The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Summary
The novel begins in Germany in the 1940s. Bruno comes home from school to find the maid, Maria, packing his things because the family is moving away from Berlin. Bruno's not happy about this and whines to his mom, dad, Gretel, the maid, and her dog (we kid… about the dog part). But Bruno's out of luck; his father just got a promotion and they're moving on up, whether he wants to or not.
Adding to Bruno's troubles, the family's new house is weak with a capital W—it's smaller than their old house, super isolated, and there's a huge wire fence near the property. Ugh. While Bruno unpacks his things, he spots a sketchy looking blond soldier and takes an immediate disliking to him. He notices a window, looks through it, and sees something that makes him feel "cold and unsafe"… Dun dun dun.
Bruno tells Gretel that the other children look unfriendly. Wait a second… There are other children? Yep, turns out Bruno's window has a lovely view of the Auschwitz death camp. Yikes. Bruno thinks it's weird that there are tons of kids and adults on the other side of the fence and even weirder that they all wear the same striped pajamas and striped cap.
After a few weeks, Bruno decides that he needs to find some sort of entertainment or he'll go mad. His grand idea? Why, make a tire swing, of course. Lieutenant Kotler helps him out and orders Pavel, a Jew, to get a tire from the storage shed. Pavel sets Bruno up and soon the kid's happily swinging—well, until he falls.
Luckily, Pavel comes to Bruno's rescue; while he cleans him up, he tells Bruno he's a doctor. But this doesn't make any sense to Bruno—after all, the guy works in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Soon after, Bruno's mother comes home and discovers what happened. She tells Pavel that if the Commandant asks, she cleaned Bruno's wounds.
Bruno has a flashback to the last Christmas with his family and his grandparents. Here's what went down: Grandma told Bruno's father that she's ashamed of what he's become and can't believe what he and other Nazis are doing, then she stormed out. It's the last Bruno's seen of her. Back in the present, months pass and Bruno decides to go exploring, which basically involves walking along the length of the wire fence that separates his family from the concentration camp. Some adventure.
During his exploration session, Bruno comes upon a boy sitting on the ground in pajamas and an armband (featuring the Star of David). Bruno is kind of shocked by how small and sad looking the boy is, but hey, beggars can't be choosers, right? And Bruno could really use some company. Schmoozing ensues, and it turns out that the boy's name is Shmuel and he and Bruno share a birthday. Shmuel is from Poland and informs the oblivious Bruno that they're in Poland and not in Germany like Bruno's been thinking. When they part ways, they plan to meet again tomorrow.
Time for another flashback, this time to when Hitler came to dinner. He brought his girlfriend, Eva, and Bruno and Gretel were not allowed to have dinner with the adults. Aw shucks. Afterward, Bruno heard his parents arguing about the move, which his mother was totally against.
Back in the present, it's the next day, so Bruno returns to the fence. Shmuel explains what happened to him and his family before coming to the camp.
Soon after, Bruno walks into his kitchen and is shocked to see Shmuel cleaning crystal glasses—turns out his pal's been brought to the house by Kotler to clean glasses for Father's birthday celebration. What should be a cool catch up turns disastrous when Bruno offers Shmuel chicken (he eats it, of course) and Kotler catches him and gets mad (of course). Shmuel says Bruno gave it to him and that they're friends—but like a punk, Bruno says he's never seen him before in his life. Ooh… not cool, Bruno.
After more than a year, Bruno's mother wants to move back to Berlin with the kids. Bruno's not as happy as he thought he'd be about this idea, though, and dreads breaking the news to Shmuel. However, as it turns out, Shmuel has bigger fish to fry: His dad's gone missing. The boys hatch a plan for Bruno to dress up in pajamas and help Shmuel find his dad before he leaves Auschwitz on Saturday. The next day, Friday, Bruno goes to the fence.
He changes into his striped pajamas, leaves his things on his side and crawls under the fence. The two boys walk toward the camp and Bruno realizes that things are very bad on Shmuel's side. Bruno wants to go home, but he's promised Shmuel he'll help, and as a loyal friend, he stays. Unfortunately, though, they don't find Shmuel's father.
Just as Bruno is about to head home, the boys are surrounded by soldiers and forced to march. They're led to a gas chamber (neither boy realizes this), and once inside, they hold hands. The lights go off, chaos ensues, and we, unfortunately, know that the end of their story is not going to be happy.
The last chapter shows how the family deals with Bruno's disappearance: His mother and Gretel eventually go back to Berlin, but his father stays in Auschwitz. One day he has an epiphany, retraces Bruno's steps, and realizes with horror what happened to his son. The novel ends with "other soldiers" (a.k.a. the Allies) coming to Auschwitz and ordering him to go with them.
Bruno Makes a Discovery
- Welcome to Berlin, Germany in the 1940s.
- Bruno comes home to find the maid, Maria, packing his belongings.
- His mother says that their family—including him, his sister (Gretel), his mother, and father—are moving for his dad's job.
- Bruno doesn't know what his dad does, but he knows it's something important, and that he wears a cool uniform.
- None too happy about this news, Bruno goes to his room and his mom goes to his father's office, which is a no-fly zone for the kids. Bruno's parents argue, presumably about the move.
- The door closes and Bruno goes upstairs to help Maria pack. Sigh.
The New House
- Bruno sees the new house and he is not impressed—it's only three stories high and there are no other families or boys around to play with. Boo.
- While his mother puts away some glasses, Bruno tries to convince her to move back to Berlin.
- She snaps and says that they'll be here for the "foreseeable future" (2.71), which is mom-speak for quit complaining.
- Bruno helps Maria unpack his stuff and asks what she thinks of the move… but she doesn't want to answer.
- All of a sudden, a blond soldier appears and steps into the room. He stares at Bruno, then nods and leaves. Um… that was weird.
- Bruno notices a window in the ceiling and looks through it; the chapter ends with a description of what he feels: "[…] very cold and unsafe" (2.95). Ominous much?
The Hopeless Case
- Bruno thinks they should have left Gretel—whom he lovingly refers to as the Hopeless Case—in Berlin to watch the house.
- Despite this, though, he goes to her room and they talk about their gross new place, which Gretel calls "Out-With" (Auschwitz).
- What does that mean? According to Gretel, it means "out with" the people who lived in the house before…
- Bruno tells Gretel that the other children don't look friendly.
- Say what? What the heck is Bruno talking about?
- He takes her to his room and she looks out his window.
What They Saw Through the Window
- Here's what Gretel sees when she peers from Bruno's window: boys, fathers, grandfathers, uncles.
- Gretel thinks they're on a farm, but Bruno disagrees because there are no animals or crops.
- D'oh—she admits he's right, and they stand side by side and stare out the window. When a group of children come out of a hut and are surrounded by shouting soldiers, Gretel thinks it's a rehearsal.
- Gretel leaves to arrange her dolls, but Bruno stays and notices that all the people are wearing grey striped pajamas.
- To be clear, these kids are officially growing up next to a concentration camp—though neither of them knows it.
Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions
- Bruno's fed up, which means it's time to talk to his pops.
- Flashback: An official car with red-and-black flags takes Bruno, his mother, and Gretel to the train station; his mother says they shouldn't have let the Fury (a.k.a. the Fuhrer, a.k.a. Hitler) come for dinner. Bruno sees large groups of people (make that Jewish people) on the other side of the tracks.
- Back in the present, Bruno has a heart to heart with his dad and tells him he doesn't like the new home.
- Guess what? His dad doesn't really care, and tells him to accept the change and follow orders.
- Before Bruno leaves the office he asks about the people on the other side of the fence.
- Dad's response? They're not people.
- Father and son part with a loving, "Heil Hitler."
The Overpaid Maid
- Bruno and Maria have a rap session about Auschwitz; she says his father knows what's best for the family.
- Suddenly, there's a gunshot—oh wait, it's just Gretel slamming the door. She tells Maria to run her a bath and Bruno tells Gretel she should do it herself.
- Gretel leaves and Maria follows her, but not before telling Bruno to keep his feelings to himself or he might get everyone in trouble.
- Bruno gets angry and storms outside, but once there, there's nowhere for him to go.
How Mother Took Credit for Something That She Hadn't Done
- Several weeks pass and Bruno realizes he needs to entertain himself or he'll go crazy, so he decides to make a tire swing and heads outside to find an adult to help him. Unfortunately, the only one around is creepy Lieutenant Kotler (the blond soldier).
- Kotler calls Pavel (the Jewish potato peeler) and orders him to get a tire from the storage shed; Pavel drags the tire to the oak tree and helps Bruno set it up.
- Bruno swings too high and falls off, hitting his head and cutting his leg open.
- Worry not, though, Pavel to the rescue—he carries Bruno to the kitchen and cleans and bandages his wound.
- Bruno worries that he'll have to go to the hospital, but Pavel assures him he won't and reveals that he's a doctor himself.
- Bruno doesn't believe him, though—this guy is a potato peeler, and potato peelers are not doctors.
- Bruno's mom comes into the kitchen and tells him to leave; he overhears her telling Pavel not to tell the Commandant that he cleaned Bruno's wounds.
Why Grandmother Stormed Out
- Flashback to family Christmas the year before: Everyone congratulates Bruno's father on his new uniform and new position, except for his grandmother—she's ashamed of what he does, and storms out of the house, but not before letting her son know that seeing him in uniform makes her want to tear her eyes out. Harsh.
- In the present, Bruno writes grandma a letter about how unhappy he is and everything he's seen on the other side of the fence. Based on her performance last Christmas, we're thinking she might actually agree with the kid about how terrible this all is.
Bruno Remembers That He Used to Enjoy Exploration
- Bruno's father decides that Bruno and Gretel will have a tutor—one Herr Liszt.
- Liszt likes history and geography, but not reading and art, which are Bruno's favorites. He tells Bruno he'll learn all about the wrongs that have been done to him, a.k.a. the wrongs Jewish people have supposedly committed against Germans. In other words, get ready for a super racist education, Bruno.
- One day, Bruno goes outside and reads the plaque on the bench near the garden: "Presented on the occasion of the opening of Auschwitz Camp, June nineteen forty" (9.523).
- Bruno continues walking toward the fence even though he's forbidden to do so.
The Dot That Became a Speck That Became a Blob That Became a Figure That Became a Boy
- Bruno sees a boy on other side of the fence. He's sitting cross-legged on the ground, has grey looking skin, and wears striped pajamas and a Star of David arm patch.
- It's time to schmooze. The boy's name is Shmuel and he has the same birthday as Bruno—April 15, 1934; he also tells Bruno he's from Poland.
- Bruno doesn't know where Poland is, though… at which point, Shmuel informs him that they're in Poland. How does Bruno not know this?
- Flashback to a few months earlier: Bruno's father has a new uniform and title (Commandant) and announces that the Fury and his girlfriend are coming to dinner.
- Panic and mayhem ensue, but all is ready for Hitler in the nick of time.
- The tiny man with the tiny moustache and his beautiful girlfriend chat briefly with the children, and then the adults dine alone.
- Afterward, Bruno overhears his parents talk about moving to Auschwitz—his mom's not too happy.
Shmuel Thinks of an Answer to Bruno's Question
- Back at the fence, Shmuel explains that he used to live with his parents and brother in a flat above a watch store, and that he had a beautiful watch from his dad but the soldiers took it.
- One day they were forced to move to a different part of Cracow, and then the soldiers packed them into trains headed for Auschwitz. His mother was taken away.
- Mum's the word? Bruno decides against telling his family about Shmuel, which seems like pretty sound thinking.
The Bottle of Wine
- These days, life's good for Bruno thanks to his daily talks with Shmuel. Yay for having a friend.
- One day, Maria comes into the kitchen and Bruno asks her if it's true that Pavel is a doctor.
- She says he used to be, and that she'll tell Bruno about Pavel's life—but whatever information she shares with him, is never shared with us.
- That evening at dinner, Pavel serves the family and Kotler. Bruno says he doesn't like history, and Kotler says he liked it when he was a boy, even though his father was a literature professor.
- Kotler doesn't know what his father's doing now, though, because he left Germany in 1938.
- Bruno's father asks whether Kotler's informed his superiors of his father's actions, and Kotler gets anxious and agitated. Pavel comes over to refill their glasses and accidentally spills wine on Kotler's lap.
- Kotler does something nasty to Pavel—and while we don't know what exactly, we do know that it makes Bruno cry.
Bruno Tells a Perfectly Reasonable Lie
- One day Shmuel has a black eye and Bruno assumes it is from a bully. Maybe, but we're thinking maybe not… unless Nazi soldiers count as bullies.
- Bruno asks why they all wear striped pajamas, and Shmuel says that it's because their clothes were taken by the soldiers.
- One rainy afternoon, Bruno spills the beans about Shmuel to Gretel.
- He quickly takes it back, though, saying Shmuel's just an imaginary friend.
Something He Shouldn't Have Done
- The rain continues for weeks, and Bruno notices that Shmuel's getting thinner and thinner.
- It's birthday time for Bruno's father and his mom arranges a party for him and the officers.
- On the big day, Bruno's sent to the kitchen… and whom does he find at the table? Shmuel.
- Shmuel tells him Kotler brought him to the house to polish glasses for the party.
- Bruno takes chicken out of the fridge and offers some to his friend. Shmuel doesn't want to get in trouble, but Bruno puts the chicken in his hand.
- Shmuel eats it and—of course—Kotler comes in and starts yelling at him.
- Scared stiff, Shmuel says Bruno gave him the food and that they're friends—but instead of backing Shmuel, Bruno says he doesn't know the guy at all. Can you say low blow?
- Later, Bruno apologizes for what he did and Shmuel forgives him. He lifts up the fence and reaches his hand out; the boys shake hands. This is the first time they touch.
- Almost a year has passed since Bruno and his family left Berlin, and when his grandmother dies, they go back for the funeral.
- Back in Auschwitz, Bruno asks Gretel why the fence is there and she says it's to keep the Jews separate.
- Bruno asks if they're Jews (um, really?) and Gretel says no, they're the opposite of Jews.
- Before Bruno can get more answers, though, Gretel screams—there are lice in her hair and in Bruno's.
- After his father shaves his head, Bruno's surprised by how much he looks like Shmuel.
Mother Gets Her Own Way
- Bruno's mother wants to return to Berlin, but his father is worried that people will question his commitment.
- For a few weeks nothing changes: Bruno hangs out with Shmuel, Gretel studies her maps, and his mother takes a lot of naps and drinks lots of sherry.
- But then their father asks the kids if they want to go back to Berlin; Gretel says yes and Bruno says he just wants them to be together.
- Father knows best (again) and decides that they'll go back Berlin within the week.
- Bruno is not excited, though, and dreads giving Shmuel the news.
Thinking Up the Final Adventure
- When Bruno next finds his friend, Shmuel's super sad because he can't find his father.
- Bruno tells Shmuel he wishes they could play together one time before he left.
- The boys hatch a plan to have Bruno dress up in pajamas and help Shmuel look for his father the next day.
What Happened the Next Day
- Bruno goes out for his last visit with Shmuel; Shmuel lifts up the fence and hands Bruno the pajamas and cap.
- They walk toward camp and Bruno is surprised that nothing is what he thought it was—everyone is sad and skinny, plus there are soldiers everywhere.
- They search for Shmuel's father without luck, and just when Bruno's about to leave, a group of soldiers surround them.
- They march with a large crowd and are led to a long, warm, airtight room (it's a gas chamber, though the boys don't seem to know it).
- Bruno takes Shmuel's hand and tells him he's his best friend.
- The door closes and the room goes very dark. We can only assume that everyone is killed.
The Last Chapter
- Several days later, the soldiers search the house, local towns, and villages for the disappeared Bruno. All they can find, though, are his clothes.
- Bruno's mother stays in the house waiting for news, but then goes back to Berlin, thinking he'll be there. He's not.
- Gretel goes with her, while their father stays at Auschwitz for another year.
- One day he forms a theory and retraces Bruno's steps—as he sits almost exactly where Bruno used to sit by the fence, he understands what happened.
- "Other soldiers" (a.k.a. the Allies) come to Auschwitz and order Bruno's father to go with them.