The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kozinski is unique in its kind. Unlike other works about the Second World War and the lives of Jews when they were most in danger, it concentrates on a different subject, namely the life of a boy who encountered war for the first time. This is the main feature of the work, namely a child’s view of the events that will take the lives of millions of people around the world.
The book begins with the boy’s parents having to hide, and for more safety, they send him to a village nearby to hide from the horrors of the Nazis. The boy leaves and ends up with an older woman, Martha. She keeps him safe from all trouble, and everything seems to be going well, but the six-year-old still has to face evil, not just military but anti-human evil. After the older woman dies, he accidentally burns down the hut and sets off on his journey onwards, hoping to survive all the horror around him. The ordinary villagers fear he may bring bad luck and decide to kill him. The boy himself does not understand what is happening, and this lack of understanding applies to that time period, for it is his point of view that projects the ordinary people’s perception of war. After such an admission, he falls into the hands of Olga, a local healer, who treats him and, due to the anger of those around him, has to get rid of the boy “I realized what they were doing, the large bladder was thrown into the water and I was flung on top of it” (Kosinski, 2008).
The locals throw him into the water, and on the way, he meets another man named Lekh. He is a bird-catcher who has been betrayed by his beloved Ludmilla and forced to kill her. Another interesting thing happens, he releases his painted birds into the wild, which is symbolic of the change in the boy’s mind. This is the first time he has been confronted with so much horror from other people that these birds symbolize his young mind, the way he saw the world before, and now he has to let go of everything and accept the new world. After Lekh nearly kills the boy after he burns down the stable, the boy locks him in the basement with the rats, which means dooming him to an agonizing death. “Looking behind, convinced that at any moment the swarm of rats would rush out in pursuit, I jabbed the ox with the whip” (Kosinski, 2008). However, since the boy has seen the deaths of others before, he does not see it as anything out of the ordinary and decides to move on.
As he continues on his way, he is caught several times by the Nazis, who willfully pardon him and let him go, unaware of his origins. He spots a train of Jews being taken to concentration camps. For an adult reader, this moment is challenging to grasp, but the boy is too young to realize how horrific the spectacle he is witnessing is. In the hands of the Nazis, he is once again tortured and often prays, for which he is beaten harder. Here one can also notice the contrast between the child’s perception and the adult’s. The older man would rely on his strength, while the boy depended on God for help, not understanding why he was so abused.
When he returns to his parents at the end of the story, the events of the war have already changed him too much. He has become much more violent and feels he must fight for survival by unnecessarily breaking the boy’s arm. Even though the reader has viewed all the events through the eyes of a child, one can see that the ending does not change from this. The war is still a terrible event, but the only difference is that while the adult does not change much, the child is completely transformed and becomes as rude and callous as the others.
Kosinski, J. (2008). The Painted Bird. Paw Prints.