Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.
–Elie Wiesel, Preface to Night
This is a difficult article to write, for me. I had initially wished to clarify my earlier comments on John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and victim appropriation (and I suggest reading that post first). Boy has won numerous awards, and the blurbs on certain copies proclaim Boy is as powerful as The Diary of Anne Frank. Boy has also quietly replaced Anne Frank on many elementary school reading lists. Both instances trouble me for obvious reasons. I don’t think a work of fiction and an actual account are remotely comparable in such fashion, especially for an event so difficult and painful to explore and still so dominant in western historical memory.
I decided to read Night and Boy consecutively as a direct contextual experiment. I’ll readily admit this isn’t fair, just reversing the favourable comparisons of Boy to Anne Frank that so often appear. But Night gives an account of Auschwitz, the setting of Boy, and Wiesel confronts the problems of writing the Holocaust in a way, I think, that’s important in understanding what exactly is wrong with Boy.
The issue of writing about the Holocaust is, of course, a contentious matter, and any novelist who explores it had better be sure about his or her intentions before setting out. It’s presumptuous to assume that from today’s perspective one can truly understand the horrors of the concentration camps, although it’s the responsibility of the writer to uncover as much emotional truth within that desperate landscape as he possible can.
–John Boyne, Author’s note for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“This book will change your life”—the sort of response you find to both Night and Boy. Boy didn’t change my life. It gave me no special insight on the Holocaust, on human suffering, on the innocence of children. It gives insight on the changing understanding of the Holocaust in the popular imagination and the shifting place of that event from a very particular (and incomprehensible) act into a symbol for universal human suffering.
It’s inevitable that something like Boy would appear with the current trend. Boy is an attempt to use the horrors of the Holocaust as the background for a saccharine fable. The Holocaust has become shorthand, easily exploited; the sheer act of writing about the Holocaust in fiction immediately lends weight, credence, seriousness to a narrative without having to supply those elements yourself. An immediate emotional kick. Boyne further increases the emotional manipulation present in Boy by telling the story from the view of a child. Problematic, because that child is not one in the concentration camp, but from without: Bruno, son of the Commandant of Auschwitz. We are meant to look beyond the barbed wire fence, through this child’s eyes, as he interacts with a Jewish boy named Shmuel, the titular boy in the striped pajamas. It is, of course, the child that sees truth: that there is no difference between his own people and those in the concentration camp except that those on the other side of the fence wear striped pajamas. “Who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?” (100)
Childhood innocence is often a construction, and the length Boyne goes stretched credulity. A 9-year old German boy is unable to pronounce Fuehrer and calls him, “the fury”, calls Auschwitz “Out-with”, does not understand what “Heil Hitler” means… These are all meant to exaggerate Bruno’s innocence; he is unaware of the war, unaware of what a Jew even is, what might possibly happen in the death camps; is, in fact, completely innocent to all the events around him. Only I have seen 9-year olds shouting anti-Semitic slurs on Polish streets, and acting in a hateful manner in Canada. Children often imitate adults; and in Bruno’s household, Hitler himself has paid a visit. But this has no effect. His sister, 12 year-old Gretel, is equally clueless, thinking the concentration camp is a farm. No indoctrination here; the Hitler Youth don’t exist; parents never give a hint of what’s going on.
In Boy, children cannot know or comprehend evil.
Deep down, the witness knew then, as he does now, that his testimony would not be received. After all, it deals with an event that sprang from the deepest zone of man. Only those who has experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.
But would they at least understand?
–Elie Wiesel, Preface to Night
I will not go into too much detail the various factual errors that plague Boy. I’m sure the author did not visit Auschwitz before writing this book. The fence around Auschwitz II was electrified; in Boy, Bruno can lift the wire with impunity (if it was so easy to escape, why did so few, I wonder?) and can talk for hours with Shmuel in, apparently, the one segment of the fence that is out of sight from the guards. Boyne ignores the heavily regimented nature of life in the camp (as is hammered home in Night or any other Holocaust account); young Shmuel can wander about as he wishes. The casual cruelty of the camp (again, so evident in Night) is also gone; while Bruno can see Auschwitz from his window he can’t hear the gunshots, see men hung on the gallows or smell the stench of burning bodies from the crematoria. Shmuel is also awfully naive; but innocence did not last long in the camp, and many children were gassed outright. The worst we see before the calculated “gut wrenching” finale is a soldier beating a Jewish waiter for spilling some wine, and that happens in the commandant’s home, not the camp itself. The scars from the Holocaust are still fresh for many; to write about something so sensitive, it behoves you to research the topic thoroughly and afterwards, not to whitewash it.
Boy is a young adult novel. I understand that Night or books like it would be too horrific for children. But if you must soften an event like the Holocaust for your audience, perhaps it’s not a suitable topic to write about in the first place?
Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.
-The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, pg. 216
Those are the closing words to Boy, meant as deeply ironic. I am sure most of you know how the novel ends: on the last day before Bruno, his sister, and his mother are set to return to Berlin, Shmuel brings Bruno a concentration camp uniform. Bruno then crosses the fence, into the camp, and joins his friend in the gas chambers. Poignant, touching, horrific. Few of us wouldn’t feel a pang of pain when reading about Bruno’s final moments.
And yet, what makes Bruno’s death more important than that of the other children? The more I reflect on the ending, the more problematic it becomes. Just how are we to read this? That both Jew and German were equally harmed by the inhumanity of the camps? Why is our window into the Auschwitz not the boy Shmuel, but the camp commandant’s son? Am I supposed to feel pain when Bruno’s father, the unnamed camp commandant discovers what happened and suddenly feels regret, comes to a revelation, that he wouldn’t realize if he had just spent his time overseeing the gassing of Jews?
Why this story?
The only halfway acceptable way I can think of reading Boy’s ending is as a twisted revenge, where we cheer when Bruno enters the gas chambers because now the camp commandant will pay for the suffering he inflicted in kind. That’s not reallyan acceptable reading (it’s far too ghoulish), and I’m sure that’s not what Boyne intended.
Instead, we have the Holocaust stand-in for all human suffering, taking the experience away from those who suffered and claiming it for everyone. Even the perpetrators.
This amounts to victim appropriation.
I hope that the voices of Bruno and Shmuel will continue to resonate with you as they have with me. Their lost voices must continue to be heard; their untold stories must continue to be recounted. For they represent the ones who did not live to tell their stories themselves.
–John Boyne, Author’s note for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Why does Boyne believe he has the right to speak for them?
In the Preface to Night, Wiesel explains the difficulty he had even writing about his own experiences in the camps. He did not feel he had the words to describe the deep despair, hopelessness, terror of Auschwitz. He tried to “articulate the unspeakable”, and believes “‘it’ is still not right.” Yet he felt a duty to write, “for the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow…He does not want his past to become their future.” If Wiesel had such a crisis in writing Night, how am I to take an outsider’s attempt to articulate the same experience?
That isn’t to say the Holocaust isn’t a topic for fiction. Of course it’s open for literary exploration. But any author who approaches the subject should be very careful, especially with the universalizing aspect of Holocaust discourse in the western world. Boy uses the Holocaust in such a cheap way, to deliver a simplistic moral that denies the immense complexity of that historical moment. It reduces the Holocaust to nothing more than a children’s fable. And a disrespectful one, at that.
With so many Holocaust memoirs available, I don’t see much point to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It offers no new insights into the Holocaust, and thanks to the historical gaffs, actively distorts it. I can only, really, recommend Boy as a cultural artefact demonstrating current trends in popular Holocaust discourse. But I cannot recommend it as a work of literature.