As a Holocaust scholar and public historian, it is not very often that I discourage students, educators and friends from reading a book. Knowledge is power, and I am a firm believer in the strengthening of education and curiosity through both fiction and nonfiction literature. In the case of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, however, especially given the newly released sequel, I feel compelled to publicly share why the original was so damaging for Holocaust education, and how the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center is working to bring more impactful resources to Wisconsin schools.
First, a bit of a recap for anyone who did not read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” — which the author has himself described as a “fable” — or watch the blockbuster 2008 film. The book follows Bruno, the son of a Nazi SS commandant at Auschwitz. Bruno befriends a Jewish prisoner named Shmuel through recuring visits to the camp fence. Bruno is completely unaware of what happens at the camp, which he calls “the farm.” The story culminates in Bruno digging a tunnel under the fence and breaking into Auschwitz, where he and Shmuel are soon marched into a gas chamber with unnamed prisoners.
The narrative is problematic on many fronts, way more than I can list in this article. Most Jewish children were murdered upon arrival to Auschwitz, so Shmuel as a character is already a myth. Bruno as a son of a Nazi officer would have been part of Hitler Youth – and therefore far from naïve on Nazi ideology and antisemitism. And at the end of the novel, it is Bruno’s death that elicits the reaction from the reader, not the hundreds of unnamed Jewish victims also murdered in the gas chambers that day.
Historic fiction can be a perfect gateway to Holocaust education, especially for middle and high school students. At HERC, we include fiction in our recommended lists for educators, including books like “Maus,” “ White Bird,” “Train,” and “The Assignment.” Unlike John Boyne, these authors spent considerable time conducting research using primary and secondary sources. They respected the dignity of Holocaust survivors and victims and ensured accuracy in their work. To write a book about the Holocaust without these steps is nothing short of irresponsible.
Unfortunately, too often in Wisconsin classrooms, our HERC team encounters “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” used as part of Holocaust curriculum. In at least one school, the book is the sole exposure students have to the Holocaust. Real reasons educators have provided our staff for why they continue to read the book with their students, despite widespread criticism from Holocaust experts, include:
“It comes with the movie. My kids can’t or won’t read a whole book.”
“It shows our shared humanity. The Nazi boy was a victim too.”
“My school has class sets, and we can’t afford class sets of a replacement book.”
“It is a palatable way to teach the Holocaust.”
Through our educator workshops across the state and our cutting-edge Holocaust education Map platform with 114 lesson plans for educators, TeachHolocaust.org, HERC provides better resources for Wisconsin schools. Many of the lesson plans on our platform include video clips to help connect students with the content. We offer a robust speakers bureau of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, who enter classrooms to share their true stories. We provide new class sets of recommended books to schools by request and always at no cost.
At HERC we often say that Holocaust education is not a “Jewish issue,” but a “universal issue.” While lessons on shared humanity are important, it is crucial that sympathy lies on the side of the victims of the Holocaust.
We do NOT make Holocaust education palatable, because there is no way an honest exploration of mass murder and genocide can ever be palatable. But we DO ensure that teachings of this history leave students with the truth of what happened, and the roles we all can play in preventing it from happening again.
Because of the bravery of survivors in sharing their stories, the dedication of Holocaust scholars in researching and documenting this essential history, and the commitment of organizations like HERC to serve communities like ours, there is no need for fabricated Holocaust narratives.
And in an age of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial, there is no excuse.
* * *
Milwaukee native Samantha Abramson is the executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.