The cover of the book was unsuspectingly simple. The ‘fable’ started off just like some childrens’s fiction, but somewhere down the line, the storyline went from fiction to dreadful reality. An attempt to summarise this story is an injustice to this beautiful book. However, for the benefit of my friends whom I beg, to read this book, here is a summary…
An influential family living in Berlin is suddenly moved to the outskirts of Poland because the father has been transferred on some important military assignment. The children, Bruno and Gretel, resist the idea very much, and hate moving away from their luxurious life and friends.
They find their new surroundings at Camp ‘Out-With’ morbid and eerie – with no better company than that of the army officials – i.e.,their father’s colleaues. On the other side of the fence beyond their house however, there live many many men and young boys, all clothed in striped pyjamas, and their heads tonsured. On a couple of occasions, the family hear the officers talking to the people in pyjamas, in strong language, never heard before. Bruno however, strongly believes that his father can never do any wrong.
One day, Bruno accidentally comes across one of the little boys, named Shmuel, and befriends him. They begin meeting secretly at the fence, and gradually become close friends. However, neither crosses the fence ever, for fear of the officers. They never play games together, as children of their age would normally do. Instead, they spend time talking, sharing thoughts and memories of their earlier happy life. Shmuel describes how his family was separated, and brought into this camp, and how people suddenly go missing from here. Bruno tells him about his old school, close friends (whose names, he strangely keeps forgetting) and invites him to visit sometime in the future. Bruno’s head gets infected with lice, and one day, he has to be tonsured as well. Shmuel remarks that they looked very similar now, only one was thin and the other , healthy !
As Bruno slowly settles into his new home, his parents are unhappy with bringing up the children here, and decide to send them back to Berlin. So Bruno decides to pay a last visit to Shmuel. When they meet that day, Shmuel seems terribly downcast, because his father has disappeared ! Bruno promises to help search for him. They decide to meet the next afternoon to play atleast a little while, and to search for the father.
It rains ceaselessly the next morning, and Bruno is worried that he won’t be able to keep up his promise. However, the rain does finally stop, and Bruno goes as fast as he can, to the fence. Shmuel is eagerly waiting for him, and with him, is an extra pair of striped pyjamas. Bruno gets into these, and enters the other side of the fence. The harsh reality hits him, that this side of the fence wasn’t like he had imagined it to be. People just gathered around in groups, and looked downcast, desolate and bereft of all hope.
Bruno and Shmuel look everywhere, but cannot find the father. Bruno gets worried that its getting late, and he should be heading back to the fence, to get home in time for a good, hot dinner. When suddenly, a lot of officers gather around a group of people, and the two boys are drowned in the crowd. Shmuel says that sometimes, people were sent on such long marches, and never returned. Bruno is tempted to reveal to the officers, that his father heads the army unit, but is afraid that they would get into trouble for having crossed the fence.
It begins raining, and the officers direct the group to march towards a very big room. Bruno is too terrified to speak, and amidst all the commotion, he and Shmuel enter the room, and find it very warm. Bruno thinks this is to shelter them until the rain stops. The room gets crammed with the people in pyjamas, and suddenly the doors are shut, the room gets hotter and hotter and everybody begins screaming and crying. Not knowing what to do, and where to run, Bruno holds Shmuel’s hand very tightly. In that moment, he realises a bonding with Shmuel and does not let go of his best friend’s hand, till the end.
Bruno’s family never see him again. His father finds the hole in the fence (small enough for a little boy to enter) one day, and seeing a small pile of his son’s clothes, realises what might have happened.
If this story tugged at the strings of your heart, please do read: “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne. And please forgive me for any errors in the above summary.