A Picture of Life among the Hills of Westphalia Where is the hand so fraught with gentle art That tangled skein of narrow mind may part, So steadfast that untrembling it may throw The stone upon a wretched creature's woe? Who dares to measure surge of vain ambition, To ponder prejudice, the soul'd perdition, To weight each word which, still retained, Its power o'er youthful heart has gained? Thou happy man, thou being born in light, Cherished and guided piously towards right, Judgement is not they task, lay scales aside! Take up no stone - lest it towards thee should glide!
Born in 1738, Friedrich Mergel was the only son of a small farmer or freeholder of the humbler kind in the village of B***, which, depsite its smoky and poorly constructed buildings, caught the traveller’s eye because of the picturesque beauty of its situation in a green forest glen among an imposing range of hills remarkable for the historical associations.
Online sources tell me The Jew’s Beech is part of the poetic-realist tradition. This was a new-to-me expression. Apparently Otto Ludwig (12 February 1813 — 25 February 1865) a German novelist and dramatist, coined the term poetischer Realismus, which went on to be used by a number of his contemporaries. The aim of German poetic realism was to portray positive values from everyday life.
Often given the label, the ‘first true crime story’, The Jew’s Beech is indeed a curious mix of everyday life and mystery in a small German village, complete with hard working woodsmen and bucolic cowherds, domestic drudgery and violence. This setting and it’s inhabitants are closely connected, one informing and responding to the other. Von Droste-Hülshoff was certainly an early proponent of showing how one’s social and cultural environment influenced behaviour.
The protagonist, Friedrich Mergel is a product of his heredity and circumstance. Born to a drunken, abusive father, and a submissive mother he is brought up in a poverty of affection. As his teen years approach his Uncle Simon enters his life bringing with him dubious intentions and Johannes Niemand (Nobody), who happens to look a lot like Friedrich. Johannes’ parentage is never explained – are they cousins or perhaps even half-brothers? This is one of the ambiguities never cleared up by von Droste-Hülshoff.
Around this time stands of trees begin to disappear mysteriously from the middle of the forest, and two brutal murders occur near a clearing that includes a well-known beech tree. The first is a local forester and the second a Jewish moneylender. There is no detective to solve these crimes. The closest we have to fill this role is the Count von S***, the local squire. He constantly battles gossip, superstition, intolerance, prejudice and racism. Despite his good intentions he is unable to bring either of these cases to a satisfactory conclusion.
The local Jews decide to purchase the beech tree, on which they inscribe in Hebrew אם תעמוד במקום תות יפגע בך כאשר אתת עשית לי. No one in the village knows what this means.
Only with the final words in the story does our narrator reveal the meaning, “If thou drawest nigh, thy fate shall be like that thou didst mete out to me.” Also leaving behind another another of the ambiguities to frustrate the reader.
The ambigious ending is now considered ‘famous’ from all the various reviews I have read. The debate rages over whether it is a tale of revenge or guilt, murder or suicide, karma or misadventure, poetic justice or lawlessness?
Certainly the final dozen pages or so are ones you read over again to try and nut out the mystery.
- Die Judenbuche is based on a true incident from 1783
- Originally recorded by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s uncle, August von Haxthausen in 1818.
- ‘After killing the Jew, Soestmann-Behrens, farmhand Hermann Georg Winkelhagen from Bellersen (referred to as “B.” in the novella) fled the country to avoid arrest, was enslaved in Algeria and, after being freed in 1805, returned to his home town where he committed suicide.’ (wikipedia)
- Some editions include the subtitle A Moral Portrait from Mountainous Westphalia
- Annette von Droste-Hülshoff born 10 January 1797 in Burg Hülshoff in Havixbeck, Westphalia
- Died 24 May 1848 in her brother-in-law’s castle, Schloss Meersburg, on Lake Constance, Baden-Württemberg
- Her full name was Baroness Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolphine Wilhelmine Louise Maria von Droste zu Hülshoff
- The Jew’s Beech was recommended to me another blogger many years ago. I did not note down who at the time, and my memory has now failed me. Thank you whoever you are.
- Read for Novellas in November and German Literature Month
Till then Margaret had only loved her son; now she began to be proud of him and even to feel a kind of respect for him as she saw him growing up quite independent of her help or even her counsel.
- The Baron von S*** and his wife. They tried to rule their village with a sense of mercy, justice and compassion.
Favourite or Forget?
- Unforgettable ending!
- Atmospheric writing, almost Gothic in style
Title: The Jew's Beech | Die Judenbuche Author: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Translators: Lionel & Doris Thomas (originally translated in 1958) ISBN: 9781847493552 Imprint: Alma Classics Published: 18 September 2013 (originally published January 1842) Format: Paperback Pages: 107 Dates Read: 22 October 2022 - 23 October 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.