The book is about a young boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi lieutenant colonel. He has a headstrong sister, Gretel (called "the Hopeless case"). They used to live in a five-story mansion in Berlin but are one day suddenly transferred to a place called "Out-With", by his father's boss, the "Fury" Adolf Hitler ("Out-With" is really Auschwitz, and the "Fury" is the F├╝hrer, but Bruno can't pronounce the words correctly). Bruno , angered and confused by his father's decision to move and desperate to go home, spends his time in his room, without any friends to play with. He misses their old home. In such a small space, there isn't any room for exploration (a hobby of Bruno's), as there was in the house in Berlin.

From his bedroom window, Bruno spots a fence behind which he sees many people in 'striped pyjamas'. These are Jews, and they are in a Nazi concentration camp. One day his parents come to an agreement that both Bruno and Gretel need a tutor for their education, so they hire Herr Liszt. To Bruno, Herr Liszt is the most boring teacher one could ever have; he teaches social science instead of reading and arts, which Bruno prefers. So, in boredom and confusion, Bruno wonders what is going on at "Out-With" (Auschwitz) and why people are always dressed in striped pyjamas there. One afternoon, he goes exploring, and meets a Jewish boy called Shmuel, a name Bruno has never before heard but that apparently is quite common in the concentration camp. Shmuel soon becomes Bruno's friend and Bruno visits every afternoon to talk. Bruno is told that the people in the striped pyjamas on the other side of the fence are Jews and that he and his family are "the opposite".

The story ends with Bruno about to return to the family's old home in Berlin. As a final adventure, he agrees to dress in a set of striped pyjamas and climb under a loose wire in the fence to help Shmuel find his father, who went missing in the camp. The boys are unable to find him, and just as it starts to rain and get dark, Bruno decides he would like to go home, yet the Nazis in the area of the camp force the boys to go on a march. Neither boy knows where this march will lead. However, they are soon crowded into a gas chamber, and the author leaves the story with Bruno pondering, yet unafraid, in the dark holding hands with Shmuel. "...Despite the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel's hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let go".

In an epilogue, Bruno's father subsequently discovers Bruno's clothes by the fence and figures out what happened to him. Several months later, Allied (although not stated, presumably Russian as the Red Army liberated Auschwitz) soldiers come and order the Nazi soldiers to come with them, and Bruno's father goes without complaint, because "he didn't really mind what they did to him anymore".

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