Die Judenbuche – Ein Sittengemälde aus dem gebirgichten Westfalen (1842, ‘The Jew’s Beech-Tree – A moral painting from the mountainous Westphalia’) centres on a series of unsolved murders connected, in a way or another, with your protagonist, Friedrich Mergel.
The novella, set in the impoverished village of B. in Westphalia, is loosely based on a true story. It opens with Friedrich’s birth, in 1738, and makes a short digression about the downfall of the village inhabitants’ ideas on right and wrong. Then, the story moves back to Friedrich’s father, Hermann Mergel, and his first marriage to a bride who ran away on their wedding night, screaming and covered in blood, and later died.
Hermann was well-known in the village as a violent man and an alcoholic, but Friedrich’s mother, Margreth Semmler, decides to marry him anyway, after he becomes a widower. She does it not out of love, but so as not to be ostracized as a spinster, because, at the time, she was well in her forties and still single.
At first, Margreth naively believes that she will not have the same fate as Hermann’s first wife (she thinks that, if a woman is abused by her husband, she is the one to blame for it…). However, he continuously gets drunk and soon starts to beat her, which she strives in vain to hide from the village.
Our protagonist is born and grows up in this precarious household. His father dies in strange circumstances, when Friedrich is still a child: Hermann is found dead near a tree, on a stormy night. Was he murdered or did he freeze to death while wandering drunk through the woods? Did his ghost try to enter the house at night? No one really knows.
The villagers are quite superstitious and believe that Friedrich’s deceased father is an evil spirit haunting the woods. We have an uncanny feeling that the village might be haunted, or that Friedrich might be possessed. Evil is lurking around: it might be a ghost, or it might just be an emblem of the villagers’ widespread moral degeneration.
After Hermann dies, Margreth’s brother, Simon, takes the young Friedrich under his wing – and starts to spoil him. Our protagonist meets a boy who may or may not be Simon’s illegitimate son: Johannes Niemand (‘John Nobody’), who bears a disturbing resemblance to our protagonist. Johannes reads like Friedrich’s double, almost like a shadow or a ghost, and we are introduced to him in an uncanny scene where Margreth mistakes him for her son.
The sense of the uncanny grows and grows, and things take on a more sinister turn. The story jumps to Friedrich teenage years. It is said that a band of thieves is going around, chopping trees, and threatening the villagers’ livelihood. They are called the ‘blue-coats’ (Blaukittel), but no one has really seen them. They are elusive and leave no tracks. Do they really exist? Or are they ghosts? Maybe they are just a convenient lie. Or a local superstition.
We don’t know, but we feel that Simon might be involved in something shady. Perhaps he is part of the ‘blue-coats’, perhaps he leads another rival group. He also seems to have drawn Friedrich into his shady business, and our protagonist may or may not be acting as a lookout for him.
One day, while working as a shepherd at night, our protagonist is approached by the forester Brandis, who is combing the woods in search of the ‘blue-coats’. Friedrich sends him in the wrong direction and, in the next day, Brandis is found dead near a tree. Was it the ‘blue-coats’? Or was it Friedrich? Maybe it was an ambush; maybe it was Simon who committed the murder, using his nephew as a bait. No one knows.
The story jumps again to the future, and we see that Friedrich has become a vain, dissipated man. At a wedding party, he is confronted by a Jewish man, Aaron, who declares in public that Friedrich owes him money. Our protagonist feels that he has been exposed and humiliated in front of all the guests, and leaves the party in shame. Meanwhile, the villagers vent their anti-Semitism by mocking Aaron and verbally assaulting him.
They choose to support Friedrich against Aaron’s demands for payment. This is another uncanny scene, where we are reminded of an episode in our protagonist’s childhood, where his mother had argued that stealing wood and stealing from Jews were both acceptable. Ironically, while professing to be a pious, virtuous woman, she is incurring various moral and legal violations; while vilifying the Jews, she is the one acting in a vicious way. Is this another instance of doubling?
Later, Aaron will be found murdered near the beech tree. The suspicion falls on Friedrich, who immediately runs away, followed by Johannes. Here another parallel seems intriguing: Friedrich had tried to avoid payment to Aaron and had been supported by the crowd; Johannes, on the other hand, had tried, out of hunger, to steal some butter during the party, and had been violently shamed by the crowd. Johannes seems to be not only your protagonist’s doppelgänger, but also an emblem of the villagers’ bigotry and double standards.
Perhaps Friedrich murdered Aaron, perhaps not. His flight seems to rise suspicion, but he may have fled out of shame, after being exposed for his debts, or out of fear. No one knows for sure. Some years later, another person confesses to have murdered the Jewish man, but it is disputed whether it was Aaron or not (you seem to imply here that it was common to murder Jews in the locality).
The fact that we can never quite locate the narrator is another element that contributes to the novella’s disturbing effect: the narrator is kept at a distance, as if seeing things from above. It sounds omniscient, but also unreliable: it leaves us with a lot of questions, and invites us to take part in the story. It is a voice coming from nowhere, luring us to fill in the gaps and make a decision: who is guilty? What is guilt? Can a decision on guilt remain untouched by it? What really is the narrator pushing us to do, and how?
The story jumps to the future once again. It’s the 1788, shortly before the French Revolution, and Aaron’s murder has long since been forgotten. On Christmas Eve, an old man returns to the village B., claiming to be Johannes Niemand. He seems surprised when he hears that Aaron had been murdered. Later, he is found hanging from the beech tree, but someone claims to have recognized his half-rotten corpse as belonging to… Friedrich. Is it murder? Further, is it revenge? And, if so, who did it? A random thief? Someone who has not forgotten Aaron’s murder and is looking for justice? An evil spirit? Or the beech tree itself?
Perhaps it is a case of suicide. Has the man hanged himself out of remorse and a desire for atonement? And, if so, what is being atoned – has the man murdered Aaron? Or is he just guilty to have pitted the crowd against the Jewish man, so that someone else who was at the wedding party decided to kill Aaron later that day? We don’t know. Perhaps Johannes killed Aaron upon knowing about the murder? Maybe the hanged man is none of the two, but just a random, unlucky passer-by. Perhaps the beech tree is the culprit…
The final image is also disturbing: a man hanging from a beech tree that stands alone in the landscape, after the other trees have been cut down. The last of a series of murders; the last tree standing. All deaths in the story occurred in the vicinity of the tree and, despite the community’s bigotry, both the unpaid debt to a Jewish man and the stealing of wood are equated as forms of crime, and are met with some form of punishment.
It is also uncannily interesting that the gradual devastation of the forest happens in parallel to the unfolding of the series of crimes – it feels as though the tree were, at the same time, the witness, the judge, and the murderer itself. And what does this image say about the ideas of revenge and justice – and about the point where one touches the other?
In the image of the tree, there seems to be an uncanny connection between the deeds of the people in the village and the nature around them. And this connection mirrors, in turn, the tension between a series of doubles: statutory law and natural law; legality and morality; legal justice and one’s inner sense of justice; the realms of convention and necessity.
You open the story by highlighting the doubling between public opinion and statutory law: “Under extremely simple and often inadequate laws, the inhabitants’ concepts of right and wrong had become somewhat confused, or rather, a second law had emerged alongside the statutory one – the law of public opinion, custom, and limitations resulting from neglect”. (My translation. Original: “Unter höchst einfachen und häufig unzulänglichen Gesetzen waren die Begriffe der Einwohner von Recht und Unrecht einigermaßen in Verwirrung geraten, oder vielmehr, es hatte sich neben dem gesetzlichen ein zweites Recht gebildet, ein Recht der öffentlichen Meinung, der Gewohnheit und der durch Vernachlässigung entstandenen Verjährung.“)
Then, you hint at the doubling between natural law and statutory law: “It is difficult to face that time impartially; since it disappeared, it has been either arrogantly rebuked or foolishly praised, because those who experienced it are blinded by too many precious memories, and the ones who were born later do not understand it. But this at least can be asserted: that the shape was weaker, the core more solid, trespassing more frequent, and unscrupulousness less common. Because whoever acts according to his conviction, no matter how faulty they may be, can never be quite lost; whereas nothing can have a more soul-destroying effect than having to obey external laws that go against one’s inner sense of justice”. (My translation. Original: „Es ist schwer, jene Zeit unparteiisch ins Auge zu fassen; sie ist seit ihrem Verschwinden entweder hochmütig getadelt oder albern gelobt worden, da den, der sie erlebte, zuviel teure Erinnerungen blenden und der Spätergeborene sie nicht begreift. Soviel darf man indessen behaupten, daß die Form schwächer, der Kern fester, Vergehn häufiger, Gewissenlosigkeit seltener waren. Denn wer nach seiner Überzeugung handelt, und sei es noch so mangelhaft, kann nie ganz zugrunde gehen, wogegen nichts seelentötender wirkt, als gegen das innere Rechtsgefühl das äußere Recht in Anspruch nehmen.“)
The question about what justice is, and the tension between what is right by itself and what is right by external imposition have also been explored many times – Sophocles’ Antigone and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (1810) are two glaring examples. But what makes your take on the subject so fascinating (and so uncanny) is the way you connect this topic with the narrative elements in the story, as well as with the idea of the double in fiction. You leave us with a sense of trespass between two opposing forces – or a sense that such forces, commonly thought as opposites, may in fact be one and the same thing.
The story is peppered with violations that are committed on different levels, but we never come to a sense of justice. There has been crime, and there has been punishment – but we can never quite point out which is which.
About the book
- University Press of America, 2014, tr. Jolyon Timothy Hughes, 170 p. Goodreads
- Oneworld Classics, 2009, tr. Lionel Thomas and Doris Thomas, 112 p. Goodreads
- Original: Die Judenbuche, 1842
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- Projects: A Century of Books; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen ; Read More German Books in 2020, hosted by Mel and Britta; German Lit Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline; Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.