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Friedrich was written by Hans Peter Richter and was first published in Germany in 1961. It is a work of historical fiction, focusing on the rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutscher Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party). Richter was born in 1925 and personally witnessed the rise of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s subsequent dictatorship. Richter himself also fought during the war. After the war, he went on to study psychology and sociology. He wrote many books and was also a professor of sociology at the University of Darmstadt. While the book is not autobiographical, Richter did draw on his own experiences for inspiration. The story focuses on the Second World War and addresses themes like The Slippery Slope of Antisemitism/Racism, Nazism and Guilt, and Understanding Others as a Means to Combat Racism. In 1972, the book won the American Library Association’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award. This guide uses the following English version: Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. Translated by Edite Kroll, Scholastic, 1993. The following German version is used for comparison: Richter, Hans Peter. Damals war es Friedrich. dtv Verlagsgesellschaft, 2021.
Content Warning: The source material contains many instances of antisemitic behavior, language, and some violence. This guide avoids any antisemitic language.
The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, is born in 1925. One week following his birth, Friedrich is born. The narrator’s and Friedrich’s families live in the same “house,” as the word translates in German, which is like an apartment building. The narrator’s family lives on the second floor; Friedrich and his parents, the Schneiders, live above them. The two families scarcely knew one another before the birth of their sons, but the boys’ friendship draws them closer together. The Schneiders are better off financially than the narrator’s family. Herr (Mr.) Schneider has a good position with the German Post Office, while the narrator’s father is unemployed, as are many men in Germany in 1925.
Their first true encounter occurs in 1929, when the narrator’s mother helps Frau (Ms.) Schneider by watching Friedrich while she is away. The two boys quickly become friends, and the Schneiders learn that Friedrich is Jewish. By 1933, when the Nazi Party comes to power in Germany, the situation for Friedrich and his family begins to decline quickly in the face of state-sanctioned antisemitism. This occurs gradually; Friedrich isn’t even aware of the rising antisemitism until he attends a Nazi youth group meeting with the narrator. There, he listens to a racist diatribe about Jews from a man with a hunchback and is forced to repeat the line, “Jews are our affliction” (38). Things only get worse for Friedrich and his family after that.
The Schneiders quickly experience the encroaching hatred through their landlord, Herr Resch. He was always a mean and sullen figure, and he is a member of the Nazi Party; he attempts to evict them because of their Jewish heritage. The eviction fails because the laws have not yet been altered and still protect all German citizens. However, in these early days, there are still loopholes the Nazis use, and one of these loopholes costs Herr Schneider his job. He must find a new job and becomes the manager of a toy store. Shortly thereafter, Friedrich is removed from the school that he and the narrator have been attending and is sent to an all-Jewish school. Their teacher, Teacher Neudorf, gives Friedrich’s classmates a quick lesson in Jewish history that is sympathetic to the Jewish perspective. He wishes Friedrich all the best and dismisses the class with the Nazi salute.
Violence against Jews increases. The boycotting of Jewish-owned stores quickly devolves into looting and blatant destruction of property. One day in 1938, the narrator is coming home from school when he comes upon a store that’s been looted. He knows the owner, since the shop is where they always bought their school supplies. The owner was always kind to him and Friedrich. Around the corner, he runs into a large group and is swept away in the crowd. The crowd goes to a Jewish home for apprentices. They run amok, smashing windows and breaking desks, chairs, and chalkboards. Even the narrator is overcome by the frenzy and smashes things when he is given a hammer. Nevertheless, he feels sick about what has happened after it is all over. Even after he goes home, the mayhem is not over; a group attacks the Schneiders’ apartment. Frau Schneider is gravely wounded and dies hours later. After the death of Frau Schneider, Friedrich and his father live a cramped, impoverished existence fixing lamps in their battered apartment. They harbor a rabbi in their home but are soon discovered, and Herr Schneider and the rabbi are both taken away. Friedrich is with friends during the raid, although he is rarely seen anymore.
In 1942, the air-raid siren wails through the city. Friedrich is with the narrator and his family when the sirens go off. The others take their bags to the nearby bomb shelter, but Friedrich must stay behind because Herr Resch is the air-raid warden and will recognize him. The narrator and his family listen to the bombs dropping outside, and they worry for Friedrich. Friedrich, however, attempts to appeal to Herr Resch’s humanity and allow him into the shelter. The others in the shelter tell Resch to let Friedrich in, but Resch refuses. After the bombing, the narrator and others emerge among the debris. They, along with Herr and Frau Resch, make their way home. They find Friedrich in the doorway. He is dead.