Die Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beech Tree) is an 1842 novella by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a 19th-century German writer and composer who is known mainly for her poetry. This, her only completed novella, is loosely based on a true story: the unsolved murder of a Jew during a time of unrest and lawlessness, namely the disintegration of the Roman Empire. The novella is considered “a masterpiece of German realism” and also one of the very first written murder mysteries.
The central character is Friedrich Mergel, who grows up with an alcoholic father and a bitter mother in a town that shows little regard for the law. The locals frequently poach game and steal timber from the surrounding woods. When Friedrich is 9 years old, his father dies in a drunken stupor. Friedrich’s efforts to uphold a positive picture of his father fail, and he withdraws from his fellow villagers. His mother is unable to help him and eventually, she lets her brother, Simon, adopt the boy. Simon is a shady character with many different business interests—none of them completely legal. He is a bad influence on Friedrich, and the boy grows up to be vain, aggressive, and shifty.
When Friedrich is in his early 20s, timber thieves are plaguing the area. Friedrich is at least partly responsible for the death of an official who tries to catch the thieves. A little while later, a Jew who has lent Friedrich money and has come to ask for it back is found dead. Friedrich is the main suspect, but he is able to escape. 28 years later, Friedrich returns to the village a broken man. While he is welcomed into the village, he eventually hangs himself in the same beech tree below which the dead Jew was found.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this novella was the way the story was told. A narrator either is omnipresent or has clearly limited knowledge. In this narrative, we have a narrator who is more than a by-stander or observer, but also less than an omnipresence. At times, it seems as if the narrator might be a villager, firmly placed within the events that are taking place, but at other times, he or she provides us with insights into the thoughts and motivations of different characters. Because of the constantly shifting perspective, the reader can never know exactly what is going on. There are several shady characters, but not one is ever openly accused of wrong-doing. The ongoing speculation of who did what is part of the fun of reading this novella, and the story ends without a definite solution to the murders.
The novella has been translated into several languages, and most of them are easily available online. Especially for someone who enjoys 19th-century literature, this is well worth reading. While I personally might not call it a masterpiece, I do think it is an entertaining—and quick—example of realist literature.
While I read this piece mainly for German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline and Lizzie), it also counts for Novellas in November (two events hosted separately by Poppy Peacock Pens and Laura at Reading in Bed) and the Women’s Classic Literature event over at the Classics Club.