Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

11 thoughts on “An ahistorical slap in the face

  1. I did like Life is Beautiful, but I couldn’t watch it again. Regardless of the realities of history, the whole thing breaks my heart. I don’t have to see all the gory details. Just knowing what happened to families is enough.

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  2. All I know is I like what I like and if I don’t like something I’ll say so no matter what it’s about. I tend to find some merit in most things though, even if they are not so good.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    1. I also like to find some good things to say about a book, movie, or album, even if I give it a very low overall rating. I tend to read the reviews of 3 stars and below first, since the negative reviews can be more honest and detailed than a bunch of 5-star reviews that can start to sound like the same thing over and over again.

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  3. You really seem to have a problem with World War Two-era novels, I see you ranting off about Markus Zusaks, Book Thief and now dissing The Boy Stripped Pyjamas. I agree with your review on the Book Thief, it was slow. But I cannot stand by as you go on pontificating about one of the greatest books of about this topic. I respect that you don’t know how understand what the author is telling through a child’s point of view. Those “puns” that you rave on? Brilliant. I dunno what your problem is with this moving, and inspiring story about young german boy subjected to the cruelty of World War Two. Many people cry at the end. And do you know how to get them to do that? By creating characters that are relatable, sensational, and completely realistic. I also like the shortness of it. The simplicity. You people and your historical fiction novels. You need to open your eyes.

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    1. Many people have the same issues I have with this farce of a book, including many Shoah survivors and leaders of the Jewish community. As someone who writes many books set in this era myself, I find historical accuracy of utmost importance.

      I clearly explained all my many issues with this book in the post, even if you don’t agree with them. Nice job insulting me in those last lines because I dare to not share your view. Great way to join my very small list of rude commenters who crossed a line in disagreeing and earned their place on my blacklist.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you. I congratulate you on describing this book as “farce” but I have to say that a “historically accurate” book with no additional content would be no better than showing film of animals being slaughtered. I don’t think that any non-fictional novel on this era would bring out any more emotion than a textbook. I understand that people hate mainstream media which is something that we agree on when it comes to the Book Thief, but here the problem issimply we have conflicting opinions and I want to see you side. How could you possibly have anything negative to say about this genius book. I enjoy telling people the truth in the most passive agressive way possible 😉 Especially when it comes to this book. I hope you and your narrow-minded views go off to inspire a new generation of bareboned, emotionless story writers. Godspeed Carrie-Anne, godspeed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. How can I stand by when you call this “absoloute garbage” and other incorrect insults? You can’t expect to post these reviews and everyone to agree. And before you go off with that “then why did you come to this site anyways?” stuff. It was because I agreed with you. But you took it way too far this time.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. People have the right to express their own views on their own blogs. You’re the one who’s taking it too far by personally insulting me and presuming I’m ignorant because I’m not fawning all over such a terrible book. Enjoy going on the blacklist twice, you abusive bully. You must be a peach to deal with in real life.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. “Narrow-minded”? Seriously? Because I dare to not pile-drive my head up the ass of a hugely overrated book? And to call this garbage book “genius”? You’re a nasty little bully who’s going to go on the block list twice. I don’t know how you got around me putting your e-mail and ISP on my block list. I have a zero tolerance policy for people who make rude, nasty comments and can’t agree to disagree respectfully.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. This’ll be my last comment on this site. I don’t think you should be talking about respect. I say my opinion, and you go bonkers. A amazing book shouldn’t be disrespected. But I guess that all books and movies are treated that way around here. Thank you for your charming hospitality and I hope you continue to treat opposing views like this. It might not be good for others, but hey, at least it’s “historically accurate.”

            Liked by 1 person

            1. “Bonkers.” Typical comment by a man to a woman not smiling and keeping sweet. What a joke, to call such ahistorical garbage “amazing.” Would you like to speak with the director of the Auschwitz Museum, who consistently calls out such offensive, historically inaccurate, Holocaust-lite, best=seller bait for the masses tripe? I have zero problem with people who respectfully agree to disagree with me on anything. I have regular readers who don’t share my political views at all, and I’ve never had one problem with them, because they conduct themselves respectfully and don’t personally insult me. You were the one who came in with guns blazing because I dared to not lovingly pile-drive my head up the ass of such a terrible book. I clearly laid out all my reasons for not liking it in my review, but apparently you don’t think I’m allowed to hold opposing views.

              You could’ve avoided my strong language to you in return had you not personally insulted me from the start. Do you really think people will magically change their minds and start loving a book because you told them their reasons were automatically wrong? Instead you revealed yourself as someone who seems like a nasty misogynist. I doubt you’d speak this way to a man with another opinion.

              “Around here” I don’t treat all books and films “that way.” I give many 5-star and 4-star ratings. But the book or film has to earn a positive rating. I don’t mindlessly squee all over something just for existing and because it’s popular.

              It’s hugely offensive to use the Shoah as a meaningless, watered-down backdrop for a “feel-good fable.” It’s like using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a beyond-implausible backdrop for an MTV-era “love story” in Titanic.

              It’s also very creepy how you’re using multiple e-mails to get around my block list, which unfortunately isn’t working at the moment due to a WordPress snafu.

              Liked by 1 person

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