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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 Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
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Fritz, the adult German narrator of Friedrich, describes the experiences he shared with his Jewish best friend and upstairs neighbor, Friedrich Schneider, from 1925 until 1942. 'He remembers events of the Nazi regime from the innocent and nonjudgmental viewpoint of his youth.
Richter initially conveys the population's attitude toward Jews through the seemingly innocuous phrases Fritz's mother utters about Jews and the strong hatred his visiting grandfather and the families' landlord, Herr Resch, express. The narrative then relates the historical sequence of escalating hatred, violence, and death suffered by German Jews during the Third Reich. Although Fritz mentions that all Germans know of the "Final Solution" and concentration camps, he does not include details of concentration camp atrocities. Through his objective characterizations of people who interact with the Schneiders, the author reveals how average citizens engaged in and responded to antiSemitism, while allowing readers to formulate their own interpretations and responses.
Richter explores the serious theme, based upon documented history, that governmental or personal hatred directed toward any group should never be tolerated. He shows that accepting even the first simple inroads of general bigotry without speaking out immediately can lead to utter debasement of personal character and self-respect, which in turn results in social and personal ruin.
Richter shows how easily the veneer of civilization and socialization can be removed from mankind. He also demonstrates that people like Fritz's parents, who passively disagree with bigoted or discriminatory practices of their government, must unite and actively fight for justice in order to maintain a safe world.
To accept evil because of fear is to accept the destruction of civilization. Richter's theme applies to readers of all ages and backgrounds, especially to those who have felt the sting of discrimination and hatred. The author also keeps alive for young people a critical part of recent history by recounting the chilling events and lessons of the Holocaust. But despite the elements of historical fiction and autobiography, Friedrich presents a fragmented, incomplete view of the historical reality. As a result, the novel's impact and value could be enhanced by reading it in conjunction with a more historical account of Hitler's Germany.
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