on History, Hatred and Learned Responses

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and had originally started this post as a list of my top recommendations for summer programming. However, I literally just finished the last few seconds of this particular movie, and as I sit here in shock, barely able to breathe, I realize that this movie cannot simply be grouped with a list of other films. This movie deserves its own discussion.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a British film, released in 2008, set during World War II. It features an eight-year-old German boy, Bruno, who comes face-to-face with a Jewish prison camp. Two young boys, one on each side of the prison fence, don’t understand why they are different.

Bruno is taught that Jews are the evil in the world, and that the camps they are sent to are recreational havens simply meant to separate them from the rest of the German population. He’s told his father, the camp director, is making the country a better place. He doesn’t understand why his new friend wears dirty, striped pajamas, why he is always so hungry, or why he can’t come out to play football. He thinks the numbers the Jewish boy wears on his chest are part of a game and repeatedly asks to know the rules.

The Jewish boy doesn’t know why he’s inside the fence or why his family is disappearing. He wants to play games with Bruno, but instinctively knows that having Bruno’s football inside the fence is dangerous. He talks about his grandparents and how they must have been very sick because they went to a “hospital” as soon as the family arrived and were never seen again.

Bruno’s older sister, Greta, is 12 and wholeheartedly embraces the Nazi ideals. She idolizes a young Nazi soldier, asks her tutor to tell her all about the “nasty Jews” and plasters her bedroom wall with posters of Hitler and his followers. She doesn’t even flinch with a Jewish gardener is beaten to death in their kitchen for spilling some wine, and tells Bruno that “he deserved it anyway.” She is constantly brainwashed with propaganda and false history that tells her what is happening is right and necessary, and that the Jews in the camp are less than human and therefore do not deserve to be treated with any human dignity or respect.

These kids are caught in a world of hatred and violence that they don’t understand. Bruno and his Jewish friend can’t understand why they are different.

Because the truth is, they aren’t. It’s only the world around them that says they should be.

The “nature vs. nurture” argument has gone on in science and sociology for decades, but one thing that cannot be argued is that a child is not born with an innate hatred for another type of person. That is a learned response. German children in World War II learned from their parents that Jews and anyone else who was different were to be persecuted and eliminated; white children in America learned from their surroundings that those with black skin were meant to be slaves; early American settlers were told by their superiors that Native American Indians were dangerous and must be controlled. How many horrible things do children learn today by watching parents and grandparents who cannot let go of their hatreds and grudges against another sort of people? It’s not just the overt things, like slavery and concentration camps; it’s also the little things we say and do that tell our children someone else is less worthy than we are. What kinds of atrocities might our children’s generation commit because we today can’t learn to accept other cultures and races and move on with our lives as a human race?

But learned responses go both ways.

Just as Greta in the movie was taught to hate Jews, so are we today taught to see that period of mankind’s history as a far-away incident, something that happened in a distant time in a distant place. We’ve all been taught about the Holocaust. We all know the basic historical facts surrounding that time period. But how many of us have really set it sink in that six million people were murdered in concentration camps across Europe? How many of us have sat at the feet of a survivor and listened to his or her terrible stories without either tuning them out as talking relics or hushing them as inappropriate for children’s ears? I am ashamed to say that I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and I spent much of my visit skimming over the exhibits wanting to get through quickly so we could find something to eat. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas hasn’t won any real awards, in Great Britain or America, and that in itself tells you something. It’s too much; it’s too brutal; it’s too true – and nobody wants to award a movie that reminds us who is at fault.

It is an old saying that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I, however, say that those who are not shocked by history are doomed to teach their children how to repeat it.

Watch The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It’s available on Netflix both inside and outside the U.S., and can be ordered on Amazon for less than $10. I’m ordering myself a copy as I write this, and I will loan it to anyone who asks.

If the ending doesn’t leave you frozen in your seat, shocked and hardly able to breathe, then you have a much bigger problem than you realize.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas