More than three hundred years ago, three splendid, old linden trees stood on the green grass in the cemetery next to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Berlin. They were so huge that they formed an arch over the entire cemetery, like an enormous roof, for their branches and boughs had become intertwined and grown into a gigantic crown. The origin of these beautiful linden trees goes back another three hundred years, and it has often been recounted as follows.
Three brothers lived in Berlin and had developed a remarkably close friendship and loyalty to one another, of a sort that is very rarely seen in this world. Now it happened one evening that the youngest went out alone and did not tell his brothers anything about it, because he wanted to meet a young woman in another part of the city and take a walk with her. As he was sauntering toward their meeting place, engrossed in pleasant dreams, he heard soft moans and gasps coming from an alley between two houses where it was dark and desolate. Immediately he went over to the alley to see what was happening, because he thought an animal or perhaps even a child might have had an accident and was lying there waiting for help. As he entered the dark secluded place, he was horrified to see a man bathed in blood. When he bent over and asked him compassionately what had happened, he received as answer only a weak groan and gulp, for the injured man had a knife wound in his heart and, a few moments later, passed away in the arms of his helper.
The young man was completely at a loss as to what he should do, and since the murdered man showed no more signs of life, the young man returned, confused and dumbfounded, with vacillating steps, to the street. Right at that moment two sentries happened to come by, and while the young man was still contemplating whether he should call for help or leave the place without drawing attention, the sentries noticed how frightened he was and approached him. As soon as they saw the blood on his shoes and sleeves, they forcefully grabbed hold of him, paying little attention to his explanations and pleas. Indeed, once they found the dead body, which had already turned cold, they took the suspected murderer straight to jail, where he was put in irons and closely guarded.
The next day the judge interrogated him, and at one point the corpse was brought into the room. Now, in daylight, the young man recognized the dead man as a blacksmith’s apprentice with whom he had had a fleeting friendship some time ago. However, right before this he had testified that he had not been acquainted with the murdered man and had not known the slightest thing about him. Consequently, he was suspected even more of stabbing the dead man, especially since witnesses who had known the dead man stated that the young man had been friends with the apprentice some time ago, but they had drifted apart because of a dispute over a girl. There was really not much truth to this, but there was enough of a kernel of truth that the innocent man even boldly acknowledged it, all the while maintaining his innocence and asking not for a pardon but for justice.
The judge had no doubts that he was the murderer and thought that he would soon find enough evidence to sentence him and hand him over to the hangman. The more the prisoner denied everything and insisted that he knew nothing about the murder, the more he was regarded as the guilty party.
In the meantime one of his brothers — the oldest was still traveling somewhere on business — had been waiting in vain for the youngest to come home and eventually set out to look for him. When he heard the news that his brother was in prison and had been accused of murder and was stubbornly denying it, he went straight to the judge.
“Your Honor,” he said, “you’ve arrested an innocent man. You must set him free! You see, I’m the murderer, and I don’t want an innocent man to be wrongly punished for my crime. The blacksmith and I were enemies, and I was lying in wait for him. Last night I saw him as he went into that alley to relieve himself, and I followed him and stabbed him in the heart with my knife.”
Stunned, the judge listened to this confession, then ordered the brother to be placed in irons and kept under close watch until he cleared up this mystery. So now both brothers lay in irons in the same jail. However, the youngest had no inkling whatsoever that his brother was trying to save him and kept insisting passionately that he was innocent.
Two days passed without the judge being able to discover anything new, and he was now tending to believe that the brother who had confessed to the crime was the murderer. Then the oldest brother returned to Berlin from his business trip, found nobody at home, and learned from his neighbors what had happened to the youngest, and how the second brother had told the judge that he was the real murderer, not his brother.
That very same night, the oldest brother went to the judge, woke him, and knelt down before him. “Noble judge,” he said, “you have two innocent men in irons, and both are suffering because of a crime that I committed. Neither my youngest brother nor the other killed the blacksmith’s apprentice. In fact, I was the one who committed the murder. I can bear it no longer that others sit in prison for me when they are not at all to blame. I beg you with all my heart to let them go and to arrest me. I’m ready to pay for my crime with my life.”
Now the judge was even more astounded and did not know what to do except to place the third brother under arrest.
Early the next morning, when the jailkeeper handed the youngest brother some bread through the door, he said to him, “I’d really like to know the truth. Which one of you three is truly the vile culprit?” When the youngest brother asked him what he meant by that, the jailkeeper refused to say anything more. However, the prisoner did manage to conclude from his words that his brothers had come to sacrifice their own lives for his. All at once, he broke down, began sobbing, and demanded vehemently to be brought before the judge. And when he stood in front of the judge in irons, he began weeping again and said, “Forgive me, sir, for having refused so long to admit my guilt. But I thought that nobody had seen my crime and nobody could prove my guilt. Now I realize that justice must be done. I can no longer resist it and want to confess that I was truly the one who killed the blacksmith’s apprentice. I’m the one who must pay for the crime with my life.”
The judge’s eyes opened wide in surprise, and he thought he was dreaming. His astonishment was indescribable, and his heart shuddered because of this strange affair. He ordered the prisoner to be locked up once more and placed under guard, like the other two brothers, and sat steeped in thought for a long time. Indeed, he realized that only one of the brothers could be the murderer and that two of them were willing to be executed and to sacrifice their lives out of magnanimity and brotherly love.
The judge could not reach a conclusion, but he did realize that it would be impossible to make a decision with customary thinking. As a result, he had the prisoners placed under tight security, and the next day, he went to the prince and painted a vivid picture of this strange affair.
The prince listened and was most astonished. “This is a strange and rare case!” he commented at the end of the judge’s story. “Deep in my heart I believe that none of them committed the crime, not even the youngest, whom your watchmen arrested. Rather, I think he spoke the truth. But since we are concerned with a capital crime involving murder, we cannot let the suspects go free just like that. Therefore, I am going to call upon God Himself to be the judge of these three loyal brothers and let Him decide their fate.”
And that was what was done. It was springtime, and the three brothers were led to a green field on a bright warm day. Each one of them was given a robust, young linden tree to plant. However, each had to place his linden tree so that its crown went into the ground and its roots faced up toward the sky. According to the prince’s decree, whoever’s tree perished or withered first would be considered the murderer and would be executed.
The brothers did as they were told, and each one planted his little tree with its branches into the ground with great care. It was not long, however, before the trees, all three of them, began taking root and forming new crowns, indicating that all three brothers were innocent. The linden trees continued to grow to a very large size and stood for many hundreds of years in the cemetery of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Berlin.