The Grimm Brothers’ Portrayal of Jews

We all know these days of how children’s stories can be “weaponized” for political purposes. From Dr. Seuss to Laura Ingalls Wilder, children’s literature is under attack–and also being used by politicians to forward their own pro-traditional agendas. Yet some of the most notorious–and most loved–stories are the oldest, the Grimm Fairy Tales. They have been called “patriarchal,” “racist,” and even “capitalist.” Yet what seems most damning of all is that in their German-ness they are judged “anti-Semitic.” Of the criticism that they are patriarchal, we will only observe that 2/3 of them were gathered from young girls whom the Grimm brothers knew personally. One of the women whom they gathered stories from, Dorothea Viehmann, was even a model for what they falsely claimed was the source of their tales: a peasant virtuoso at storytelling, representative of the (sorry) Volk or “peasantry.” In reality, most of their storytellers were middle class friends of the family, and a few of them went on to write in German for themselves as adults (although I’ve checked and their writings are not in English). All I can say for the claim that the Grimm brothers wrote “capitalist” stories is that most stories told reflect the societies in which they are told, and I guess honest, thrift, kindness and hard work are virtues in our society in part due to capitalism. To me it is a bit of a stretch, but if I argue about it, I will do so another time.

This leaves the most deadly charge, that the Grimm tales are “anti-Semitic.” I say deadly because to this day the Grimm fairy tales are blamed for the Holocaust, and were used to sell anti-Semitism by the Nazis. I remember hearing that Adolf Hitler himself regarded Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as his favorite film. Creepy as that thought is, I want to argue that is not the tales themselves that are anti-Semitic but how people use them. And to prove that, I am going to include two stories, which we will call one anti-Jew and one pro-Jew, both taken from Jack Zipes’ The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

The first is the “Jew in the Thornbush. ” Forgive how long it is:

A farmer had a hard-working and faithful servant, who served him for three years without receiving any wages. Finally, it occurred to the servant that he really didn’t want to work for nothing, and he went to his master and said: “I’ve served you honestly and tirelessly for a long time. That’s why I trust you’ll now want to give me what’s due to me, in keeping with God’s commandments.”

However, the farmer was a sleazy man and knew that the servant was simple-minded. So he took three pennies from his pocket and gave him a penny for each year. That’s how the servant was paid. Meanwhile, he believed this was a fortune and thought, “Why should I put up with drudgery anymore? I can now take care of myself and be free and have a merry time in the world.” So he stuck his huge amount of money in a sack and began traveling cheerfully over hill and dale.

When he came to a field, a little man appeared and asked him why he was so merry.

“Oh, why should I be gloomy? I’m healthy, and I’ve got an enormous amount of money and don’t need to worry. I’ve saved all that I earned from working for my master three years, and its all mine!”

“How much is your treasure?” asked the little man.

“Three whole pennies,” answered the servant.

“I’m a poor man. Give me your three pennies.”

Now since the servant had a kind heart and took pity on the little man, he gave him the money.

Then the man said: “Because you have a pure heart, you are to be granted three wishes, one for each penny. Now you may have what your heart desires.”

The servant was satisfied with this and thought, “I prefer things to money,” and he said, “First, I wish for a fowling gun that hits everything I aim at; second I wish for a fiddle that will make everyone dance when I play at it; third I want people always to do what I request.”

The little man said, “All your wishes will be granted,” and he immediately gave him the fiddle and the gun and went off on his way.

Well, if the servant had been happy before, he thought that he was now ten times happier, and he had not gone very far when he encountered an old Jew. A tree was standing there, and a small lark was sitting on top of the highest branch and sang and sang.

“It’s a miracle of God that such a little bird can sing like that!” said the Jew. “I’d do anything to have it.”
“Well, if that’s all you want, the bird will soon come down to us,” said the servant. Then he took aim with his gun and shot the lark dead so that it fell from the tree.

“Go and pick it up,” he said to the Jew.

However, the bird had fallen into some of thorn brushes that were under the tree. The Jew crawled into the bushes, and when he was stuck in the bushes, the servant took out his fiddle and began playing. Then the Jew started to dance and couldn’t stop. Instead, he jumped higher with more force. Meanwhile, the thorns ripped his clothes so they hung in shreds on him, and he was scratched and wounded, causing his entire body to bleed.

“For God’s sake!” the Jew screamed. “Stop playing your fiddle. What crime have I done to deserve this?”
“You’ve skinned enough people,” thought the servant, “so you are getting the justice you deserve.” And he played a new jig. Meanwhile the Jew began pleading and making promises and said he’d give him money if he stopped. At first, however, the servant didn’t think the Jew offered him enough and drove him to dance even more until the Jew promised him a hundred solid gold coins that he was carrying in his bag and that he had just obtained by cheating a good Christian. When the servant saw all the money, he said: “Well, given these conditions, yes, I’ll stop.” So he took the bag and stopped playing his fiddle. Then he calmly and happily went on his way.

Meanwhile the Jew broke out of the thorn bush. He was half naked and miserable and began contemplating how he’d avenge himself. He cursed the fellow and wished evil things would happen to him. Finally, he ran to a judge and complained that, without being at fault, he had been robbed of his money by a scoundrel and that he had been beaten mercilessly, and the fellow who had done this was carrying a gun on his back and a fiddle was hanging on his shoulder. So the judge sent out some courtiers and officers who were supposed to track down the servant and see where they could find him. Soon the young man was discovered and brought before the court.

The Jew accused the servant of robbing his money, but the servant said: “You gave the money to me so that I’d stop playing the fiddle.”

The judge made short matter of all this and sentenced the servant to hang on the gallows. Well, soon he stood on the platform of the gallows with the noose around his neck, and he said, “Judge, please grant me one last request.”
“As long as you don’t ask me to spare your life.”

“It’s not about my life. I’d like to play my fiddle just one last time.”

The Jew started screaming: “For God’s sake, don’t let him do that! Don’t let him do that!”

But the judge declared: “I’m going to allow him to do this one last time, and let’s leave it at that.”

Also, since he had such talent, nobody at the marketplace wanted to refuse or have his request refused.

“For God’s sake,” the Jew shouted. “Tie me up!”

Then the servant took the fiddle and stroked it with the bow. Everyone started to shake and sway–the judge, the clerk, and the officers. Nobody could tie up the Jew. Now the servant stroked the fiddle a second time and the hangman let go of the rope and began to dance himself and the servant really started fiddling, everyone really started dancing together–the judge and the Jew at the head of all the people who had come to the marketplace to watch. At the beginning it was quite merry, but since the fiddling and dancing didn’t end, they all screamed miserably and pleaded with the servant to stop. However, he refused to do it unless the judge granted him his life and also promised to let him have the hundred gold coins. In addition he yelled to the Jew: “You swindler, confess and tell us where you got the money from, otherwise I’ll keep playing the fiddle for you only.”

“I stole it. I stole it!” he screamed so that everyone heard him. “And you earned it honestly.”

So the servant stopped playing the fiddle, and the scoundrel was hung in his place on the gallows.

Now, I’m sure the reader need not be told this: the tortured Jew in the center of this story is held up for derision more for his Jewishness than any real dishonesty he may have had. In fact, it seems rather too convenient that the servant claims he has robbed “good Christians” where as the (presumably Christian) servant is considered justified in taking everything he owned, and ultimately has him killed. It is kind of interesting that the person who really did rob the servant–his employer–is never punished. Perhaps the Jewish person is being punished unjustly for the just rage the servant ought to have for his employer, the farmer. Nonetheless, I am going to argue that there is another Grimm tale that is fairer to Jewish people. It is appropriately called, “The Bright Sun Will Bring It To Light.”

A journeyman tailor was traveling around practicing his trade. However, at one time he couldn’t find any work and became so poverty-stricken that he didn’t have a single cent for food. Just at this point in his travels he met a Jew, who, he thought, probably had a lot of money with him. So he abandoned God, went straight toward the Jew, and said, “Give me your money, or I’ll kill you.”

“Spare my life!” said the Jew. “I don’t have much money, just eight pennies.”

“You’ve got more money than that! Out with it!” the tailor responded.

Then he used force and beat the Jew until he was nearly dead. Just as the Jew was on the point of death, he uttered the last words, “The bright sun will bring it to light!”

Upon saying that, he died.

The tailor searched the man’s pocket for money but couldn’t find anything more than the eight pennies that the Jew had told him about. So he picked him up, carried him behind a bush, and continued on his travels, practicing his craft along the way. After he had been traveling a long time, he came to a place where he began working for a master tailor who had a beautiful daughter. He fell in love with her, married her, and had a good and happy marriage.

Some time later, after they already had two children, the father-in-law and the mother-in-law died, and the young couple had the house to themselves. One morning, as the man sat at the table in front of a window his wife brought him some coffee. He poured it into the cup and was about to drink it when the sun shone upon coffee and cast a reflection on the wall so that the little rings flickered here and there. The tailor looked up and said, “Ah the sun wants very much to bring it to light, but it can’t.”

“Good gracious, my dear husband,” said his wife. “What’s that? What do you mean by that?”

“I can’t tell you,” he answered.

But she said, “If you really love me, you must tell me.” And she spoke very sweetly, swore she would never tell a soul about it, and gave him no peace.

So he told her how, many years ago, he had been traveling around in rags and without money, when he had met a Jew and had killed him. Then the Jew had said in his death throes, “The bright sun will bring it to light!” Now the sun wanted to bring it to light and cast its reflection on the wall, where it made rings. But it was not able to bring it to light.

After telling her this, he implored her not to tell anybody; otherwise, he would lose his life. She promised him not to, but after he sat down to work, she went to her neighbor, told her the story in confidence, making her promise not to tell a soul about it. Yet after three days had passed, the whole city knew the story, and the tailor was brought before the court and convicted.

So, after all, the bright sun did manage to bring it to light.

This story about a murdered man’s vengeance, after his death, partially balances the ill-effect of the other story. Yet I do not know of a single anthology that includes it. There is no reason to believe that this story could not have been used (it might still not be P.C. for today’s children) instead of “The Jew in the Thorn Brush,” and have an equally German or Grimm-inspired storybook. It is tragic that nobody thought better of including a story within these realms that taught that what a person does in the dark to a person despised by society will finally be brought to the light of day.

Nathan tells King David of the murder of Uriah the Hittite,

For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

“This thing” is the vengeance of the Lord through the revolt of David’s son Absalom for the killing of Uriah the Hittite. Similarly, anti-Semitism is now a covert sin among all kinds of people who say bad things about Jewish people as people. It is a thin line to hoe, but those who criticize–say–Israel must be careful not to fall into the old habits of using anti-Semitic jargon, regarding Jewish faith itself as barbaric (ala Voltaire, whose anti-Semitic works were passed around France during the time of the Holocaust).

With that in mind I am going to quote a story about Jews from the German Canadian Anna E. Altmann in The Seven Swabians and Other German Folktales. I think it should be given to all children, Jewish and non-Jewish, today.

In Worms there lived a righteous man named Bezalel to whom a son was born on the night of Passover. It was the year 5273 after the creation of the world, and Jews were suffering terrible persecution. From the moment of his birth, it was shown that the son of Rabbi Bezalel was a blessing to his people. When his mother’s labor pains began, the others living in the house ran out to fetch the midwife. They surprised a man with a burden on his back and prevented him from carrying out a wicked plan: the man had a dead baby in a sack and intended to throw it into the street where the Jews lived, so that the Jews would be accused of murder, for the people among whom the Jews lived accused them of using human blood to make the Passover blood.

Then Rabbi Bezalel prophesized about his son, saying, “This one will consolue us and free us from the plague. His name in Israel will be Juda Arje, according to the verse in the blessing of Jacob that says, “Juda is a young lion. When my children were being torn apart, he rose.'” And the boy grew up to be a scholar and a wise man acquainted with all branches of knowledge and with a command of all languages. He became rabbi of the city of Posen, and soon after that he was called to Prague to be the highest judge in the community there.

All the thoughts and endeavors of Rabbi Löw were aimed at helping his afflicted people and freeing them from the blood-libel. He asked heaven to tell him in a dream how he might defend his people against the priests who spread the dreadful lie. And in the night he was given this advice: “Make a man out of clay and you will confound the intentions of the evildoers.”

So the Rabbi Löw called his son-in-law and his oldest student to him and told this answer. He also asked for their help in carrying out the work. All four elements were necessary to create the Golem: earth, water, fire, and air. The rabbi said he held the power of the wind; his son-in-law the embodiment of fire; the student was the symbol of water; and so he hoped that three of them might succeed in making a man out of earth. He made them promise to tell no one what they were doing and to prepare themselves for their task for the next seven days.

When the seven days had passed, on the twentieth day of the month of Adar in the year 5340, at the fourth hour after midnight, the three men went to a clay pit on the bank of the river that ran outside the town. Here they kneaded the soft clay pit on the bank of the river that ran outside the town. Here they kneaded the soft clay into a human being. They made it three ells high, gave it a face and hands and feet, and laid it on the ground on its back. Then all three of them stood at the feet of the image and the rabbi ordered his son-in-law to walk seven times around it reciting a certain formula that he had devised. When this had been done, the clay figure glowed like a hot coal.

Then the rabbi bade his student also to circle the image seven times while reciting a different formula. When this had been done, the clay figure cooled down, became damp, and began to steam. Its fingers grew nails, its head grew hair, and the body and the face looked like those of a thirty-year-old-man. Then the rabbi circled the image seven times and the three men together recited the sentence from the creation story that said, “And God blew living breath into his nostrils and man became a living soul.”

When the sentence was completed, the eyes of the Golem opened and looked at the rabbi and his disciples with a gaze that expressed astonishment. Rabbi Löw said to the image, “Arise!” and the Golem raised itself up and stood on its feet. Then the men dressed the image in clothing and shoes like those worn by the servants of the synagogue and the rabbi spoke to it: “Know that we have created you from dust on the earth that you may guard our people from the evil that our enemies put upon us. I name you Joseph; you will live in the room where I sit in judgment and will do the work of a servant. You must obey my orders in all things, even if I were to order you through fire or jump into water or throw yourself from the highest tower.” The Golem nodded its agreement, for it heard and understood what was said but was denied the power of speech. And so it happened on that remarkable night that three men left the home of the rabbi, but four returned to it.

To others in his house the rabbi said that he had met a beggar on the way to the bath who seemed to be a simple and blameless man, and so he brought him home to employ as a servant in his study but that they were forbidden to use him for housework.

And the Golem sat always in a corner of the room, his head proposed on his hands, as motionless as a creature who had lost both spirit and wits and cared for nothing for the world around it. The rabbi said of him that neither fire nor water could harm him and no sword could wound him. For he had named him Joseph in memory of the Joseph Scheda mentioned in the Talmud who had been half spirit and half man and had served scholars and often saved them from great affliction.

The High Rabbi Löw used the Golem only to fight against the blood-libel, which was the greatest cause of suffering for the Jews of Prague. When the rabbi sent him to places where he should not be seen, an amulet written on deerskin made the Golem invisible to others although he himself could see everything. In the time before Passover, the Golem was sent to roam through the city every night to stop anyone carrying a burden. If the burden was a dead child that was to be thrown into the street of the Jews, then the Golem tied up the man and the corpse with a rope and led them to the town hall. There he gave them over to the officials. The power of the Golem was supernatural, and he did many deeds.

This story is a needed corrective to generations of anti-Semitic myth. However, for all their flaws, there have been Jews and not just non-Jews who have loved the stories of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. They should not be cast aside like rotted vegetables.

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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