Setting the record straight

Jonathan Kirsch sets out to provide the first biography of Herschel Grynszpan, who committed an important act, but to whom history has been so unjust

Jonathan Kirsch521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Kirsch521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In May 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler sent his foreign minister a note inquiring into the life of one of the many millions of prisoners in the Third Reich. Joachim von Ribbentrop recalled that he asked “whether he thought the time was right to undertake the Grynszpan trial.” After a short consultation with the Nazi propaganda minister, Ribbentrop replied in the negative.
Instead, the prisoner was transferred to Magdeburg. “No official document of the Third Reich discloses his fate,” writes Jonathan Kirsch in his new biographical work, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.
The Nazi regime and its period is full of such mysteries regarding the fates of individuals on both sides, including Josef Mengele, Martin Bormann and Raoul Wallenberg. Herschel Grynszpan, however, is not exactly like the others, for while he was famous before the war, his story was almost totally forgotten afterward.
Grynszpan, or “the Grynszpan affair” as it was called at the time, was the scapegoat used by the Nazis as the excuse to unleash the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9-10, 1938. The ostensible reason for the pogrom, although it was planned in advance, was the murder of a Nazi diplomat in Berlin by Grynszpan.
Kirsch, a writer who has often covered topics related to religion, as well as Judaism, notes in his introduction that “Grynzspan has indeed all but disappeared from the historical record.
...[H]e is a missing person when it comes to the vast literature of the Second World War.”
One of the experts on him noted that Jews felt he did “a great disservice to Jews everywhere” and the scholar Hannah Arendt claimed he was a “psychopath” who was secretly a German agent. Kirsch sets out to provide the first biography of this extraordinary man, who committed an important act, but to whom history has been so unjust.
The problem with a biography of this sort, however, is that not that much is known about the subject. Grynzspan was born in March 1921 in Hanover, Germany. He was the son of hard-working Jews who had immigrated from Poland and were often derided by their better-off co-religionists as “Ostjuden,” or Jews from the east. In the years before Nazi rule many thousands of these immigrants had fled pogroms in Ukraine and harsh living conditions to move to Germany.
In 1938 the German government sought to expel these Jews as part of a widening program aimed at forcing Jews to emigrate from the Fatherland.
Some forget, but the Nazi regime initially hoped to cleanse Germany of Jews, rather than to confine them to camps. Thus many thousands fled to Palestine, England and elsewhere. Jews whose families had recently come to Germany were ordered to return to their countries of origin. Here the book plods through a well-known aspect of the Nazi period.
“Grynszpan was merely one of countless hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children who faced the existential threat of statelessness in 1938,” writes Kirsch. Instead of going to Poland, he fled to Paris by way of Belgium. He had relatives there and sought to work there, illegally if need be.”
When he heard that his relatives had been forcibly expelled by the Nazis to Poland, with only the bare minimum of possessions, he decided to take revenge on the German government.
Purchasing a pistol he went to the German embassy in Paris, where he gained entrance despite carrying a firearm.
(Those were evidently days of laxer security.) Claiming he had confidential documents, he demanded to see “one of the embassy secretaries,” which in those days would have meant a senior official below the ambassador. A receptionist sent him down the hall and he entered the office of Ernst vom Rath, a junior secretary.
Vom Rath was a member of the Nazi Party but according to Kirsch not a particularly zealous one; Grynszpan was in no mood to inquire. Instead he drew his revolver, called Vom Rath a “dirty Kraut,” and shouted that “in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, here is the document!” He then fired five shots, of which only two hit his target, mortally wounding Vom Rath. Kirsch diligently provides new material on the biography of Vom Rath and also on the workings of the German embassy in Paris.
Upon hearing of the incident the Nazi propaganda machine went into overdrive. “Do I need to tell you the race of the dirty swine who perpetrated this foul deed?” asked Joseph Goebbels.
“Our people must be told, and their answer must be ruthless.” Thus the German government painted itself as the victim of a Jewish conspiracy.
Around 91 Jews were murdered and some 2,000 died in the following months. 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish shops were vandalized.
This orgy of violence was pinned on Grynszpan.
Kirsch situates the assassin amid other famous political assassinations of the period, such as the killing of a Turkish politician by an Armenian in the 1920s and the killing of Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff in Switzerland by David Frankfurter in 1936. He sees it as part of the pattern of assassinations that were not so uncommon in the interwar period.
The Grynszpan family and some supporters arranged for him to be defended by a famous progressive lawyer named Vincent de-Moro Giafferi. However, the trial was never completed and instead Grynszpan was caught by the Nazis after the fall of France and deported to Germany. His death remains a mystery.
Kirsch seeks to set the record straight.
He attacks Hannah Arendt for accusing him, based on no sources, of being a Nazi agent. This is probably the most important contribution of this volume; in showing how the Jewish community and Jewish scholars have done grievous harm to the true history of the Grynszpan affair. The author tries to humanize and situate this young Jewish man amid the turmoil of the 1930s and show how he sought to avenge himself on the Nazi regime. This is an important book that contributes to our understanding of the years leading up to the Holocaust and presents the story of one Jew who sought to take the law into his own hands rather than await his fate. ■