David Frankfurter – the story of the other Herschel Grynszpan

Grynszpan allegedly perpetrated the crime in revenge for the deportation of his parents and siblings from Germany to Poland.

David Frankfurter in 1946 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
David Frankfurter in 1946
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THIS YEAR marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, sometimes referred to as “The Night of Broken Glass” when throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland areas of Czechoslovakia, on November 9 and 10, 1938, Jewish communities were subjected to the most horrific pogroms. The incident that sparked the pogroms was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary at the German Embassy in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan a Jewish refugee of Polish descent who was born in Hanover Germany. Hitler exploited the shooting to incite hatred among the Germans to “rise in bloody vengeance against the Jews.”
In the following 24 hours, Nazi stormtroopers, members of the SS and the Hitler Youth beat and murdered Jews. They smashed their homes and brutalized women and children, setting fire to and destroying 265 synagogues as well as looting 7,500 Jewish businesses.
Jewish hospitals, schools and cemeteries were also smashed and vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps.
Grynszpan allegedly perpetrated the crime in revenge for the deportation of his parents and siblings from Germany to Poland in what was known as the Polenaktzion, when 12,000 Jews were deported, stripped of their assets and forced onto trains that took them to the German-Polish border, to the town of Zbaszyn, where they were abandoned without food or shelter. Grynszpan received a postcard from his sister Berta describing the horrific conditions that the family were being forced to endure. The postcard was dated October 31 and reached Herschel on Thursday, November 3. It was this that prompted him to take revenge and assassinate his intended target, German Ambassador Count von Welczek, but it was the 3rd secretary, Ernst vom Rath, who came out to meet him at the embassy.
This was not the first time that a young Jew had tried to stand up against the tyranny of the Nazis. In the mid-1970s I was studying German in Zurich. I found lodgings with an elderly Jewish lady. Frau Lyssy. She too was an émigré from Vienna who had been forced to leave Austria in the 1930s. One day as we were having coffee together in her kitchen, she told me about her nephew Rolf Lyssy, a Swiss film director who had just made a new film called “Konfrontation” (“Assassination in Davos”).
“I think you will find my nephew’s film interesting. It’s about a young Jewish student like yourself. If nothing else, it will be good for you to improve your German!” She laughed and added, “Just like you, he was alone in this country and had left his family behind in his native country.”
I was intrigued to know more and so on a wet January afternoon after class, I bought a ticket and went to see the movie, a docudrama that told the story of the lesser known event that may well have inspired Herschel Grynszpan to kill Vom Rath. The movie made a profound impression on me. Not only was it a deeply moving story, it was also historically very accurate.
Filmed deliberately in black and white, Lyssy included real footage of what was going on at the time. The critical incident took place in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, two years before the Paris assassination.
It involved a young 27-year-old medical student by the name of David Frankfurter.
Frankfurter was born in Daruvar, Croatia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He came from an Orthodox family and was the son of Mavro and Rebekka Frankfurter.
Mavro was the rabbi of the town and later became the chief rabbi of Vinkovci in Croatia.
David suffered from periostitis, a disease that affects the bones. He underwent several operations between the ages of two and 23.
His father then decided to send him to Leipzig to study medicine. From there he continued his studies at university in Frankfurt, his father’s ancestral home. While studying in Germany, he witnessed the rise of Nazism and the gradual spread of hatred and discrimination against Jews including the expulsion of Jews from academic institutions. After personally witnessing and experiencing the harassment of the Nazi Brown Shirts, he decided to leave Germany and moved to Berne, in Switzerland, to continue his studies. He took up lodgings in Berne and tried to apply himself to his studies.
By 1933, Hitler had been appointed as Chancellor of Germany. The National Socialist movement was on the rise and spreading.
It had even spread across Germany’s borders and into Switzerland, where many groups of Swiss citizens in many Cantons began to embrace Hitler’s ideology. Frankfurter listened to the radio and read the newspapers. He focused his attention on one German, Wilhelm Gustloff, who led the Nazi movement in Switzerland.
Frankfurter began to monitor Gustloff’s activities.He was outraged when the Nazi ordered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be published in Switzerland. At one point Frankfurter received a telegram to say that his mother was dangerously ill and he had to return to Yugoslavia, where she passed away shortly afterwards.
Traveling through Germany he became even more aware of the plight of his co-religionists and the horrific campaign that was being launched against them. In 1935, the racist Nuremberg Laws were passed and the plight of German Jewry worsened.
Frankfurter was convinced that the Nazis had their eye on Switzerland. The Nazi party was gaining popularity among Germans living in Switzerland and the German-speaking Swiss population were setting up clandestine chapters all over the country. Frankfurter knew that the man most responsible for this was Wilhelm Gustloff. He acquired a revolver and two rounds of ammunition. On the night of February 4, 1936, Frankfurter left his lodgings after writing two notes: one to his to his father and one to his brother. He made his way to the station in Berne and bought a oneway ticket to Davos. Upon arrival in the town he looked up Gustloff’s address and made his way through the snowy streets. Respectably dressed and carrying a briefcase, he knocked on the door. It was opened by Hedwig Gustloff, the Nazi chief’s wife.
She explained that her husband was on the phone and ushered Frankfurter into his study, leaving the door ajar. Some accounts even state that Frankfurter overheard Gustloff’s conversation in which the Nazi referred to “the Jewish pigs.” He sat waiting for his quarry.
Facing him was a large framed portrait of Hitler surrounded by Nazi regalia. As Gustloff entered the room, Frankfurter stood up and introduced himself as a Jew. He withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket and shot Gustloff five times in the head, neck and chest. He then calmly left the house and made his way to the police station, where he confessed to the crime and handed over the gun.
The assassination of Gustloff made headlines across Europe mainly due to the propaganda efforts of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler, who was outraged and wanted desperately to retaliate against the Jews in Germany, restrained himself and prohibited any retaliation.
He did so because of the Winter Olympics being held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria. He was afraid that ugly scenes and pogroms against the Jews would badly affect his propaganda campaign to promote Germany’s size and power and prestige among the nations in the upcoming summer Olympics.
Frankfurter’s trial took place in the city of Chur, the capital of the Canton of Graubunden.
Although the majority of the anti-Nazi Swiss population sympathized with Frankfurter, the judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison with an order for him to be deported from Switzerland upon completing his sentence. His father, who was so deeply affected by what had happened, came to visit him. It is said that his hair turned white overnight. Five years later in 1941, the Germans occupied Vinkovci. Rabbi Mavro Frankfurter was forced to stand on a table while German soldiers filed past, spat in his face and beat him with their rifle butts.
Later he was sent to the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp where he was murdered by the Fascist Ustase Croatian nationalists.
Meanwhile Hitler recognized Gustloff as a Blutzeuge, martyr of the Third Reich. He was given a state funeral with a cortege that proceeded through Switzerland, all the way through Germany to Mecklenburg, where the streets were lined with mourners, including Hitler Youth members giving the Nazi salute.
His wife, Hedwig, who had once been Hitler’s secretary, received a monthly endowment from Hitler of 400 Reichsmark, the equivalent of 13,000 dollars today. An SS squadron was named after him as well as a giant passenger ship named the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff. On January 30, 1945, the ill-fated ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea. Nine thousand out of the 10,000 passengers, mostly German civilians who were fleeing the Russian advance on East Prussia lost their lives in the worst disaster in maritime history.
David Frankfurter spent 9 years in prison.
He applied for a pardon in February 1945, which was granted on June 1. Nevertheless, he was banished from Switzerland and had to pay restitution and court costs. In 1946, he made his way to Palestine. He joined a kibbutz near Haifa where he met his wife Bruria Heller. He joined the Hagana and eventually the couple settled in Tel Aviv where they had two children, Miriam and Moshe. David went on to work for the IDF and the Jewish Agency.
In 1948, he published the first of two books, “Nakam,” in which he wrote about his experiences.
In 1969, the Swiss banishment order was rescinded and he visited Switzerland for the first time since his pardon.
Not too many people know Frankfurter’s story. He is hailed in Israel as a hero with at least two streets named after him in Petach Tikvah and Ramat Gan. There are also parks and other venues named after him in cities across the country. A modest man, he turned down offers from the government to honor him in other ways.
Sadly, Grynszpan’s story did not end as favorably. The 17-year-old was arrested and imprisoned for 20 months. He never stood trial in France. When the Germans arrived in Paris in June 1940, he fell into their hands. He was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was interrogated by the Gestapo in anticipation of a show trial. The trial never took place. Varying reports suggest that he was murdered. His parents survived the war and later immigrated to Israel where they gave evidence in the Eichmann trial.
When Grynszpan was arrested in Paris, he told his French captors, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth.”
With the reemergence of antisemitism in Europe and on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, it is important that both stories are retold and remembered. As Winston Churchill once said,“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”