A trend that Anne Frank inadvertently started by penning her diary while hiding as a young girl from the Gestapo, Holocaust literature has come a long way, with books and films exploring an era that almost no longer resides within living memory. The written word and filmmaking will substitute the tales of sorrow and valour that are told and retold by those who endured hell on earth. The common deployment of children as protagonists is perhaps because the naiveté of a child contributes to the notion of innocent victimhood. Holocaust authors have an overwhelming responsibility – to speak for those that cannot, without downplaying or over-emphasising their endeavours and ignoring the details of the harsh reality that numbed the conscience of the world.
John Boyne’s 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was later made into a feature film that ran for days to packed houses, explores the Holocaust from the point of view of two eight-year olds – a young German boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi soldier in charge of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and a young Jewish boy, Shmuel, an inmate of the very same camp, who forge a friendship. The liaison stirs up much consternation, as lines are crossed at every turn. The text is peppered with childlike references to the Fuhrer as the “Fury”, and Auschwitz as “Out With”.
The story begins with a disgruntled Bruno, vehemently begging to return to Berlin after arriving at Auschwitz. Overall, one can gather that the decision to move, which was made by the Fuhrer himself for the family, was not very well received by all except Bruno’s father himself. Bruno spends his time usefully, annoying his sister, who he insists is a “Hopeless Case”. Bruno’s father has an office in their house, one which is “Out of Bounds at All Times No Exceptions”. Bruno lives in a house located a stone’s throw of the concentration camp. He has a servant – Pavel, a Jew, who dressed and bandaged a wound that Bruno inflicted on himself while playing. Bruno’s mother then steps in and offers to keep Pavel’s intervention a secret from her husband, who would do anything to signify his hatred for the man. A later point in the story reveals a similar anathematic stance taken by Bruno’s father’s mother.
Bruno has no inkling of what the camp is, and is actually given to believe that its inhabitants, all dressed in white and blue striped pyjamas – are spending their time on vacation while their children are happily playing games all day long. Ironically, Bruno feels twangs of jealousy, and envies their carefree lives and friendships. When his family learns of the vantage point that gave him a chance to see the camp, the window in his room is boarded up. Bruno begins surreptitiously leaving his house, and speaking with a little Jewish boy, across a barbed fence. Shmuel tells him about his family, and Bruno is intrigued.
After nearly a year’s worth of meetings, Bruno still doesn’t have a clue about what is going on inside the camp. The friendship between the two hardly bodes well for either, leading Bruno to refute its very existence when he finds himself in the thick of trouble. Shmuel bears the stigma of being drubbed a liar and a little thief as a result of Bruno’s denial, which is guileless, but devoid of all compunction. The forgiving and unconditional nature of an eight-year-old is brought to fore, as Shmuel forgives his best friend, who in turn, clandestinely smuggles food off the table from his house for Shmuel. The story generously builds on the innocence of the children, and culminates in a heart-rending climax.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been under the scanner for historic-factual inaccuracy, alleging that the ignorance evinced by the protagonist is unbelievable, and to some, unacceptable. The allegation that the book undermines the grim reality that the Holocaust is, is harsh and baseless. Bruno’s mother has had an upper-hand in his upbringing, striving to ensure that her son does not know of the horrific nightmare that the Holocaust itself is, and opposing her husband at every permissible turn, trying to question his move. Critical opinion that it was impossible for someone living close to a camp would know nothing of it is dubious, considering that the protagonist was a child of green years. The film shows Bruno sniffing the horrific stench of bodies being burnt, and even watches plumes of smoke rising into the sky, and asking his parents about it subsequently. He isn’t given an answer, and is distracted – an attention span that is reasonably consistent with a child of his age. Understandably, the Holocaust was horrific. Nevertheless, it does not preclude the existence of “good” Germans, such as Bruno’s mother, who confronts her husband virulently for his remorseless conduct, as confirmed by the stellar factual example in the form of Miep Gies from Anne Frank’s life.
The film lends the cadaverous story of the book more flesh. I recommend that one should both, read the book and watch the movie, to assimilate all that it stands for.
(Kirthi Jayakumar is a graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai.)