World War II—Berlin, Germany and Auschwitz, Poland
Welcome to the War
Are you a history buff? If so, then you're probably sitting pretty when it comes to World War II in this story. See, there are war stories in which it's all about the nitty gritty details of war—think: specific battles, dates, routes, and such—and then there's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book that is all about World War II… and yet concerned with the war itself very little.
This is because, at its heart, this book is more invested in humanizing the Holocaust—the atrocity World War II is most known for—than specific details. Which is good, because it's main character is nine years old. And nine-year-olds aren't exactly known for the battle smarts. To humanize the Holocaust, the book steers clear of tactics and politics, instead honing in on how it impacts two young friends.
That said, it's worth knowing a bit about World War II just so you have a sense of what the time was like, so if you're not familiar, check out our guide. And while the book isn't super concerned with historical details, it is concerned with two locations: Berlin and Auschwitz. So let's check them out.
Hallo, Willkommen in Berlin
We don't spend a good deal of time in Berlin in this story, but it's where Bruno and his family are from, and for this reason, it really matters setting-wise. Berlin is in Germany, and prior to Nazi rule, was home to a large Jewish population. Unfortunately, though, it was also the capital of the Reich, and as such, riddled with Nazi propaganda and violence against Jewish people.
Knowing that this is where Bruno comes from makes it easier to understand how little he comprehends what he sees in Auschwitz—though plenty of violence unfolded in Berlin, concentration camps were built elsewhere. Plus, he comes from a place that, on a governmental level, is pretty much devoutly anti-Semitic.
On the flip side, though, for our main man, Berlin represents comfort. His family has a very nice home there, and it's where Bruno's friends are—he has absolutely no beef with Berlin. It's his happy place, and importantly, his happy place is in his past.
Witaj, zapraszamy do Auschwitz
When Bruno and his family move to Auschwitz, the setting changes both physically and tonally. Bruno's new house is smaller and duller; there are no markets, no restaurants, and no families or children around to interact with. Berlin this most definitely is not.
Interestingly, in Berlin Bruno lives pretty blissfully unaware of the horrors being committed against Jewish residents, and he does the same in Auschwitz to a degree as well, despite living literally next to a concentration camp. And not just any concentration camp, either—one of the biggest and most notorious camps of them all.
If in Berlin we only see Bruno's nice little life, though, once he moves to Auschwitz we get glimpses of life on the other side of the fence. The people there are starving and gray, missing their families and forced into tattered clothes. Bruno may not quite get it, but for us as readers, it's super clear that life on the other side is hardly living at all.