The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of the more recent offerings in the new era of movies about the Holocaust that began with Schindler’s List and includes Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, etc. As with its predecessors, TBITSP makes it own unique contribution to this category.
Bruno is an eight year old German boy who wants to be an explorer when he grows up. His father is an officer in the German army, but Bruno doesn’t realize that he is commandant of a prison camp (presumably Auschwitz), where Jewish people are being put to death. He thinks it is a farm of some kind. Although the “farm” is off limits to him, he finds a way to sneak back there. He is puzzled by the electrified fence around the camp and the “pajamas” the people within it are wearing. Bruno meets a boy his age on the other side of the fence whose name is Schmuel. The two become friends and Bruno regularly slips off to see him.
A tutor is brought in to teach Bruno and his fourteen-year-old sister, Gretel. Part of his job is to indoctrinate the children in the Nazi philosophy. Gretel has a crush on one of the soldiers under her father’s command, so she readily accepts the propaganda. Bruno, though younger and more naive, questions it. As he comes to understand more about the camp his father is in charge of, he has this conversation with Gretel:
Dad’s not horrible is he? He’s a good man.
Of course, he is.
But he’s in charge of a horrible place.
It’s only horrible for them, Bruno.
In the end, there are only two ways of dealing with the suffering of others: you can ignore it and do nothing or identify with it and do something. Gretel’s words are self-condemning—she admits to the horror but then immediately dismisses it because it doesn’t have to do with her or the people she loves. Whether it’s a Holocaust context or on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, this is the essence of uncaring—to know about the pain of others and turn away from it.
And while it’s possible to speak or write of compartmentalizing our love in such a way as to choose when and who you will love, it doesn’t work out that way in real life (and this is where TBITSP is so powerful and poignant). To choose not to love some is a decision that will end up negatively effecting the ones we do choose to love. God has so structured our world so that to withhold love from one affects everyone.
I think this is something of what Jesus had in mind when He spoke of the neglect of the marginalized and disenfranchised as neglect of Him (Matthew 25:31ff). He saw them as “brothers” (v. 40). To choose not to love them was to choose not to love Him.
No one would want to do that, would they?