Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights before the dark hour of reason grows.
These words, by John Betjeman, ushered me into the movie The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Instantly, I knew that it was going be a movie about the innocence of a child. Then out of the blue, the infamous swastika sign is thrown at you. And it all dawned on me that the movie was going to be about a child during the Holocaust. I braced myself for the inevitable.
At the risk of spoiling everything for one who has never watched the movie, the movie revolves around eight-year-old Bruno. (The role is played by the stunning Asa Butterfield. That boy always gets me whether it’s in Merlin or Hugo. I guess it’s the blue eyes.)
Bruno is forced to move away from his home to a new one in the countryside as his father is a high-ranking soldier in the Nazi government. He has no choice but to move. The first thing he notices when he looks out the window of his new bedroom is a ‘farm’ where children wear ‘pyjamas’. He asks his mum and dad about it, but no one tells him it is a concentration camp and that the ‘strange people’ are Jews.
He meets a desolate boy called Shmuel who is unfortunate enough to be a Jew and on the other side of that electric fence. In a strange turn of events, Bruno ends up in the concentration camp in a gas chamber with his dear friend Shmuel.
Fiction or not, Bruno would not have ended up in that gas chamber if dad and mum had answered his questions. One time, he asked what the horrid smell that filled the air every now and then was and his dad told him that people at the camp were burning rubbish.
On another occasion, his elder sister tells him that what he thinks is a farm, is in fact, a camp for Jews; because they were bad people who needed to be contained. Bruno cannot, for the life of him, understand how there did not exist a good Jew. Shmuel was good! Surely!
I am not a parent yet. I am also of the opinion that I have a long way to go, but I live with kids every single day when I am not in school. (And that is saying a lot, now that I am bound to be home for seven months. I am still hoping it will turn out to be a bad rumour.)
When you hide things from children, they find out sooner or later. And what they find out may or may not be the truth. Bruno peeped into a room where his father and colleagues were watching a propaganda film, painting concentration camps as happy places for Jews. And he believed it.
We try to mask reality from children because we think they are safe without the truth. While that may be logical, it is one thing to tell a child that he or she was purchased in a market and it is another to tell him that he will learn about reproduction when he grows a little older.
Is something is indeed ok, why hide it from a child? When you think about it, the reason you hide most things from a child is because deep inside, you know it’s downright wrong. If something is bad for a child, isn’t it bad for you too?
If you read Billy Collins poem, The History Teacher, the folly of keeping children from the truth becomes clearer. While the teacher struggles to paint the dark parts of History pretty, the world teaches his students reality when they get out of class.
I know some situations may not necessarily fit into this argument. Nevertheless, think about it. While I cannot think like a child any more, I can learn from them. And so can you. A child will cry because of something you did and the next minute come sit on your lap. Because children are still looking up to you and becoming what you make them.