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Moral Ambiguity in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff ‘s “Die Judenbuche.”

Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is a canonical work that lends itself to
various interpretations and critical discourse. Many scholars have focused on different aspects of
the enigmatic text. While some like Richard Gray focus on the ecological and economical aspect,
others contribute to investigation of the mysteries in the text like Friedrich’s genealogy, the
victims and their murderers, the reason for Friedrich’s death, the Hebrew curse, etc. Scholars like
Doerr and Helfer have also highlighted the theme of antisemitism and accused the author of
literary antisemitism by examining the portrayal of the Jewish characters in the text and also
associating the negative characters with the Jewish identity. So far, there has been almost no
scholarship on the depiction of the Christian characters, and this is the focus of this essay. Die
Judenbuche has been widely considered an antisemitic text because of the disparities between
the Christian and Jewish characters especially with the murder of Jew Aaron and the lack of legal
justice against the perpetrator. Building on the discourse about antisemitism, I seek to explore the
theme of moral ambiguity in the text by exposing the hypocrisy of the Christian characters in the
text, who display ambiguous morality which contradicts the sense of moral superiority they
claim to have over the Jewish characters. By so doing, I also intend to simultaneously argue
against the critique of Droste as an antisemitic author whose own bias against the Jews is
allegedly embedded in the text. This essay is an attempt to answer the question of whether the
text is written with an antisemitic intention, or it is a critique of Jewish hatred through a realistic
portrayal of the antisemitic society in which she lived. I intend with this paper to contribute to

the present-day discourse about racial prejudice and antisemitism and a metaphorical call for the
removal of the log in one’s own eyes before reaching for the speck in the eyes of another. 1
Karin Doerr in her “Specter of Anti-Semitism in and around Annette von Droste-
Hüllshoff’s ‘Judenbuche’” accuses the author of literary antisemitism by exploring her narrative
structure and linguistic depiction of the characters belonging to each of the two groups in the text
in which the Christian characters are positively portrayed linguistically while the Jewish
characters are portrayed with stereotypical languages. She attests that it goes beyond the realistic
portrayal of the historical situation in a way that suggests that Droste herself is part of the
antisemitic society. In Droste’s defense, it is important to examine the effect of the text on its
readers to understand the motive of the author. The text, by explicitly depicting the sufferings
and discriminations of the Jews in the hands of the gentiles, invites the reader to take pity on the
Jews and condemn the Christian community. Most works of literature, by presenting helpless
characters who are victims of unwarranted hatred in the society invoke the feelings of pity from
the readers which progresses into admiration for the characters. On the other hand, such works
invoke a reader’s condemnation of the oppressive characters. One must also take a step
backward to reflect on the fact that the text is an adaptation of a historical event that took place
in 1783 near the author’s family estate.
Summarily, Soistmann Berend nicknamed Pinne was reported to have been murdered by
Winkelhannes because the latter bought a shirt from the victim and refused to pay until he was
forced by the court; an event to which he had an adverse psychological reaction. He had
allegedly responded to the retailer’s warning with antisemitic taunts. After having carried out his
threat of killing Pinne, he escaped arrest and fled. The brother and friends of the deceased
requested of the rabbi to inscribe a statement on a tree at the venue of the crime. The Hebrew
1 Matthew 7 vs. 3 – 5: The Biblical instruction to Christians to be free of prejudice and self-righteousness.

inscription translated in German to “daß der Mörder, den unser Gott finden werd, keines rechten
Daudes sterben soll.” 2 Winkelhannes returns to the village after 26 years crippled and distressed
claiming he was enslaved in Algeria for 24 years. He claimed to have gone for confession and
remission of his sins by sacrificing all his money. He was avoided as a murderer in the village
and one late night in Autumn, his frustration got to its limit, and he got drunk and hung himself
on a tree and was found two days later. Annette’s great-grandfather is reported to have served as
the jury for the case and has passed down the tale. August von Haxthausen, Dröste’s uncle even
published the story in a Göttingen journal under the title Geschichte eines Algierer-Sklaven. 3
Oftentimes, stories that contradicts one’s sentimental beliefs are usually dismissed and
not preserved to serve as memorial for the group that one dislikes. Of all the true events that the
author must have heard about, why did she choose to write about this particular one? To
differentiate the text from a biography or a journal, the story invents other fictional events and
characters to make up a meaningful and wholesome text with no major change to the real story
as confirmed by the narrator, who while acknowledging that the work is a fiction, expresses their
helplessness in providing an answer to the outcome of the case of Brandis’ murder saying that
that was how the event went “Es würde in einer erdichteten Geschichte unrecht sein, die Neugier
des Lesers so zu täuschen. Aber dies alles hat sich wirklich zugetragen; ich kann nichts davon
oder dazutun” (33). Of course, critics may also argue that it is Droste’s way of diverting focus
away from her personal sentiments.
One of Doer’s critique of the text is that the Christians are portrayed with the language
that presents them as stable and reasonable characters unlike the Jews who are described as

2 Mecklenburg, Norbert. Der Fall Judenbuche: Revision Eines Fehlurteils. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2008. Print. (17)
3 Droste-Hülshoff, Annette, and Peter Foulkes. Die Judenbuche: Ein Sittengemälde Aus Dem Gebirgichten
Westfalen. Oxford, OX, UK: B. Blackwell, 1989. Print. (xiii)

irrational. For this, she cites the example of the scene at the house of Herr von S. and the
description of Aaron’s wife:

Die Türe ward aufgerissen, und herein stürzte die Frau des Juden Aaron, bleich
wie der Tod, das Haar wild um den Kopf, von Regen triefend. Sie warf sich vor dem
Gutsherrn auf die Knie. “Gerechtigkeit!” rief sie, “Gerechtigkeit! Mein Mann ist
erschlagen!” und sank sie ohnmachtig zusammen. (41)
Doerr highlights Droste’s prejudice by juxtaposing the above description of the wife of
Jew Aaron with that of Frau von S. who invites her maid to pray and recite the bible against the
violent weather in a way that portrays her as the ‘Christian model of virtuousness’. 4 This
juxtaposition does not hold water because the circumstance under which both women are
compared are different. The agony of a woman who had just lost her husband to gruesome
murder is incomparable to the little fear of a woman about the heavy rain. The description of the
Jewish woman is no different from the way a Christian woman in the same situation would have
been described. Doerr also compares the brief suffering of the Jew’s wife to Margreth’s
prolonged suffering in such a way that the Jew is unable to suffer like the Christian with the
possible implication that the Jew is more selfish: “die Judenfrau tröstete sich am Ende und nahm
ewinen anderen Mann. Nur die arme Margreth blieb ungetröstet.” (46) This argument from the
religious perspective is generally flawed. Not only does the Christian religion permit widows to
remarry after their husbands’ death, but the text also provides evidence to argue that Margreth is
an emotional performer, who likes to keep up her appearance in the society. Firstly, while the
age of the Jew’s wife is not disclosed, Margreth, at the death of her husband is in her late fifties,
a probable reason for choosing not to remarry. 5 At the time of her marriage, despite her

4 Doerr, Karin. “The Specter of Anti-Semitism in and around Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s
‘Judenbuche” (452)

reputation in the village and against the expectation of the villagers, she chooses to marry
Hermann Mergel because of her self-assured perfection. She is reported to have said “Eine Frau,
die von ihrem Manne übel behandelt wird, ist dumm oder taugt nicht: wenn’s mir schlecht geht,
so sagt, es liege an mir” (7). By bringing herself under such high expectation, she keeps up the
pretense that all is well even when it is not. She closes the doors and windows when they have
disagreements. She does not say anything when Herman allegedly beats her. 6 She despises her
marriage so much that she weeps heavily and is greatly unhappy when the marriage produces a
child. One could bet that she wanted her husband dead, when on the night that he died, she
refuses to open the door despite her son’s incessant worry because of the expectation that her
shameful husband is being brought home again. However, upon learning that her husband is
dead, she puts up so much emotional drama in the presence of people that her son thinks her
dead. Many scholars like Hughes and Helfer have also suggested that the activity of the night
between her and her brother is sexual and an act of incest:
“Der Bruder blieb bei ihr, und friedrich, dem bei strenger Strafe im Bett zu bleiben
geboten war, hörte die ganze Nacht hindurch das Feuer in der Küche knistern und ein
Geräusch wie von Hin- und Herrutschen und Bürsten. Gesprochen ward wenig und leise,
aber zuweilen drangen Seufzer herüber, die dem Knaben, so jung er war, durch Mark und
Bein gingen. Einmal verstand er, daß der Oheim sagte: “Margreth, zieh dir das nicht zu
Gemüt; wir wollen jeder drei Messen lessen lassen, und um Ostern gehen wir zusammen
eine Bittfahrt zur Muter Gottes von Werl (10)

5 At the time of her marriage to Hermann Mergel, Margreth Semmler “war eine brave, anständige Person, so im den
Vierzigen…” (6)
At the time of her husband’s death, she says to her son, “Zehn Jahre, Zehn Kreuze. Wir haben sie doch zusammen
getragen, und jetzt bin ich allein.” (10)
6 “Es hieß, an diesem Tage habe Mergel zuerst Hand an sie gelegt, obwohl das Bekenntnis nie über ihre Lippen
kam.” (7)

While this is difficult to ascertain, because the statement by Friedrich’s uncle could also
be honest consolation to his sister and the reinforcement of her religious belief, it does not
change the fact that Margreth is hypocritical. She is probably wailing because of the guilt eating
her up after the incest as claimed by Helfer, or she is sad that she is now left alone to provide for
the family. 7 The difference between Margreth and the Jew’s wife’s situation and the reason why
one is able to accept consolation than the other can be explained through a Nigerian proverb that
says “a dead child is better than a missing one.” With a dead husband, the Jew’s wife is able to
accept her fate, knowing that he is absent forever. Margreth’s sorrow is recorded after her son
went missing, an event that refreshes the memory of her husband’s death. Her renewed sorrow
comes from the daily unmet expectation of her son’s return. Tytler explains the Jew’s wife’s
second marriage as an ‘indirect consequence of all the moral support she has received’ and that
Margreth’s deteriorating mental health reflects lack of comfort from her Christian neighbors
regardless of the charitable acts towards her. 8 He critiques the acts of Christian through
Johannes’ report of the Christian suffering in the hands of the Turks, “die Türken halten uns
Christen nicht besser als Hunde” (52). The attitude of the Christians raises up doubts about the
credibility of their belief. Therefore, in the same way the Christians see the Jews as heathens or
Schwein, the Muslims see and treat the former as such.
Doerr further accuses Droste of not providing any positive Jewish figure to provide a
contrast to the negative presentation of Jews in the text. She also says that the Jews are often
presented as ‘individual stereotypes or as a monolithic group’ 9 and that Droste does not provide
7 Reference to the statement to her son “Zehn Jahre, Zehn Kreuze. Wir haben sie doch zusammen getragen, und jetzt
bin ich allein.” (10)
Also the reason why Friedrich is determined to work so hard to help his mother.
8 Tytler, Graeme. “The Presentation of Herr von S. in Die Judenbuche.” The German Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4, Oct.
2000. (344 – 345)

any historical background or character development for the Jewish characters with which the
readers can comprehend their situation or the events in the text. Therefore, there is no deviation
from the prejudiced stereotypes about the Jews. While it is true that the text does not provide any
historical background through which the readers can understand the Jewish figures and their
actions, it also does not provide any background through which they could be misunderstood as
deserving of the discrimination against them. If one has no evidence that proves what the Jews
do right, there is also no evidence to prove their misdeeds. With the exception of Lumpenmoises
who confessed to killing a fellow Jew, there is no other Jewish character that can be considered
negative from the lens of the reader, at least not in a way that justifies the Christians perception
of them. The negative stereotypes about the Jews are observed through the lens of the biased
Christian characters. Droste does not provide any instance where Jew Aaron, his wife, or any
other Jewish character deserve their misfortune through their misdeeds. The misfortune of the
Jews is rather a reflection of the cruelty and prejudices of the Christian characters. The prefix
‘Jude’ added to the names of the Jewish characters, while being a label and a representation of
otherness, is also the narrator’s way of distinguishing the Jews from the gentiles in a way that
represents them as a single unified group in the minority. The majority of the characters are
Christians and to depict how removed the Jews are from the Christian society, devices the prefix
to make clear to the reader which group each character belongs to. An identifier is needed and if
not “Jude Aaron”, the narrator would have used expressions like “Aaron, der Jude ist”, or
“Aaron, ein Mann mit judischer Herkunft.”
Despite Droste not presenting exceptionally positive Jewish characters, she balances it by
presenting many flawed Christian characters, who in their response and relationship with the
Jewish community, violate the moral code of Christianity. It appears like the Jews switched
9 Doerr (453)

moral codes with the Christians. In the Bible, it was said to those of old through the law of
Moses to love only their neighbor and hate their enemies (Matthew 5:43), a law which the Jews
did not uphold. It is not recorded anywhere in the text where a member of the Jewish community
commits an offense against the Christians out of hatred. After the death of Jew Aaron, the Jewish
community could have decided to strike back at the Christian community in their hurt and their
helplessness at getting justice, to fulfil the Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth
for a tooth’, by killing Margreth, the only available relative of the suspected murderer. Instead,
they find solace in their community, standing up for the widow, contributing to the cause of legal
justice, and eventually resigning to fate and consoling themselves by inscribing the curse on the
tree; their way of leaving justice to a divine being:
“Die Juden der Umgegend hatten großen Anteil gezeigt. Das Haus der Witwe ward nie
leer von Jammernden und Ratenden. Seit Menschengedenken waren nicht so viel Juden
beisammen in L. gesehen worden. Durch den Mord ihres Glaubengenossen aufs äußerste
erbittert, hatten sie weder Mühe noch Geld gespart, dem Täter auf die Spur zu kommen.
Man weiß sogar, daß einer derselben, gemeinhin der Wucherjoel genannt, einem seiner
kunden, der ihm mehrere Hunderte schudelte und den er für einen besonders listigen Kerl
hielt, Erlaß der ganzen Summe angeboten hatte, falls er ihm zur Verhaftung des Mergel
verhelfen wolle; den der Glaube war unter den Juden, daß der Täter nur mit gutter
Beihülfe entwischt und wahrscheinlich noch in der Umgegend sei.” (45)
The belief that the murderer was being assisted and hidden in the town is a testament to
the Jews’ mistrust of the Christian community. It is in the regard of the excerpt above that some
scholars like Doerr have criticized Droste’s portrayal of the Jewish community as an isolated
one, seeking only its interest and standing in solidarity with its members only. The isolation of

the Jews is rather a response to the discrimination and persecution of the Christian characters.
The absence of the Christians at the widow’s house after her husband’s death also reveals their
selfishness and hostile relationship with their Jewish counterparts. It is to the Christians, the New
Testament’s audience, that Jesus says to love their enemies and do good to them. In many ways,
the Christians display their hypocrisy and bias against the Jews. It is Margreth who first displays
her anti-Jewish hatred and bias. She is supposedly “eine brave, anständige Person” (6). A pious
and virtuous woman who prays two rosaries every evening. She not only ignores the second
Christian law to love one’s neighbor as oneself by inciting her little son’s hatred against the
Jews, but she also makes justification for wood poaching, instilling bad knowledge in her child:
“Mutter, Hülsmeyer stiehlt”
“Hülsmeyer? Gott bewahre! Soll ich dir auf den Rücken kommen? Wer sagt dir so
schlechtes Zeug?
“Er hat neulich den Aaron geprügelt und ihm sechs Groschen genommen”
“Hat er dem Aaron Geld genommen, so hat ihn der verfluchte Jude gewiß zuvor darum
betrogen. Hülsmeyer ist ein ordentlicher angesessener Mann, und die Juden sind alle
“Aber, Mutter, Brandis sagt auch, daß er holz und Rehe stiehlt”
“Kind, Brandis ist ein Förster.”
“Mutter, lügen die Förster?”
“…Höre, Fritz, das Holz läßt unser Hergott frei wachsen, und das Wild wechselt au
seines Herren Lande in das andere; die können niemand angehören.” (10-11)
Above is a description of a Christian defending one of her own against another without
sufficient knowledge of how the said event transpired. She passes her prejudice to her son that in

any matter concerning a Christian and a Jew, the Christian is always right, and that whatever
crime a Christian is accused of is justifiable. This is not the only instance of the Christians’
solidarity with one another. At the wedding in the town, when Aaron confronts Friedrich for the
payment of the watch the latter had bought, the villagers quickly side with Friedrich against the
Jew. It is not a crime for them to buy and flaunt an item without having paid for it, but it
becomes a crime for the Jew to demand what is rightfully his, the payment for his good. Despite
knowing Friedrich as a deceitful, boastful, and arrogant person, the villagers come together in
unison to take his side. They cried out “Packt den Juden! Wiegt ihn gegen ein Schwein!” (39). 10
For Gray, this scene reveals the Christians’ solidarity against the ‘universally disdained Other’; a
convenient way to excuse themselves of their own complicity and involvement in acts of wood-
poaching for example and transferring guilt to the convenient Other. 11 Friedrich is now
convinced, not only by his mother, but also by the villagers that the Christians are always right
and that only Jews are to be blamed. His decision to murder his Jewish enemy is fueled with the
knowledge that the Jew would most likely be blamed for his own death or that it would not
matter much to the village if a Jew died. According to Doerr, the depiction of the Jew as a
money lender also alludes to the stereotypical negative perception of Jews as dealers and
moneylenders. Hughes states, however, that it is no accident that the moneylender in the text is a
Jew because Christians have been forbidden to lend money or to charge high interest and that
Droste, being a strict Catholic would not have been ignorant about it. She referred to the letter by
Pope Benedict VIV on November 1 st , 1745, which “condemned the charge of any interest on
monetary loans as usury.” 12 ; a decree which Pope Gregory XVI later circulated to the rest of the

10 Ein Schwein (a pig) is considered an unclean animal in the Bible, and being likened to a pig is a grievous insult to
which Jews were constantly subjected.
11 Gray, Richard T. “Red Herrings and Blue Smocks: Ecological Destruction, Commercialism, and Anti-Semitism in
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s ‘Die Judenbuche. (429)

church in 1836 and has not been retracted till the time of writing. The Jewish lender is simply
Droste’s realistic portrayal of the society. Having been denied means to gainful employment in
the German 19 th century, the Jews turned to trading and usury as means of livelihood.
Nevertheless, the scene offers a critique of the flamboyant and dishonest lifestyle of some
members of the Christian community. Before Friedrich got the watch from Jew Aaron, Wilms
Hülsmeyer reports that someone else had the watch before him: “Nun, nun…dergleichen hat man
schon erlebt. Du weißt wohl, der Franz Ebel hatte auch eine schöne Uhr, bis der Jude Aaron sie
ihm wieder abnahm” (38-39). 13
The one-sidedness of the Christian solidarity is further embodied by Friedrich himself.
He suspects his uncle Simon to be Brandis’ murderer: “Ohm, wie kommt ihr darauf?... Eu’r
Gewissen ist nicht rein; ihr habt mich belogen…Ohm, ich habe Euch ein schweres Gewissen zu
danken” (33-34). Friedrich, despite his feeling of guilt, does not go to confession to avoid
exposing his uncle’s crime. The character of Simon presents to us a Christian example of a
rogue, who is considered “einen fatalen, Händel suchenden Kerl, dem jeder um so Lieber aus
dem Wege ging” (12). The description of Simon as a dealer opposes the Christian expectation
and exonerates the Jews as the only lovers of money. Despite the general perception of Simon
Semmler as a dishonest and shady dealer, Margreth the ‘virtuous’ woman leaves her only child
in his care because she is thrilled by the idea of her son inheriting his brother’s substances after
his death:
“So kam es den dahin, daß nach einer halbstündigen unterredung Simon eine Art
Adoption des Knaben in Vorschlag brachte, vermöge deren er denselben zwar nicht

12 Droste-Hülshoff, Annette, and Jolyon T. Hughes. The Jews' Beech Tree: A Moral Portrait from Mountainous
Westphalia: New Biographical Findings, a Critical Introduction, and a Translation of the Original Work. 2014. (47)
13 Franz Ebel is a Christian because he would have otherwise been marked with the ‘Jude’ prefix.

gänzlich seiner Mutter entziehen, aber doch über den größten Teil seiner Zeit verfügen
wollte, wofür ihm dann am Ende des alten Junggesellen Erbe zufallen sole, das ihm
freilich ohnedies nicht entgehen konnte. Margreth ließ sich geduldig auseinandersetzen,
wie groß der Vorteil, wie gering die Entbehrung ihrerseits bei dem Handel sei” (13 – 14)
Yet again, Margreth’s hypocrisy comes to the surface when she decides to keep the
money that her son earned from her brother. She is an unstable character. She leaves her son with
her dubious brother for the sake of inheritance, but she contemplates keeping the money her son
earns from his uncle in a bid to keep up her appearance of a virtuous Christian woman. She
eventually accepts the money giving the excuse of their poverty. She also gives in to her son’s
continuous visit to her brother. One would expect of the ‘kluge und wirtlich geachtete’ 14
Margreth to understand the pain of the poor Johannes Niemand. Instead, she sends him away and
forbids her son from further relationship with the poor boy. At first, Friedrich’s relationship with
Simon transforms him into a better and more confident young man, the pride of his mother. This
does not last too long because Friedrich begins to exhibit his uncle’s character traits. In no time,
he assumes the position of a Schelme, a term that his mother had only reserved for the Jews.
Karma comes into play and reverses the roles in which Margreth’s son becomes the rogue and a
killer, the Jews becomes the victim, and Hülsmeyer’s son whose father she had defended,
becomes her son’s antagonist.
It is in this regard of Friedrich as a rogue and murderer that Martha Helfer argues that the
this seemingly Christian character has Jewish blood in his veins and his position is, therefore,
Droste’s antisemitic strategy to demonize the Jewish blood. In this argument, Helfer traces Die
Judenbuche to have been written during the second phase of the Jewish emancipation process
and a time of intense ‘public debate about the ‘Jewish question’.’ 15 This period in 19 th century
14 Earlier description of Margreth (7)

Germany was characterized by the issue of assimilation alongside the emancipation debate and
involved the expectation of the Jews to be indistinguishable and blend into the Christian religious
sphere by getting rid of all characteristics that made them recognizable as Jews; clothing, speech,
and comportment. This was an effort to reduce discrimination and violence against the Jews by
making them unrecognizable for the anti-Semitic Christians. Helfer also argues that Simon,
through his description is a Jew, and is most likely also the father of Friedrich. 16 Even though
both men are not aware of their Jewish blood, it manifests in their misdeeds, and is therefore,
Droste’s way of reserving only the bad characteristics to the Jews. At the same time, Helfer
argues that Friedrich Mergel is a Jew by taking hint from the name ‘Mergel’ which means a
‘mixture of clay and calcium carbonate used as fertilizer.’ 17 This name implies the mixed blood
in the Mergel family and is also synonymous to the association of Jews with animal waste. These
two opposing claims 18 lead to the conclusion that Friedrich Mergel is an example of a Jew
parading himself as a Christian in the society and is Droste’ subtle warning against the Jewish
emancipation. She claims that Droste leaves the hint to the Jewish identity in the prologue:
Wo ist die Hand so zart, daß ohne Irren
Sie sondern mag beschränkten Hirnes Wirren
Mag schleudern auf ein arm verkümmert Sein?
Wer wagt es, eitlen Blutes Drang zu messen,
Zu wägen jedes Wort, das unvergessen
In junge Brust die zähen Wurzeln trieb,
15 Helfer, Martha B. “‘Wer Wagt es, Eitlen Blutes Drang zu Messen?’: Reading Blood in Annette von Droste-
Hülshoff’s Die Judenbuche.” The German Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 3, 1998. (230)
16 - (237)
17 - (228)
18 The claims are contrasting because Mergel is the last name and implies that the Jewish blood comes from
Hermann Mergel. The claim that Simon is Friedrich’s father indicates that the Semmler family is Jewish.

Des Vorurteils geheimen Seelendieb?
Du Glücklicher, geboren ung gehegt
Im lichten Raum, von frommer Hand gepflegt,
Leg hin die Waagschal, nimmer dir erlaubt!
Laß ruhn den Stein – er trifft dein eignes Haupt! (3)
This prologue is open to many interpretations including Helfer’s. Ironically, by accepting
Helfer’s claim that the prologue is a testament to Friedrich’s Jewish blood, it excuses Droste of
antisemitism in such a way that she warns the Christian society of the consequence of their
prejudice. Helfer claims that Friedrich and Simon likely do not know that they are Jews 19 and
therefore, live with the belief that they are Christians. Friedrich is raised as a Christian in an anti-
Jewish community and commits evil against one of them. This warning to the Christian society is
to reinforce the idea of equality of every human and suggests that nobody can be entirely sure of
their root and a man could actually be a member of the group he hates so much. It adheres once
again to the saying “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Lessing’s Nathan
der Weise offers an example of the anti-prejudice lesson. The text blurs the line between family
ties and religion by preaching kindness to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs or
differences. The Templar rescues Recha, the Jew’s foster daughter from the fire without the idea
that she is his sister and a Christian. Saladin, the Muslim sultan spares the life of the Templar at a
time when he did not know that the Templar is his nephew. Even Nathan the Jew, raises a
Christian daughter and cares for Daja, a Christian girl.
By rejecting Helfer’s claim of Friedrich’s Jewish identity, I offer another interpretation of
Droste’s prologue in a way that exonerates her from the anti-Semitic label by reading Friedrich
as the Christian son of Margreth. The prologue is a condemnation of the Christian hate toward
19 Helfer (239)

the Jews and is represented by either Margreth or Friedrich. With Margreth, her anti-Semitic
stone hits her own head by the transformation of her son into the Schelme, a category to which
only and all the Jews belong. Her son does not only become a nuisance, but he also becomes a
murderer and flees from home, thereby causing her heartache and the deterioration of her mental
and physical health. It could also be interpreted in the light of her sense of moral superiority and
defeat in context of marriage. She had deemed it the fault of the woman if she is being
maltreated by her husband. She falls from her high horse as she is unable to change her alcoholic
and shameful husband. In another way, following suggestions of Hermann Mergel’s murder by
wood poachers, Margreth is ultimately punished for encouraging wood poaching in the form of
her husband’s death. In Friedrich’s case, the prologue is manifested not only in his death on the
beech tree as punishment for killing Aaron the Jew, but also in his captivity in Turkey. For
sharing his mother and community’s anti-Semitic attitude, he suffers maltreatment as a Christian
in the hands of the Turks: “Schlimm genug, die Türken halten uns Christen nicht besser als
Hunde.” (52) Timothy Hughes equates the last sentence of the prologue with the commandment
of the New Testament “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” (John 8 vs.
7) 20 or the New Testament instruction “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Mathew 7 vs. 1).
Despite the Christians being the majority, Droste does not excuse their flaw and
hypocrisy. The main Christian characters have been proven to be like the Jews or even worse
than them. The old baron, Herr von S. appears to be an exception and a role model in the society.
He is portrayed as a kind man who has earned the respect of the society. Out of obligation, he
attends parties, attempts to solve crime and grant justice, and also opens his house to random
strangers as is the case with Johannes (Friedrich) on his arrival. He is however, not without his

20 Jesus’ statement to the people who reported the woman caught in the act of adultery.

own flaws and Christian hypocrisy. Tytler, in his article titled The Presentation of Herr von S.
exposes the Baron as a tactless human being and in his disdain for other viewpoints, as ‘someone
desirous of displaying more intelligence than he actually possesses.’ 21 The Baron is unable to
successfully hide his support for the Christian community and his bias against the Jewish
community. The first instance is his reaction at the village wedding during the confrontations
between Friedrich and Aaron. He is obliged to attend community functions to maintain his
popularity, but he neglects one of the core functions of his position of authority which involves
settling disputes in the community. He ignores the mob against the helpless Jew and rides home
disgruntled. He is not only a selfish person and a seeker of glory, but he is also condescending.
His response to his wife on their way home from the wedding when she inquires about the
identity of the two creatures that ran in front of their cart. He replies, “Auch ein paar selige
Schweine aus unserem eigenen Stall!” (40). The Baron’s attempt at solving crimes and offering
justice is only for selfish reason, an attempt to reinforce his authority and popularity. His bias
towards the Jews is particularly noticeable after the Jew’s death. He handles the crime lazily by
first ordering a hasty search at Margreth’s house and upon discovering Friedrich’s flight, he
dismisses the case. He does not make the effort to investigate the death further by talking to the
other potential murderers mentioned in the narration of the Jew’s wife. The Baron’s bias is
perhaps the reason why the Jews believe that Friedrich is being protected. In his solidarity with
the Christians and prejudice against the Jews, he hurriedly accepts the letter from the president as
the absolute truth that a Jew confessed to having killed a certain Aaron in the woods. Despite the
possibility of the existence of many Jews named Aaron, of whom any might have been Moses’

21 Tytler, Graeme. “The Presentation of Herr von S. in Die Judenbuche.” The German Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4, Oct.
2000, (343).

victim, he does not hold the news to himself but spreads it in the village thereby declaring he
case closed and exonerating Friedrich of any blame. 22
The focus of the essay so far is on the flawed relationship of the Christians with their
Jewish counterparts. They manifest their unchristian attitude by exhibiting prejudiced attitude
and violating Christ’s instruction of love toward everybody. Their bias and discrimination are not
limited to the Jews only, but also extends to their fellow brethren. Friedrich’s attitude and change
in character makes a case against the Christian community. After Hermann Mergel’s death,
Friedrich becomes a loner and outsider, not because of his own sins, but those of his father. 23 The
villagers constantly remind him of his father’s misbehaviors and one time when he reacts in pain,
he gets beaten up by the other boys: an event that leads him to driving his mother’s cows alone.
Thomas Heine argues this from the perspective of the son’s inheritance from the father, “Das
Erbe des Vaters”:

“Nach dem Tod der Figur Hermann Mergel wird sie als Gespenst des
Brederholzes (Droste-Hülshoff 2008:16) zum Zentrum eines Aberglaubens und dieser
richtet sich gegen Friedrich. Die Eigenschaften des Vaters, der als Außenseiter
ausgeschlossen worden war, werden auf den Sohn projiziert. Die Figur wird damit nicht
als Individuum wahrgenommen, sondern als die Fortsetzung seines Vaters. Der Figur
Friedrich wird die Möglichkeit verwehrt, sich mit einer individuellen Rolle zu
identifizieren, und dadurch einen eigenen Status zu erlangen." 24

22 “Man fragte ihn, warum Friedrich sich den aus dem Staube gemacht, da er den Juden doch nicht erschlagen?
“Nicht?”, sagte Johannes und horchte gespannt auf, als man ihn erzählte, was der Gutsherr geflissentlich verbreitet
hatte, um den Fleck von Mergels Name zu löschen” (50)
23 “Überhaupt hatte die Erinnerung an seinen Vater eine mit Grausen gemischte Zärtlichkeit in ihm zurückgelassen…
und bei Friedrich wuchs dieses Gefühl mit den Jahren durch das Gefühl mancher Zurückssetzung von Seiten
anderer. Es war ihm äußerst empfindlich, wenn, Solange er Kind war, jemand des Verstobenen nicht allzu löblich
gedachte; ein Kummer, den ihm das Zartgefühl der Nachbarn nicht ersparte” (11).

Here, Thomas criticizes the prejudice and the non-charitable attitude of the Christians as
non- Christlike because it goes against Jesus’ saying in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did to the
least of these brethren, you did to me.” The Christians reject the instruction to embrace their
weak brethren as Friedrich, the ‘least’ brother is not consoled but excluded. Friedrich, in a bid to
attain individuality by improving his family’s social status, follows Simon and replicates his
lifestyle in the process. His changed attitude from a virtuous young boy to an arrogant and
boastful adult is arguably a revenge on the society; a sort of an unexpected comeback to the
society that once neglected and mocked him. He develops the desire to maintain an improved
outward appearance different from the negative label he inherited from his father, hence, his
decision to purchase a watch from Aaron on credit. His inability to withstand the humiliating
reaction from the Christian society is indirectly the cause of Aaron’s death. The Jew had
embarrassed him in front of the society that has taunted him for so long, especially in front of
Wilm Hülsmeyer, his archenemy, who had just called his bluff regarding the watch. In addition,
the community’s hatred for the Jew grants him the justification to kill the man who had bruised
his ego. 25 The scene at the wedding reveals the Christians’ unchristian act of shaming rather than
protecting individuals in the society. They ignore the Biblical instruction to protect and embrace
the weak among them as they mishandle and disgrace Johannes ‘der Butterdieb’. Even Friedrich,
his mentor, and a person who through his experience should know what it feels like to be
embarrassed, slaps the poor boy multiple times on his face and kicks him out of the party to
protect his own image. Johannes’ nickname “Niemand” is also a testament to the uncharitable

24 Heine, Marcel Thomas. "" Die Judenbuche" und ihr Mörder: Kritik an einem kanonisierten Vorurteil." (2011). (55)
25 “Eine große, unerträgliche Schmach hatte ihn getroffen…” (39).

attitude of the gentiles. They do not come close in any way to their Jewish counterpart as
reflected in the latter’s support for their weak, like Aaron’s widow.
Scholars have also highlighted the difference between the two religions in Die
Judenbuche in the context of the kind of judgement preferred by the God of either religion. For
some, Dröste’s bias lies in her portrayal of the Christian God as merciful and kind in
juxtaposition to the Jewish vengeful God. Rölleke claims that Dröste does not include the
murderer’s confession, repentance, and Christian burial in her text to object the pre-Christian
world view. She says, “Friedrich hat keinen Anteil an der christlichen Gnade...Es verbleibt allein
der nur durch den Tod auslöschbaren Rachespruch Jehovas in seiner ganzen im zweifachen Sinn
un-menschlichen Strenge, unerbittlich Blut für Blut fordernd.” 26 Reading Friedrich’s death in this
way would mean to disregard the Old Testament’s description of God as a merciful God 27 , and
the New testament’s description of God as revengeful. 28 It would also mean disregarding the
death of other characters in the text whose death come from the consequence of their actions. For
example, to whom do we then owe Simon’s death? The Christian or Jewish God? The fact that
the Jews have inscribed their curse on a tree does not make Friedrich’s death any more legitimate
than Simon’s death. Simon had been a rogue and dishonest dealer and he reaps the fruit of his
dishonesty by getting caught in the web of bad dealership. 29 Friedrich kills a Jew and atones for
his sin by committing suicide. It is in this regard that some scholars have interpreted Friedrich’s
death from the psychological perspective rather than from a mythical perspective. It is only

26 Rölleke, Heinz. "Erzähltes Mysterium. Studie zur 'Judenbuche' der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff." (420 -21)
27 “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8)
28 “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of god, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine,
I will repay,” says the Lord” (Romans 12:19)
29 “Simon war lange tot, aber zuvor noch ganze verarmt durch Prozesse und böse Schuldner, die er nicht gerichtlich
belangen durfte, weil es, wie man sagte, zwischen ihnen keine reine Sache war. Er hatte zuletzt Bettelbrot gegessen
und war in einem fremden Schluppen auf dem Stroh gestorben .” (50)

normal for a murderer to be driven by guilt to the scene of his crime. Rölleke’s claim that
Friedrich cannot partake in God’s grace because of the Jewish curse is not enough. The Christian
way to attain God’s mercy and grace is through genuine repentance of sin which Friedrich does
not do as evidenced by his deception by disguising as Johannes for almost one year. Without
repentance and confession of his sins, he still would not partake of the grace even if he lived
long. Also, by attributing Friedrich’s death to the Jewish curse on the tree exonerates him from
the sin of suicide as his action is then justifiable as a result of a mystical or supernatural force.
In conclusion, Die Judenbuche offers a powerful critique of the flaws and shortcomings
of the Christian community in the novel. The author highlights the hypocrisy, narrow-
mindedness, and lack of compassion that some Christians exhibit towards others, particularly
towards those who are different. The novel serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of
prejudice and intolerance and reminds us of the importance of upholding the principles of justice,
fairness, and compassion in our society. The history of Jews in Germany from the medieval
period has been characterized with discrimination and subjugation, which unfortunately is not
limited to the novella’s Zeitgeist. Anti-Semitism continued in Germany leading to the Holocaust
and took a more brutal turn resulting in the death of six million Jews. While it is easy to blame
Hitler and his Nazi regime for this event, Aimé Césaire in his Discourse on Colonialism turns to
the German bourgeois society and accuses them of their participation in the genocide as he
claims that Hitler is only a reflection of the German society and not an exception. The danger of
hatred for the Other in any form, lies in the way it dehumanizes us and deflates our supposed
righteousness. It is understandable in the context of what Césaire calls the Boomerang effect
which describes the change of a civilized person to a savage or uncivilized person in the process
of expressing his hatred for the Other whom he considers uncivilized.

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