The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a 2006 novel about the son of a fictional commandant of Auschwitz who befriends a Jewish inmate his own age, has been made into a film, a ballet and an opera. The hugely successful novel was described by its author, John Boyne, as a Holocaust “fable,” or morality tale, but it has faced sharp criticism by Holocaust educators and others in the Jewish community for distorting history and putting a feel-good overlay on a tragedy.
The book has been denounced by the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum for its inaccuracies and unrealistic imaginings of what Auschwitz would have been like both for Bruno, the Nazi commandant’s son, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy who Bruno befriends. The main gripe shared by many readers and reviewers is that the pathos of the novel lies in the death of Bruno, whose ignorance and innocence leads him to the gas chambers, rather than centering the factual events of the Holocaust.
Another source of criticism is the unrepentant stance of its author. “I remain immensely proud of the novel,” he wrote in 2021. The sequel, All the Broken Places, published last September, traces the story of the Nazi commandant’s daughter, Gretel, and her reckoning with her family’s past. Unfortunately, according to many, the sequel continues to present the Holocaust and its victims in the same murky and inaccurate light as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
This ongoing controversy recently flared up on Bookstagram, a subsection of the social media platform Instagram where users share book-related experiences, reviews, stories, opinions and more. There are thousands of these Bookstagramers, some with as few as 50 followers and others with hundreds of thousands. This community had strong reactions to one user’s post last fall of her reading the book with her family and praising the story for teaching her younger children about the Holocaust. Fierce backlash about the book’s accuracy ensued, and the post was taken down not long after.
Rae Lipkin, a former librarian with close to 10,000 followers on her Bookstagram account (@a.rae.of.books), was one of many Bookstagrammers who participated in the kerfuffle about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Lipkin, who now works as a registrar for a synagogue’s school in Dallas, emphasized the problematic nature of Jewish fiction written by non-Jews such as John Boyne. With a subject as emotionally gutting as the Holocaust, Lipkin feels strongly that those with personal connections to the events are generally better suited to writing fiction about the atrocity. “If you are a reader and you decide to read a book about the Holocaust, would you read a book by a survivor, a descendant, a Jewish person, or someone with no ties to these very historical events?,” says Lipkin, adding that if the fiction is not penned by a survivor, a descendant or a Jewish person then the author should at least do significant research on these events, or have some level of academic qualification for writing about the topic.
But the bigger question for Lipkin is how a book that ignores Jewish voices and perspectives so entirely in favor of a dramatic yet implausible “fable” gained such renown. She wonders where the Jewish perspective was when decisions were being made about publishing this book. Books go through long editing processes before hitting shelves, and yet this book still made it to publication without anyone waving a red flag about some of the themes presented. When it comes to telling—and selling—Jewish stories, it seems natural to Lipkin that a Jewish perspective should be involved.
This kind of controversy isn’t limited to Holocaust fiction. Jeanine Cummins’ 2020 book American Dirt about La Bestia—the dangerous top-of-train and on-foot journey from Guatemala through Mexico and into the United States—ruffled a lot of feathers as well. Many critics of the book said that Cummins, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was not entitled to write this story. Cummins wrote in her acknowledgements that she had spoken with a professor of Latin American studies, who told her “If you have the capability to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” In the case of American Dirt, it wasn’t the quality of the presentation that was at issue but the decision of the book world to elevate a non-Mexican author. To apply Lipkin’s standards, a book by someone who had made a dangerous border crossing themselves, or whose relative had, or who was of the same ethnicity of the characters would be a better choice.
So whither The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and its sequel, All the Broken Places? Lipkin suggests staying away from these two stories, and instead advocates giving readers alternatives by asking libraries and bookstores and Bookstagrammers to highlight other books on the Holocaust and related subjects by Jewish writers. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a level of emotional impact that sells well, even if it is harmful to the community about which it is written. But there are hundreds of novels to read instead—novels with equal power and beauty in their language that also tell a more accurate story about the Holocaust—We Were the Lucky Ones, Everything is Illuminated, and The Yellow Bird Sings are just a few examples.