Annette von Droste-Hülshoff began work on The Jew’s Beech Tree in 1837 and completed it in 1841. It was based on a true incident that had occurred in the latter half of the previous century. She had heard of the story from her grandfather, who had been a magistrate assigned to the case. She also used an 1818 newspaper account of the murder—written by her uncle, August von Haxthausen—as a basis for her tale. The case involved a Christian man who had murdered a Jew and had left the country before he could be brought to trial. Captured by the then-invading Turkish army, he had spent twenty-five years in slavery. When he escaped, he returned home. Because of the hardship he had already endured, he was not prosecuted for his crime, but his conscience drove him to commit suicide, and he hanged himself from the tree where the original murder had taken place. This strange story of guilt and justice preoccupied Droste-Hülshoff, and she set out to write a fictional account of the events. The novella went through several revised versions and was first serialized in the spring of 1842 in a literary magazine, Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser.
The Jew’s Beech Tree
The Droste-Hülshoff work is the story of Friedrich Mergel, a poor shepherd boy whose father, a drinker, is found dead one day. He and his mother are in dire straits. His uncle, Simon, and Simon’s illegitimate child, Johannes Niemand, take Friedrich under their protection. Friedrich and the pale and worn-looking Johannes, who appears as if he were Friedrich’s brother, become close friends. Simon is, however, involved with a ruthless band of poachers who, thwarting the efforts of the authorities, roam the forests nightly and steal wood from private lands. Despite the efforts of his honest mother, Friedrich becomes involved with this band of thieves and serves as a lookout. One night, he deliberately misleads the forester Brandis, sending him to his death at the hands of one of the poachers. He later recognizes the murder weapon, an ax, as belonging to his uncle.
One day, in the autumn of 1760 during a community dance, Friedrich, now a proud and boastful young man, is publicly warned by a Jewish moneylender, Aaron, that he has not yet paid for the watch he had bought. Friedrich is shamed before his fellow villagers. The next day Aaron is found murdered under a beech tree, and Friedrich and his cousin Johannes are missing. Members of the Jewish community are outraged by the incident, and they purchase the tree with the assurance that it will never be cut down—as a living memorial to their murdered friend. With an ax, they carve a warning on the tree in Hebrew: “If you ever approach this place, what has been done to me will also be done to you.”
Twenty-eight years later, on Christmas Eve, 1788, an old and beaten man returns to the village. He claims to be Johannes Niemand. He has spent his years as a slave to the Turks and finally escaped. Later he is found hanged from the beech tree, where the original murder had occurred. From a prominent scar on the corpse it is clear to Brandis’s son, who is the one to find the decomposing body, that the hanged man is in truth Friedrich Mergel, driven to suicide by the burden of his guilt.
The Jew’s Beech Tree is a realistic tale of poverty and desperation, racial prejudice and criminal greed, and murder and nagging guilt. It contains elements of the English gothic novel—stormy nights and a ghostly forest—that lend it a mysterious, supernatural atmosphere. The novella’s German subtitle—literally, “a portrait of manners and customs from the mountain region of Westphalia”—suggests its objective, almost sociological perspective on the behavior and morals of the community in which Droste-Hülshoff lived....
(The entire section is 1555 words.)