators become aware of this work’s shortcomings, its popularity will fall.

  4. Susan Rosenthal says:

    I used “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” movie… at the end of a sixth month journey into the Holocaust. I never once said that this occurred at Auschwitz. I would stop the film and answer questions as they arose. The students were not Jewish. This was used to confront bullying and discuss what hate can do to others in this world.
    I also used it to discuss that not everyone, even those close to the Nazi regime knew exactly what was going on. We spoke about bystanders…
    The books we read with 5th graders were: “Behind the Wall,” “Number the Stars,” and “Daniel’s Story.” The first was used as an introductory to the Holocaust because, as I said before, these 5th grade students were not Jewish. I believe that if material is presented to the students properly, with goals planned, literature can be appropriate as long as it is on their grade level. It is the teacher who is ultimately responsible for the correct guidance and supplying the factual information.
    My main theme was that this could happen again if their generation does not reduce hate and bullying. The fifth graders need to be able to interpret for their own lives. History for them seems so far away but there are immediate examples…
    My students have told me that this was one of the best, most disturbing movies they’ve seen but that the message was very clear about hate and the consequences. My students knew it was not factual but at any given time, this could happen again if we do not learn from history. My classroom became a very compassionate classroom and my students demonstrated sensitivity to others needs… This movie engaged them- even started a discussion about the countries that they had come from and what could they do about stopping hate crimes over there.

  5. Jeff Stayton says:

    I do use the film in my semester-length Holocaust and Human Behavior class. Prior to viewing it I tell my students that the film is a fable, but has some interesting points. The students are told that the film is a composite of many places/events/people throughout the Holocaust.

    What I do use the film for is in trying to analyze the perpetrators and how they (the perpetrators/collaborators) were able to “compartmentalize” their “work” with their personal lives. We spend a few classes (3 hours of the entire semester) dealing with perpetrators and collaborators, in addition to spending time talking about the bystanders. We also learn about Jewish life prior to, during, and after the Shoah, along with other Holocaust topics.

    I strongly agree that the film should never be used as an authentic Holocaust film.

  6. Liz Spalding says:

    Deborah–Thank you for this articulate and persuasive discussion of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. You have made a great contribution to Holocaust education by laying out so very clearly the problems with using this work to teach about the Holocaust.

    I think teachers and students are drawn to it because it does evoke empathy for the characters, as all good literature should. The problem, as you point out, is in interpreting a fable as a source of historical fact. I am an educated adult, and I often find myself confusing historical fiction with historical fact, so I can easily see how younger readers and viewers get confused.

    One alternative to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” that is just as, if not more, moving yet authentic is “Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust” (2002) edited by Alexandra Zapruder. It is not necessary to teach the book in its entirety, but teachers can find within it excerpts appropriate for their students. Not only do the young writers reveal their very personal perspectives on and heartbreaking experiences of the Holocaust, but contemporary readers can’t help but marvel at the value these adolescents placed on the written word and their faith that their words would survive even if they did not.

  7. alan bush says:

    As to Striped Pajamas: during Echoes Wolf Conference discussions I first learned details of this work. I paid no attention prior as it was not the type of book I read within my Holocaust study. Accepting opinions of those more learned than I—and of those who read it—Pajamas should not be used in any Holocaust lessons.

    I have visited the death camps in Poland twice. I have seen, even touched (non-electrified) the barbed wire at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My groups have attempted to envision the absolute horror of life, suffering, and death while encountering the authentic sites. No nonsensical, feel good novel like Pajamas should be presented as an alternative, child-appropriate Holocaust study lesson. Children, if they are going to be acquainted with Holocaust study, need age-appropriate works, but not any that sanitize and disrespect the stories of the victims/survivors.

  8. Cindy Penny says:

    Many of my 8th grade students have talked about and want to watch The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. They are unaware that it is a fictional story not based on fact. I have explained that it is not a true depiction of the Holocaust or of what the victims experience. I want them to understand how these people suffered and that many survived to lead incredible lives. If it was not for them, the real events would not be told. I teach Night. I had the most incredible experience a few weeks ago when I had a student who I had taught at least thirteen years ago recognize me in a restaurant and tell me that Night is still her favorite book she has ever read. It left an indelible impression and that I am grateful for.

  9. Susan Powidzki says:

    In a Science class, we are reading Jurassic Park and when we finish, we will have the students each take sections and research what is true and what is fiction based on research articles about genetics, cloning, etc… This might be a good approach to take with students when reading this book as well. After reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, students could each take a chapter and begin to research, using primary and secondary sources, about what was true and what is fiction. They could then have their own discussion as to whether the book should be used or not and why.

  10. Patty says:

    Thank you very much for writing this article. It was very valuable for me and will allow me to be more careful with how I teach this text, though it will not stop me entirely from teaching this text. I love Susan’s suggestion to assign research. We must teach our students to think critically, and cutting out a text entirely from their reading will not accomplish that. (In fact, it is very likely that they will want to read it on their own, which is where the problems come in.) For me, reading a book told primarily from the perpetrator/bystander’s perspective is important. Thinking critically about how an event such as the Holocaust actually came to occur requires understanding the perpetrator’s perspective, so that our students learn how not to become perpetrators or bystanders themselves.



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