Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy and the novel’s protagonist. He misses the life and the friends he left behind in Berlin when his family unexpectedly moved to Poland for his father’s career. Although Bruno intuitively feels that his family’s new home at Out-With (Auschwitz) Camp is “the loneliest place in the world,” he does not understand what the place really is or what goes on there. He doesn’t comprehend why a massive fence stands so near to the family’s house, or why so many soldiers have been stationed there. Nor does he understand who the people on the other side of the fence are or why they are all wearing the same striped pajamas. Though Bruno eventually learns that the fence exists to separate a group of people known as “Jews” from people like him and his family, the lesson never fully makes sense to him. To the very end of the novel, when he tragically dies in a Nazi gas chamber, Bruno remains fundamentally ignorant of the real purpose of Out-With.
Despite remaining unaware of the historical and political context in which he lives, Bruno’s childlike innocence endows him with an important virtue that other characters in the novel lack. Namely, Bruno has the capacity to keep an open mind. The adults in the novel all have settled opinions about what’s occurring at Out-With and in Europe more broadly. Even Bruno’s sister, Gretel, graduates from playing with dolls to closely tracking Germany’s progress in the war and mindlessly echoing prejudices against Jews. By contrast, Bruno lacks preconceived notions about Germans, Jews, and any essential differences between them. It is precisely this lack of formal prejudice that allows Bruno to befriend Shmuel, the Jewish boy he meets one day while walking along the fence. Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel provides the main arc for the development of his character. When the two boys first meet, Bruno is self-centered and proves unable to really listen to what Shmuel says about his life and experience. With time, however, Bruno grows increasingly introspective, starts to notice his own selfish behaviors, and learns to see things through Shmuel’s eyes. Even as the novel moves toward its tragic conclusion, Bruno demonstrates a powerful sense of empathy with and responsibility for his friend.