This has been a pretty great year for books with Jewish content, many of which I’ve written about for The Canadian Jewish News. Most of these reads have deepened and diversified Jewish representation in the publishing landscape.
But, as 2022 draws to a close, I need to address one of the biggest bestsellers: All the Broken Places, the unnecessary sequel to John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
For the uninitiated, Striped Pajamas is a 2006 Holocaust novel for young readers about Bruno, the nine-year-old son of an Auschwitz commandant. The book has been widely criticized by Holocaust educators and scholars for its historical inaccuracies.
The education team at Montreal’s Holocaust Museum has outlined some other problems: “The first issue… is the use of the term ‘pyjamas’ to describe the prisoner uniform. This misrepresents the discriminatory and dehumanizing nature of the striped clothing in concentration camps, which can be a confusing message for young readers.
“The second, larger issue is that the story encourages compassion and empathy for the Nazi guard. The Nazis sought to dehumanize their Jewish victims, and one of our roles when educating about the Holocaust is to preserve the dignity and humanity of Jewish people… When readers of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas feel sympathy for the Nazi guard, it hinders the empathy that teachers are trying to build in connection with Holocaust survivors and victims.”
Despite all this, the novel has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 50 languages. It was adapted into a successful movie released in 2008, a more recent U.K. dance production by Northern Ballet, and an upcoming opera.
More troublingly, it’s regularly used to teach about the historical events of the Holocaust. A study commissioned by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education in 2006 reported that 35 percent of surveyed teachers used it in their classrooms. For some students, it’s their sole exposure to this dark chapter in history, and shapes their perception of what transpired.
Boyne has brushed off these accusations. In a recent interview with the Times of Malta, he insisted it was “never intended to be an educational tool and it is a story about friendship.”
(The author previously got into a Twitter argument with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum, which expressed similar concerns in January 2020.)
If there was any question about the harm being caused here, consider some of the well-intentioned content on social media, including photos of children in concentration camp uniforms for “favourite book day.”
All the Broken Places was released in North America in December 2022, amid this debate. It’s intended for an adult audience and follows the story of Gretel—Bruno’s older sister.
Set in London of this year, Gretel is now in her 90s, and has mostly remained quiet about her experiences as a Nazi commandant’s daughter. As the story jumps into the years during and immediately following the war, Gretel reflects on her life and attempts to address (or ignore) her guilt.
Boyne does little to address the faults of the preceding novel. Indeed, the follow-up seems to spend most of its time justifying its own existence.
The character of Gretel is crafted as morally ambiguous, inviting readers to draw their own judgments on her life and possible complicity in the Holocaust. As before, this attempt at nuance falls short. She’s ultimately framed as a victim and that is how the character has been received. (For instance, the Guardian review describes her as a “tragic heroine.”)
It’s similar to the discourse when a former Nazi or collaborator is finally brought to trial for his or her crimes. Think of the recent case of Irmgard Fuchner, the 97-year-old woman recently convicted of complicity in the murders of over 10,500 people while working as a typist between 1943 and 1945 at Stutthof.
When these individuals are brought to trial, a dismissive attitude emerges toward the crimes. Their advanced ages elicit compassion, as if to say, “Yes, these people did horrible things, but they may not have much longer to live. Can’t they just live out the remaining time, even if they’re guilty?”
The way John Boyne presents the character of Gretel is similar. We’re somehow made to empathize with her because she feels guilty—and, ultimately, because she’s old.
What troubled me most, though, was the relative invisibility of Jews.
The few Jewish characters are used only as tools for character development or for shock value. Gretel is guilt-ridden by the role she played in her brother’s death (a spoiler for the first novel, sorry!), but it never alludes to any feelings of guilt for the murder of a million Jews at her doorstep.
More than anything, she fears her background being discovered and having to suffer the consequences.
Boyne is unable to see the “child’s-eye perspective” as anything but wholly innocent. In one flashback, while being giving a tour of the concentration camp by her father, Gretel encounters Shmuel, the eponymous “boy in the striped pajamas.”
Gretel is shown as being kind and compassionate, which feels unbelievable given that a girl in her position would have been taught her whole life that Jews were inferior and worthy of extermination.
The plot is contrived and predictable from a narrative standpoint. In the final third, Boyne introduces several plot twists in quick succession to engage and surprise, though they mostly fall flat as cheap narrative tricks. The poorly researched content relies on emotional punches rather than facts.
All of this might be fine if it weren’t a historical novel about the Second World War and the Holocaust, where inaccuracy can cause harm in the real world.
The problems of the first book will continue to be perpetuated, partly because Gretel’s redemption arc has little to do with the Holocaust or Jewish suffering.
Since its release, the author has been on a tour, speaking to sold-out crowds. But it’s telling that Boyne hasn’t been invited to showcase his book with a single Jewish group.
I can only hope that readers will listen to these concerns—and take a pass on All the Broken Places.