Friedrich shows German society between the world wars harboring the medieval uneasiness of having Jews living in their midst. Even the narrator's mother feels compelled to notice Friedrich's circumcision when she gives the two boys a bath. Her father and the landlord are openly prejudiced against Jews, and shopkeepers use their department stores as excuses for not prospering themselves. As Nazi policy strengthens, prejudices emerge more strongly. The landlord tries to evict his Jewish tenant, because it is inconvenient for a Party member to have his house defiled. A just judge thwarts him for the moment. To prepare his students for Friedrich's forced transfer to a Jewish school, a teacher outlines 2,000 years of history, from the Roman expulsions to the Polish and Russian ghettos, and claims the Jews must excel in business to survive the onslaughts against them.
A hunted old rabbi relates how, in the Middle Ages...
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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.