Book by Hans Peter Richter, published 1961; German title "Damals war es Friedrich" (back then it was Friedrich). Friedrich is the German version of Frederick.

The book is a painful narrative of the relationship of two boys in Germany from 1925 to 1942 and chronicles the persecution of Jews in pre-war and war-time Germany vividly and uncompromisingly. Its direct, simple writing style and poignant descriptions have made it a literary classic taught in all German schools.

It begins, innocently enough, with the birth of the narrator and his Jewish friend, Friedrich, to residents of the same building within a week of each other. The Jewish Schneiders were well off, the father being a civil servant while the narrator's family is poor, his father unemployed and they depend on his grandfather for support. The boys grow up together, go to the same school and are treated by each others parents as their own. A scene you could witness at any other time in any other place under the same circumstances.

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler becomes Reichskanzler and his antisemitic rhetoric becomes bloody reality. The narrator describes his return from school one day:

On a Saturday, it was April 1st, 1933, we were coming home from school and passed by the doctor's office. Next to the door there was a white sign that said "Dr. Jakob Akanase." Above the sign someone had scrawled the word "Jew" in red paint. On a the corner a bit further down the street there was a little stationery shop. A man in grey ankle-boots and badly wrapped leggings was standing outside. Over his shirt, on his left arm, he wore an armband with the swastika. In his right hand he held a placard saying "Don't buy from the Jew."

Of course this isn't enough to trouble a young child with no understanding of racial hatred. One evening young Friedrich decides to sneak out with the narrator to go to the local youth centre, very happy at being able to share the experience with his friend.

The youth leader announced a special representative of the local authorities who would speak to them about something extremely important.

"Young people of the Führer," he screamed. "I have been sent tonight to tell you about the Jews. One hour from now, you shall know of the danger the Jews represent to ourselves and our people."

The strange man told of murdered Christian children, of Jewish crimes and wars. Finally, he ended his speech with the sentence:

"The Jews are our undoing!"

Friedrich froze. White as chalk and shivering from the cold, he crept into the farthest corner.

Then the strange man pointed at Friedrich and asked him what the sentence was. He didn't move. When he raised his voice and asked him a second time, Friedrich said, in a shaky voice:

"The Jews are our undoing."

With one move, the strange man tore Friedrich from the bench. "Stand up when I'm talking to you," he screamed in his face. "And you'd better answer loudly."

Friedrich stood up straight. He was still pale. In a firm voice, he declared:

"The Jews are... your undoing!"

Nothing was heard, not a sound. Friedrich turned around and left the youth centre unhindered. I remained seated. The denial of Jewry is a significant part of the national socialist mindset. Whatever you made of it, whatever you did about it, it became steadily worse.

This is the turning point. The child stares hatred in the face and knows it. The book takes on a subdued and ominous tone and resumes to relate a sad, downhill story. It tells of Friedrich's father losing his job and their landlord trying to evict them, of the Kristallnacht, of the restrictions placed on Jews. At one point, the narrator's father advises Mr. Schneider to leave the country but he refuses, like so many others.

"I am German, my wife is German, my son is German, all our relatives are German. What could we do abroad? How would we be received? Do you really think they like us Jews better elsewhere? At any rate, it will all quiet down eventually."

Inevitably, things become uglier and uglier. The narrator calmly watches the events unfold and records them with the detachment of a person who knows he can do nothing to influence them. Right through to the bitter end in 1942.

This book is a slap in the face of bigotry and, in a way, a collective confession of the countless Germans who witnessed their neighbours' ruin but felt powerless to prevent it. It denies nothing, justifes nothing and accuses no one. In the face of the child who didn't know better, many Germans recognised themselves.

The German people are not just responsible for unleashing terror and destruction on the world, as some ignorant stereotypes may have them. They are also capable of magnificent technological and cultural achievements and deep introspection. This book shows it more clearly than anything.

Translations based on text at Schulreferate Online.

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