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Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich tells the story of two boyhood friends between 1925 and 1942. Friedrich Schneider is Jewish. The narrator of the novel — Friedrich’s friend and an unnamed Christian — tells of the horror that befell Friedrich’s family as the monstrosity of the Third Reich loomed over their lives. While the narrator is able to observe as an outsider who is witness to the tragedy from a position of relative safety, Friedrich is swept along by unpredictable events that are never in his control.
The narrator watches as Friedrich is unable to remain in the school they attend, but is forced instead to move to a Jewish school. He is unable to enjoy simple pleasures like going swimming or attending a movie because he is thrown out for being Jewish. After his mother is killed by a mob his father loses his job and suffers a complete mental collapse.
Friedrich and his father try desperately to survive, earning money however they can. Friedrich’s father, in a gesture of faith and kindness, hides a Rabbi in their house as the pogroms are escalating. His father and the Rabbi are taken and the implication is that the Rabbi was taken to a concentration camp. Friedrich, unable to remain in his home, takes to the streets and is forced into hiding.
Near the end of the novel, Friedrich tries to enter an air raid shelter during an aerial attack, but he is kicked out by the man who used to be his landlord. When the attack ends, the narrator returns home. He notices Friedrich on a porch. The landlord appears and kicks Friedrich, suspecting that he is asleep, only to discover that he is dead, killed by shrapnel.
A simplistic view of Friedrich could take the position that it is simply an escalating series of hideous events meant to numb readers into uttering, yet again, something they already know: The Holocaust was an indescribable atrocity. However, this is unfair to the novel, which accomplishes something more enriching.
Friedrich shows tragedy on a grand scale with a small, intimate illustration of the destruction of a family. Friedrich’s family is utterly destroyed by the Nazis and Hitler’s war. By showing the small changes to their lives, which grow worse, and worse, and finally, lethal, every reader becomes intimate with the characters. Therefore, every reader will be able to think about their own family lives, and what it might have been like to see their disintegration as a child.
Having a narrator who is safe tell the story from a remove is also a stroke of brilliance. When things start going bad, he knows that they will never be as bad for him as they are for Friedrich. He is equally helpless, but his secure position provides him with the mental space to ruminate on the dark events without being threatened by them. His observations provide most of the overarching themes and questions that Friedrich addresses.
Friedrich is a novel about the slippery slope of civilization. The author Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the bombing of Dresden in World War II, said that every man-made calamity, in its inception, could be traced back to a simple lack of courtesy and kindness. When the narrator of Friedrich begins to see “normal” people act with rudeness, then arrogance, then cruelty, and in some cases, with lethality, it is heartbreaking to watch him realize that civilization does not crumble in a storm of weapons and flame and explosions. Rather, it erodes by degrees, and small actions become huge disasters.
The source of the quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” is unknown, but it underlies every page of Friedrich. When good people do nothing in the face of xenophobia and ignorance, it allows the viewpoint that some people are “other,” or inferior, to creep into the frame of reference. The narrator’s epiphanies provide him with insight, but none are more poignant than the fact that, by the time he realizes just how insidious the problem is, it’s too late to do anything about it.
This concept of the “other” is reinforced throughout. Time and time again, the narrator is able to wonder why such a fate would befall his friend Friedrich, who is just a boy like himself, and not him. Why is Friedrich’s family doomed, when his own family is primarily inconvenienced? These are the questions behind all serious discussion of the Holocaust, but Friedrich has taken a unique approach through its storytelling format, choice of narrator, and the fact that it is targeted for readers in grades 6-8. The themes are therefore distilled into their essences, something that can get lost in more complicated, adult stories about the Holocaust.
The critical response to Friedrich has been highly positive. Readers often classify it as challenging, but edifying, a statement that any author of a novel with such important themes will cherish. Friedrich is a valuable addition to Holocaust literature, ensuring that readers cannot forget what happened, while doing so in a fresh way so that readers will constantly be reminded that there are also new things to learn, and new questions to ask about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
Friedrich (originally published in German as Damals war es Friedrich) is a novel about two boys and their families as they grow together during Hitler's rise to power and reign. It is by the author Hans Peter Richter.
Friedrich Schneider is a young Jewish boy growing up in an apartment house in Germany, with the narrator as his neighbor and friend. Though the story is told by his non-Jewish friend (Hans Peter Richter or the narrator), Friedrich is the protagonist. The narrator tells of the persecution of the Jews through Friedrich's eyes. Friedrich is forced to switch to a Jewish school, and is thrown out of swimming pools and movie theaters. An angry mob goes to his house and kills his mother (see Pogrom). His father gets fired and has an emotional breakdown. Friedrich finds a girlfriend, Helga, whom he really likes, but soon he must stop seeing her, or she will be sent to a concentration camp. Friedrich and his father are forced to do whatever they can to make money to survive. Friedrich helps his father hide a rabbi in their house, but soon Friedrich's father and the rabbi are arrested, and Herr Schneider was probably sent to a concentration camp. Friedrich, who was not home when the police came, now must live in hiding.
During an air raid, Friedrich begs to be allowed into the air raid shelter, but is kicked out by the air-raid warden, Herr Resch, who was also their landlord. After the raid the narrator, his family, Herr Resch, and his wife return to the house. They notice Friedrich on the stoop, apparently unconscious. Herr Resch decides to get rid of him by kicking him, and they realize that Friedrich is dead, killed by shrapnel(not specified). Resch then remarks that Friedrich has died a better death than was expected.
Setting the Scene (1925)
The novel begins with the introduction of a garden gnome named Polycarp. The narrator talks about how he and Friedrich first met: their parents lived in the same apartment building, which was owned by a man named Herr Resch. At first the Schneiders and the narrator's family were mere acquaintances, but with the births of the narrator and Friedrich a week apart they become better friends. The Schneiders' religion is not revealed in this chapter, though it is assumed they are Christian because of how well-off they are. The narrator's father is unemployed, and the birth of the narrator puts a financial strain on his family. However, the narrator is still well received and feels welcomed in his home.
Potato Pancakes (1929)
One day when Friedrich and the narrator are four years old, Friedrich stays with the narrator's family while his mother attends to some business at City Hall. At first the narrator is reluctant to share his toys with Friedrich and blocks the way to his room, but Friedrich doesn't seem to mind. He takes out a cuckoo whistle and begins blowing into it and the narrator is fascinated by it. Friedrich gives him the whistle and the narrator allows Friedrich to play with his toys. They later help the narrator's mother to make potato pancakes and eventually both children fight for the first pancake.When Friedrich drops the pancake, they decided to share and eat it from the ground. Because of the mess, the mother allows them to take a bath together, an activity both enjoy very much. This becomes the foundation of their friendship.
With the arrival of winter, snow is everywhere, so deep only the tip of Polycarp's hat shows. As a hyperactive four-year-old, the narrator wants to play in the snow, but his mother does not let him - after all, she has work to do. Friedrich goes out and begins playing around in the snow. When the narrator mentions this, the mother replied that she is nearly done. Soon Friedrich's mother, Frau Schneider, comes outside and surprises Friedrich by throwing snow at him. The two begin sliding on the ice on the road, which makes the narrator even more anxious to join in. When they begin building a snowman, the narrator is very distressed. Watching the snowman being made, he gives up hope of being able to join them. His mother replies that she is almost done with her work. Frau Schneider, apparently unsatisfied with the snowman, goes back in the house for some materials. Friedrich then romps around in Herr Resch's flowerbed, causing Herr Resch to poke his head out of the window and yell "dirty Jewboy".
The novel was the subject of a 1972 Batchelder Award for a publisher of an outstanding children's book translated from a foreign language in the United States. The award is unusual in that it is awarded to a publisher, yet specifies a single work. It seeks to recognize translations of children's books into the English language, with the intention of encouraging American publishers to translate high quality foreign language children's books and "promote communication between the people of the world" and "to eliminate barriers to understanding between people of different cultures, races, nations, and languages.