Interviewing the Historian and Author of Fritz and Kurt

My conversation with Jeremy Dronfield made me think deeply on many things. For example, no one can argue that books aren’t tools for learning. Not every book, of course. And even those that we might think are, may not be suitable for your needs as an educator. Or the needs of a child’s as a learner. But, do we consider that some books might not be in the best interests of the topic you are teaching?

Careful consideration and due diligence are parts of the good practice of anyone doing their job properly. This applies to choosing texts for the classroom – it is one of the main reasons Just Imagine exists. When it comes to the well-being of individual children in the classroom, the teacher will ultimately know what is suitable. When it comes to factual and accurate information, we place trust in the authors (including illustrators), editors and publishers to carry out due diligence.

Using fiction to teach real events comes with a myriad of questions we need to ask ourselves. What is the author’s background? How much research did they do? Are the settings accurate? The language used? The dialogue? I think we are doing a disservice to children if we are blindly trusting the books available. It also damages our integrity, and the subject’s. Fiction, then, can be problematic.

It is not my place to give more importance to one historical event than another. There are those, however, that have caused more trauma, pain and suffering than anyone can possibly imagine. Talking about these in a classroom to young learners is a challenge. We need the combination of trust and due diligence more than ever.

Fritz and Kurt has the best interests of the reader and the subject matter at its heart. It is a new version for younger readers of Jeremy Dronfield’s internationally bestselling The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz. What is incredible is that these are narrative nonfiction texts. I found out just how incredibly true they are, how much research went into them, and how education was at the forefront of their creation. My conversation with Jeremy Dronfield was fascinating, and sharing it here is a privilege.

For context, the family central to this story is the Kleinmanns. As a Jewish family in Austria, the 1930s was an unsettling time. Events lead to Fritz and his father, Gustav, being taken away. However, both father and son survived the war, as did Gustav’s secret diary. Kurt, the youngest child, was sent to the USA, while sister Edith was able to go to Britain. The eldest child, Herta, and the mother were taken away against their will at a later date. They never returned.

Jeremy first came across the Kleinmanns’ story when he was asked to find a publisher for an English translation of Gustav’s concentration camp diary. Already published in Austria, finding a publisher to take it on elsewhere ultimately ended in disappointment. Surprising. But, Jeremy explained, that “even though it’s an incredibly important historical document, it’s really difficult to read.” Gustav never intended anyone to ever read his diary. Containing “obscure references to people, places and events that would have even a specialist Holocaust historian constantly reaching for their books.” However, the decision of Fritz to choose voluntarily to go with his father to Auschwitz stuck with Jeremy. The way father and son wrote and spoke about their bond and what happened… Jeremy felt “so strongly that this was a story that had to be told.”

For three years, Jeremy used his experience as an academic researcher and writer to find out more. And make it accessible. As the research continued, he came to realise something. As far as he could tell, this is “completely unique in the whole history of the Holocaust.” A Jewish father and son “stayed alive together for five and a half years in concentration camps. And then leave a record.” It’s important to remember, too, that during those years, there were some “extremely dangerous brushes with death”. It was extraordinary that either survived, let alone both of them.

Jeremy embarked on a mission to write a different version. Readers of the original wanted to share the story with their children. A version written in a way children will be able to “relate to and understand”. But what is it we are asking children to understand when it comes to the Holocaust? This story is “about children”, and Jeremy mentions that a child’s experience is often overlooked. Other books might only give a “small narrow window” into their lives in the Holocaust. In Fritz and Kurt, we have the experiences of a concentration camp and being a refugee. These can provide the reader with a “deeper and broader insight into what children experienced”. Jeremy would like children to understand that because “it’s so beyond what children can imagine from their own experience”. And not just how it happened but why it happened too.

Of course, some children can relate to these experiences. Syria and Ukraine are just two places where the UK and many other countries have accepted those fleeing their homes. This is another thing Jeremy wants people to get from both versions of his book. “The experience of refugees, and how refugees are viewed.” Jeremy explained that Jewish refugees to Britain and America were viewed in the exact same way in the 1930s as refugees are seen now. The consequences of this resistance is something he wants readers to understand, because people are using very similar language. “If people were more willing to accept refugees, the Holocaust would have been so much less.” Sadly, it is comparable to what is still happening in parts of the world today.

But what information needs to be told, and what are young readers not ready to learn about? Unsurprisingly, “anything essential to the story” is the short answer. Although, how do we decide what is essential? Jeremy explained that a lot was left out, especially those things which “would be too upsetting”. For example, Jeremy did learn of the fate of the mother and eldest daughter, actually discovering this in his research. Jeremy also had to find ways to tell essential events in a way that weren’t too graphic and “age appropriate”. A process which included the “writing, rewriting and scrapping and rewriting” of one scene in particular. Other scenes were left in because they had been “imprinted” in the memories of those involved.

Teachers already use children’s books about the Holocaust, but these might be largely fiction. The Holocaust Memorial Day website advises against the use of fiction and prefers the use of real-life accounts. I wanted Jeremy’s opinion on fiction books. Like the Auschwitz Museum, Jeremy feels that perhaps fiction “doesn’t have a place in telling the story of the Holocaust.” Although he doesn’t entirely agree, saying it is problematic. Jeremy thinks there are good fiction books, and it is okay for children to read them. However, there is “so little narrative nonfiction about the Holocaust for children; it becomes difficult for parents and teachers to know how historically reliable fiction is.” 

Even some biographical texts do not give the broader experiences of the majority of Jewish populations. Leaving the country was so much harder than I had learnt from another Holocaust text. Fritz and Kurt shows how difficult it was for families to find a safe place for their children. (Tragically, the family who took in Kurt tried to bring the whole Kleinmann family to the States.) The lack of narrative nonfiction can lead to schools using texts which may not be suitable or entirely representative.

The nonfiction element continues with the narrator’s contextualising of certain events. For example, Kristallnacht, otherwise known as The Night of Broken Glass or the November Pogrom. Jeremy tells the reader what lead to this happening. But there are other events prior to the assassination of the German diplomat. That, Jeremy told me, fewer people know about. The accompanying guide on his website gives much more support for an even wider picture. It will “equip parents and teachers with information and help fill in any gaps in the material they have available.”

Children’s literature can often be seen (incorrectly) as a lesser art form. Jeremy has shown how incorrect that view is by his research and writing process. His research even extended to the dialogue spoken by the characters. Jeremy explains that much of the dialogue comes straight from primary sources. “Conversations around Fritz’s decision to go with his father are all in his memoir and archived interviews.” A powerful line the mother says “comes straight from Kurt’s recollection.” To make some scenes “more accessible for young readers,” Jeremy did allow some imagined dialogue. But only “based on known events, circumstances and knowledge of the personalities, feelings and beliefs of individuals at the time.” Readers can find the full details of Jeremy’s rules for dialogue at the back of the book.

It would be remiss not to mention the illustrations by David Ziggy Greene. “David carefully researched using reference photos and film footage.” One particular illustration Jeremy had “planned right from the beginning… Because if you just use the word Stormtrooper, kids are going to think of the Star Wars version.” Meaning David had to research exactly what they looked like, and then refine the details through further discussion.

Classrooms have to ultimately be places of hope. So, can reading about an event like the Holocaust be a positive experience? The feeling Jeremy has is “positive in the sense that it is a story of survival, hope, love and courage.” Although, one thing that perhaps does not come across so explicitly in this version, because of the child’s viewpoint, is “their father’s determination to survive. How firmly he believed he was going to survive.” Even when the worst things are happening around him, Gustav was writing “I will not let these SS murderers grind me down.” Which Jeremy thinks “was a big part in what enabled Gustav and Fritz to survive.” Gustav never lost his faith or devotion to his son. It’s part of the positivity that comes through. Determination, courage, faith, belief, hope. Knowing these exist, Jeremy continues, through all of life’s challenges and difficulties, is inspiring.

There was one last question that had been on my mind since finishing my copy of Fritz and Kurt. Was it OK for me to have enjoyed this book as an adventure story? I felt a genuine conflict, but Jeremy put me at ease. “It’s perfectly legitimate to think that way. I do myself.” Even though he is hesitant to say that as “it makes it sound like I’m minimizing the horrific reality of the Holocaust, but, this story does have that element in it.” This comes down partly to “Fritz’s personality, where he wouldn’t be kept down. He’s the kind of person that fights back.” So, yes, we can view it as an adventure story. Jeremy wrote it “with an element of that kind of spirit”, recalling some of the books he read in childhood.

My conversation with Jeremy Dronfield was about an hour in total, so some parts I have had to leave out. It was, however, wonderful to hear him speak so passionately and sincerely. You have to keep reminding yourself that the characters in this book are real people. The conversations are real. What happened is real. But at the same time, also unthinkable. Thanks to Jeremy, the Kleinmann’s story is one which will stay with me. Fritz and Kurt deserves to be a fixture in classrooms, and I hope it is. It will stay with readers for years.

Thank you so much to Jeremy for taking his time to speak with me. Fritz and Kurt is available from 19th January 2023. Parents and teachers can find the guide on his website