Book review

Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter (1961)

This book isn't meant to be enjoyed. It's a lesson which we must all learn. It's a terribly painful lesson. It's about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany before and during World War II.

How can you convey the enormity of what happened at that time? Hans Peter Richter tells us a story about two boys. They are the same age and live in the same block of flats, so they know each other well. Friedrich is Jewish. At the beginning of this story, Friedrich's father has a good job and his family is comfortably off. Friedrich's friend, who narrates the story, is poor. His father is unemployed.

When Hitler comes to power in 1933 Germany is still in desperate financial difficulties following the First World War. There is massive unemployment and extreme hardship and poverty. The people are looking for a political leader who will make things better. Hitler tells them that the Jews are responsible for a lot of Germany's problems and he begins to pass a series of laws which restricts the rights of Jews.

This book traces the fortunes of the two families. The unemployed German who joins the Nazi party shares in Hitler's success. He finds work and can afford a holiday. Slowly, decree by decree, the Jewish family have everything taken away from them. Friedrich's father is forced to retire from his job in the civil service. Friedrich has to leave the German school and attend a special Jewish school. The movements of Jews are restricted by curfews, they must carry Jewish identity cards, they may not go to the cinema, they must wear yellow stars on their clothes.

The gradual decay into lawlessness is fascinating and revolting. Friedrich's friend is in a difficult position. He is a member of the Jungvolk (the Hitler Youth movement) and even finds himself swept along in the mob violence. But he still considers himself to be Friedrich's friend. Friedrich's mother is attacked by a mob in her own home and dies from her injuries. Friedrich's father is arrested and taken away. And that leaves the seventeen year old Friedrich alone.

What does his friend's family do to help him? Was there anything that could be done, at that late stage to help him? Why wasn't anything done sooner? Was it good enough just to offer Friedrich's father a bit of advice?

'You know, Herr Schneider,' my father began again, 'I went to a Party meeting this afternoon. At such meetings one gets to hear a lot about the plans and aims of the leadership, and if one knows how to listen properly, one can add quite a bit besides.
'I want to ask you, Herr Schneider, why are you and your family still here?'
Herr Schneider looked astonished.
But father was already going on: 'Many of those who share your faith have already left Germany because life was made too hard for them here. And it will only get worse! Think of your family, Herr Schneider, and go away!'

Well, Herr Schneider has his reason for staying - he is German too. And he perceives it to be his religious duty to suffer persecution:

'God has given us Jews a task. We must fulfill that task. We have always been persecuted - ever since we were exiled. I have given much thought to this lately. Perhaps we'll manage to put an end to our wandering by not seeking flight any more, by learning to suffer, by staying where we are.'

The Holocaust is too big an event to contemplate. It goes beyond words. All we can do is remember what happened and, for the future, act according to our consciences.

What can I read next?

If you are thinking about what happened to the Jews during the Second World War, you might also like to look at:

Or this one by Reinhardt Jung, about the fate of disabled children in the Third Reich:

If you just enjoy a book with a moral message, this one by Theodore Taylor is superb. It is about racial discrimination:

Or you might like to look at this one by Anne Holm:

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