In 2006 John Boyne, a professional writer with several novels to his name, published The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a ‘fable’ that drew on the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews. It tells the story of a nine-year-old German boy called Bruno whose father is appointed to run a death camp in Poland in 1942. Bruno is wrenched away from his much loved Berlin home and virtually imprisoned, with his mother, sister and a maid, in the commandant’s compound. Driven by boredom to explore more widely he slips out of the compound and stumbles upon the camp. Bruno sees a small boy on the other side of the perimeter fence and strikes up a friendship with him. Shmuel is the same age, but his efforts to explain why he is incarcerated meet with incomprehension. Indeed, Bruno is so uninformed about Jews and the purpose of the camp that after various adventures and misadventures with Shmuel he squirms under the wire, puts on a pair of the ‘striped pyjamas’ worn by the inmates, and ends up being swept into the gas chambers. Bruno and the little Jewish boy die holding hands.
Of course, the story is utterly implausible. Except for a few peculiar cases there were no Jewish children in the extermination camps: they were gassed on arrival. Fences were heavily guarded and frequently electrified. Apart from these necessary, but seriously misleading, inventions the narrative relies on various nonsensical linguistic tricks.