One Who Fought Back: Herschel Grynszpan and the Holocaust

A new book gives reason to reflect on the little-known story of the Jewish teenager who assassinated a German diplomat in 1938, an act that served as the pretext for Kristallnacht.

Herschel Grynszpan under arrest for the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, Paris, November 7, 1938. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Getty.

Herschel Grynszpan under arrest for the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, Paris, November 7, 1938. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Getty.

Observation
April 25 2019
About the author

Rick Richman is the author of Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler (Encounter). His most recent contribution to Mosaic was “One Who Fought Back: Herschel Grynszpan and the Holocaust.”


On the morning of November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year old named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris. Hidden within his three-piece suit was a gun he had purchased earlier that day; in his pocket was a postcard on which he had written an abbreviated Hebrew phrase invoking God’s help and a message in German for his family:

My dear parents,

I could not do anything else, may God forgive me, my heart bleeds when I hear of the tragedy that befell you and 12,000 other Jews. I need to protest so that the entire world hears it, and this I will do. Forgive me.

At the embassy, Grynszpan asked to see an official, saying he had a document to submit that was too important to be left with a clerk. He was ushered into the office of a junior-level diplomat, twenty-nine-year-old Ernest vom Rath, who asked to inspect it. Drawing his gun, Grynszpan told him, “You’re a filthy Kraut, and in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, here is the document.” He fired five shots at vom Rath, who died two days later.

 

Grynszpan’s Orthodox family had lived for three decades in Germany, in a poor neighborhood of Hanover where his father worked as a tailor. But on October 28, 1938, they were among the more than 12,000 Jews summarily expelled from Germany in a Nazi campaign to send all Polish-born Jews back to Poland, before a new Polish law took effect barring their return. Both countries were seeking to rid themselves of their Jews.

Herschel was living in France because his parents had sent him there alone in 1936, at the age of fifteen, to escape Nazi Germany. While growing up in Hanover, he had joined a religious Zionist group at thirteen, studied Hebrew for a year in a yeshiva at fourteen, and hoped to emigrate to Palestine. But he was unable to obtain a visa. One day, at the local synagogue, he discussed his plight with “old Katz, the watchmaker,” who advised him to leave Germany, where “a Jew is not a man, but is treated like a dog,” and go to France. Herschel’s father arranged for relatives in Paris to take him in.

Newspapers in Paris, including the Yiddish press that Herschel read regularly, carried the story of the expulsion from Germany of the Polish-born Jews, reporting that thousands had been rounded up and deported to a no-man’s land between Germany and Poland, where they were living without shelter in disease-ridden conditions, with suicides reported. A postcard that Herschel’s older sister Berta sent him in Paris, which he received on November 3, brought him the details of his family’s trauma:

[A]t 9:00 p.m. Thursday, a Schupo [security policeman] came to our house and told us we had to go to the police headquarters with our passports. We went just as we were, all together. . . . There we found almost our entire neighborhood already assembled. . . . We had not yet been told what it was about, but we quickly realized that it was the end for us. An expulsion order was thrust into our hands. . . . We were not allowed to return to our homes. . . . We don’t have a pfennig [penny].

As he learned of his family’s sudden expulsion from Germany, Herschel himself stood on the brink of expulsion: his request for residency status in France had been rejected, and the police were after him. Hidden by his relatives, he was spending his nights in the attic of an abandoned apartment. He had no place to go: neither Germany nor Poland would have permitted him to enter.

 

On November 8, the day after the shooting and his arrest, Herschel Grynszpan told the investigating judge that he had sought to bring the world’s attention to the suffering of his family and his people. It was “the constantly gnawing idea of the suffering of my race which obsessed me”:

For 28 years my parents resided in Hanover. They had set up a modest business which was destroyed overnight. They were stripped of everything and expelled. It is not, after all, a crime to be Jewish. I am not a dog. I have the right to live. My people have a right to exist on this earth. And yet everywhere they are hunted down like animals.

On the next day—November 9, 1938—vom Rath died from his wounds. The date happened to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of the Munich “beer-hall putsch”—Hitler’s failed 1923 coup attempt. At a gathering to celebrate the day, Hitler and his veteran henchman Hermann Goering seized upon the news of vom Rath’s demise as the pretext for a state-sponsored anti-Semitic pogrom, a massive orgy of destruction that would come to be known euphemistically as Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.”

Orders went out from Nazi headquarters that night to destroy Jewish stores, disarm Jews, set fire to their synagogues, and post signs everywhere reading “Death to International Jewry.” Every police station received a written message from national headquarters, with this instruction:

[A]s many Jews in all districts, especially the rich, as can be accommodated in existing prisons are to be arrested. . . . After the detentions have been carried out, the appropriate concentration camps are to be contacted immediately for the prompt accommodation of the Jews in the camps.

The scope of the resulting carnage was staggering: more than 1,000 synagogues were burned; over 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were gutted; hundreds of Jews died; and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, and elsewhere. It was an elaborate pre-planned operation, awaiting only a triggering event; vom Rath’s death was the excuse.

In France, preparations immediately began for a trial of vom Rath’s assassin. But it never took place—not in 1939 while Herschel was in French custody; not in 1940 when, after the invasion and conquest of France, he was turned over to the Nazis and transported to prison in Berlin; and not in 1941-42 when the Germans made extensive plans for a show trial blaming World War II on the Jews.

In preparing for the planned trial, the Third Reich intended, in the words of their internal guidelines, to claim that Herschel had acted as an agent of “world Jewry” in a “war against National Socialist Germany,” thereby making the “destruction of Jewry . . . a prerequisite for the coming European new order.” Hitler, who personally followed the trial preparations, was assured that Georges Bonnet, the former French foreign minister who while in office in 1938-39 had been a leading proponent of appeasement, was prepared to travel to Berlin to testify that “pressure was exerted by world Jewry on the French government in 1939 to enter the war.”

But both the trial in France and the one in Germany were stopped—by extraordinary acts of principle and courage by Herschel Grynszpan himself.

 

No book in English about Herschel Grynszpan appeared until 52 years after Kristallnacht. Then four came in relatively rapid succession, the most recent of which, published this year, is Hitler’s Pawn: The Boy Assassin and the Holocaust, by Stephen Koch. Behind that half-century of neglect lies a tale—and the four books raise questions that still remain to be considered, more than 80 years after Grynszpan’s action.

It is instructive to review in greater detail what happened at the time of the assassination, the public reaction to it in the United States, and the trials that never took place—and then to reflect on why it took so long for this story to be considered in depth by American and British authors.

The immediate response of the American public was led by the journalist Dorothy Thompson, whom Time magazine described in 1939 as one of the two “most influential women in the U.S.” (the other being Eleanor Roosevelt). Thompson had interviewed Hitler early on and had written a harshly critical 1932 book warning that, if elected, he intended to disband parliament and establish a dictatorship marked “everywhere,” in his own words, by “authority and responsibility above, discipline and obedience below.” In this cruel new regime, Thompson reported, anti-Semitism would be its “life and soul.”

In an April 1938 article in Foreign Affairs, “Refugees: A World Problem,” Thompson, who had been barred from Germany after the appearance of her book, summarized the worsening plight of European Jews:

In Germany, more and more Jews are being deprived of the means to continue living in the homes they have had for centuries. . . . Austria has lost her struggle for independence. The victory of the Nazis there creates a vast new problem of refugees. . . . Rumania is experimenting with anti-Semitic laws; the Jewish question in Poland has been acute for some years. . . . [I]n Austria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Hungary and Yugoslavia live some two million Jews. There are over three million more in Poland. . . . Already there are some four million people in the world who are “men without a country.” . . . To close one’s eyes to it would be “ostrichism” in an acute form.

Herschel Grynszpan and his family were among these four million “men without a country.” On November 17, 1938—a week after Kristallnacht—Thompson devoted her regular radio broadcast to a presentation of his case. She told her five-million listeners that she felt she knew Herschel personally, because “in the past five years I have met so many whose story is the same—the same except for this unique desperate act”:

[He] was one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees whom the terror east of the Rhine has turned loose in the world. . . . [He] read how men, women, and children, driven out of the Sudetenland . . . had been forced to cross the border into Czechoslovakia on their hands and knees. . . . He read that Jewish children have been stood on platforms in front of classes of German children and had their features pointed to and described by the teacher as marks of a criminal race. He read that men and women of his race, among them scholars and a general decorated for his bravery, had been forced to wash the streets, while the mob laughed. . . . He thought: “Why doesn’t someone do something!”

After five years, she continued, during which “the world has endured . . . unheard-of things” committed by Nazi Germany, it was not only Grynszpan who was on trial:

I say we are all on trial. I say the Christian world is on trial. I say the [British, French, and Italian] men of Munich are on trial, who signed a pact [with Hitler]. . . . Whether Herschel Grynszpan lives or not won’t matter much to Herschel. He was prepared to die when he fired those shots. His young life was already ruined. . . . Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak . . . in so many voices that they will be heard. This boy has become a symbol, and the responsibility for his deed must be shared by those who caused it.

Although Thompson solicited no funds in the broadcast, contributions poured into her office along with thousands of supportive telegrams from a total of 46 states. Inspired by this response, she formed the Journalists’ Defense Fund to raise more money for Grynszpan’s defense, emphasizing that she sought contributions only from non-Jews “so that the Nazis can’t say this is another Jewish plot.” The funds were used to retain for Herschel the best possible French lawyers, including Vincent de Moro-Giafferi—the most distinguished criminal attorney in the country—and a team of seven additional lawyers.

De Moro-Giafferi developed a defense that in his view stood a good chance of winning a suspended sentence for Herschel. Building on rumors that vom Rath might have been a homosexual, he thought the murder could be portrayed as a “cause passionelle” in which the German diplomat had sexually seduced Herschel, a minor, and then abandoned him. He urged Herschel to say that his action had no political significance but was rather a crime of passion.

Grynszpan refused to accede to this tactic. And in the wake of Kristallnacht and the subsequent Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, French public opinion turned so anti-German that it seemed Herschel might actually be acquitted. Fearing Germany’s anger should his defense succeed in effectively putting the Nazis themselves in the dock, the French government deferred the trial.

A year later, the Germans conquered France and removed Grynszpan to Berlin, where they were planning their own trial. But now their prisoner boldly informed them he would testify that vom Rath had in fact been in a homosexual relationship with him. Aware that the claim was false, the Nazis nevertheless proved unwilling to risk the triple ignominy of a German diplomat accused of homosexuality; having a homosexual affair with a minor; and conducting it with one who was not only a minor but also a Jew.

Adopting the “defense” he had rejected on principle in France, where it might have succeeded, Herschel wielded it to great effect in Berlin, effectively scuttling a show trial of his people. After 1942, having been remanded to prison and then presumably murdered by his captors, he disappeared from the pages of history.

 

For English-speaking readers, more than four decades would pass before anything more than fleeting references or brief encyclopedia entries would tell Herschel Grynszpan’s story or endeavor to assess its meaning. The silence was at first broken by a pair of important essays.

The first, entitled “Herschel Grynszpan: The Fate of a Forgotten Assassin,” appeared in 1986 in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Its author, Ron Roizen, based his account on an unpublished 1968 manuscript by a French physician, Alain Cuenot, who had collected many documents and materials about the case. An English translation of Cuenot’s manuscript had been commissioned in 1982 by David Rome, a congregant at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles who had become interested in the case, and who provided a typewritten copy to Roizen.

Pondering why Grynszpan had become a forgotten figure, Roizen suggested several theories: (a) while the assassination had been used as the pretext for Kristallnacht, it had not in fact been its cause; (b) it had been the act of a minor, not an adult; and (c) the story had been eclipsed by the massive horrors in the following years, which relegated it to the status of a mere historical footnote.

Roizen went on, however, to propose a more fundamental theory about Grynszpan’s consignment to oblivion:

We might ask . . . whether there is anything convenient in this obscurity? I am inclined to think so. Grynszpan’s case profoundly symbolizes two thorny and painful moral issues, issues more easily sidestepped than grappled with.

First, there is the nettlesome question of whether assassination is ever morally justified. Was Grynszpan justified? Would the assassination of Hitler in late 1938 have been justified? How shall we decide? . . .

Second, there is the painful moral issue associated with the rejection and abandonment of Grynszpan by contemporary European Jews [themselves]. . . . Is to forget Grynszpan also to obscure one’s own guilt or confusion over one’s own inaction or fright under fire?

Roizen also observed that, in hindsight, Jewish emigration from Germany before Kristallnacht had been perilously slow, but that afterward it had increased dramatically, by many tens of thousands. “In this sense,” he wrote, “Grynszpan’s act was a catalyst and may on balance have saved lives,” since Kristallnacht forced many Jews to realize that things were not going to get better and that they had to leave Germany. He concluded that a moral question, however, still remained unaddressed:

Was Grynszpan’s action that of a heroic martyr or a misguided pariah? . . . Though nearly a half-century has passed since Herschel Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath, little or no progress has been made on [this question].

Two years later, in 1988, the distinguished historian Michael Marrus, the author of, among other books, The Holocaust in History, published an essay on the Grynszpan case in the American Scholar. Entitled “The Strange Story of Herschel Grynszpan,” it took a different tack, advancing a positive case for why his story “should not be forgotten”:

Grynszpan did more than suffer under Nazi oppression; he struck against it in the most radical way that occurred to him. Afterward, despite the formidable forces mobilized against him, he held his ground on principle—most likely at the cost of his life. Finally, . . . he may have sabotaged an elaborate Nazi propaganda enterprise [intended to be deployed through his trial]. . . . We [therefore] owe something to Herschel Feibel Grynszpan, who showed us how, in this particular instance, [Nazism] was not [invincible].

Then in 1990 came the first full-length book, Gerald Schwab’s landmark The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan. Born in 1925, Schwab had experienced Kristallnacht as a thirteen-year old in Germany, made his way in 1940 to the United States, worked as a translator at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunals that began in 1945, and then enjoyed a long career at the State Department. His book is based largely on official German files, supplemented by interviews of people involved in the case.

Although Schwab did not regard Grynszpan’s murder of vom Rath as heroic, he concluded, much as Roizen did, that “what was initially perceived as Grynszpan’s great blunder of unleashing the events of Kristallnacht resulted in saving thousands of lives” through the subsequent rapid emigration of German Jews.

Seven years later, Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II (1997), was published by the British biographer Andy Marino. To Marino, Grynszpan’s act was indeed heroic, leading to the quickening pace of Jewish emigration in the ten months before the outbreak of war made any further escape impossible. As for Marino’s startling subtitle, “The Boy Who Started World War II,” it was actually intended as the highest praise: in his eyes, Grynszpan had started the war to stop the ongoing war that Hitler had initiated against the Jews in 1933.

The third book is Jonathan Kirsch’s masterful The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, A Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris (2013). Kirsch, an attorney, author, and book critic, conducted additional research at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem and other institutions, interviewed scholars, and produced an extraordinarily well-written account. In Kirsch’s view, “we are left with two ineradicable facts of history” (neither one having to do with the post-Kristallnacht emigration) that oblige us to consider Grynszpan a hero:

Only weeks after the prime ministers of England and France had trembled before Hitler in Munich, Grynszpan walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat, an “act of counter-violence” in explicit protest against Hitler’s war against the Jews. And three years later . . . the same young man, alone and abandoned in a Gestapo cell in Berlin, succeeded in denying his Nazi captors the opportunity to justify the mass murder of the Jewish people in the show trial they had planned for him.

Most recently, there is this year’s Hitler’s Pawn: The Boy Assassin and the Holocaust, whose author, Stephen Koch, is the former chairman of the creative-writing division in Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Koch takes a somewhat different view of Grynszpan from the authors of the previous three books.

Koch acknowledges that Grynszpan “did, at least, fight back, and . . . was one of the first” to do so, and also that resisting the Nazi plans for a show trial “required great ingenuity and even greater courage in the face of death.” He also credits Grynszpan with “something heroic in his invisibility” for continuing to resist the Nazis’ plans even while isolated and alone in Berlin. But he asserts that Grynszpan’s assassination of vom Rath was a case of “foolish heroics” that, in light of what occurred in Kristallnacht, gave Grynszpan “good reason to lament.” As the title of his book indicates, and as he incessantly repeats in his text, Koch sees Grynszpan as the smallest of chess pieces, manipulated by others:

He had been history’s pawn, a brave and foolish boy, plucked out of obscurity and played for small moves in the largest and most terrible events in modern history . . . always an insignificant young man, a child snared in the incomprehensibly significant events of a world war . . . [with] something tragic in his little destiny. . . .

 

Grynszpan of course could not have known of the Nazis’ plans for a nationwide pogrom, much less that his deed would provide a pretext for its inception, or that a byproduct of Kristallnacht would be the saving of tens of thousands of German Jewish lives through emigration. But Grynszpan was neither a “foolish” boy nor one “plucked out of obscurity.” While diplomats of every country cowered before the Nazis, he came forward to fight, effectively ending his own life when he walked into the German embassy to protest in a way, as he wrote to his parents, that the whole world would see and hear.

And so it did. Koch, for his part, maintains that it was not Grynszpan’s act at the German embassy but rather the subsequent Nazi “destruction on a scale previously unimaginable” that eventually “made the world see.” But Grynszpan’s act was reported immediately, under a front-page banner headline, in the next day’s New York Times, which gave prominent coverage to his story throughout November and during the following months. Moreover, in attracting the attention of Dorothy Thompson, one of the leading American journalists of the age, his story and its implications were broadcast to the entire country. And the Nazi reaction in Kristallnacht exposed the irredeemable evil of the Nazi regime to everyone with eyes to see.

The problem was not that the world did not see, but rather that the world did virtually nothing about what it saw, even after Kristallnacht. As the Times itself would editorialize on November 9, 1988, the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht:

In 24 hours, 1,000 Jews were dead and more than 30,000 arrested, a tenth of all German Jews. This was not the act of a mob but of the regime, showing that Hitler’s threats against the Jews were no bombast. Disgust with and distrust of Hitler was evident in overwhelming condemnation of Kristallnacht in most Western newspapers. . . . [Yet] not an official finger was lifted to save 300,000 Germans now proved to be in mortal danger. No gates were opened, no quotas increased, no help extended by great powers to the trapped Jews. . . .

These are remarkable words from the editors of a newspaper that in the post-1938 years would often proceed to shut its own eyes to the relentless progress of Hitler’s project to annihilate the Jews of Europe. As late as 1941, the Sunday New York Times Magazine published “In Hitler’s Chalet,” describing in glowing terms Hitler’s mountain retreat where he, in the words of the article, “surrounded by a small staff and a few friends . . . holds the conferences which reshape Europe” as “the Nazi eagle ranges over ever widening stretches of Europe and beyond and spreads [its] protecting wings above an increasing number of small states. . . . ” The article included a photograph of Hitler walking in the woods, with the caption, “The Fuehrer is fond of strolling.” The performance of the Times during these years reflected the “ostrichism” that Dorothy Thompson condemned.

There was, in fact, one official government effort in the wake of Kristallnacht: three weeks later, Britain initiated the Kindertransport program, easing immigration restrictions for Jewish refugees under the age of seventeen and bringing roughly 10,000 children to safety. Ironically, one of the first was thirteen-year-old Gerald Schwab, who a half-century later would write the first book in English about Herschel Grynszpan.

Nor is that the only irony to be marked in this saga. In another twist of fate, Herschel’s parents, who had sent him in 1936 to Paris on a kind of private Kindertransport, would survive the war and emigrate to Israel. In 1961, Herschel’s father would be the first Holocaust survivor to take the stand in Jerusalem and testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. There he recounted, in harrowing terms, the atrocities of October 1938. Also testifying at the trial was Herschel’s elder brother, who spoke about the family’s fruitless efforts after the war to locate their youngest child, from whom they received their last communication in 1940.

A final irony, and one that returns us to the moral issues raised by Ron Roizen, concerns vom Rath, who had joined the Nazi party in 1932. Evidence emerged shortly after the assassination, however, that by 1938 vom Rath had become disillusioned with Hitler and may even have been a private opponent of the regime. Was it right, then, to murder a low-level German diplomat who had no involvement in Nazi policy and possibly opposed it? Herschel himself addressed this issue in a December 12, 1938 letter written from jail to one of his uncles:

May God pardon me for having killed a man who was perhaps not guilty. I console myself with this: in war, it is the guiltless soldier who always falls but never the diplomat who is responsible for war. I hope that the world and French justice will not consider that I acted like an ordinary criminal, but as someone who wished to demonstrate in favor of his rights on behalf of his innocent brethren.

 

In evaluating the morality of Herschel Grynszpan’s act, we should perhaps consider it not as an abstract issue but rather within the specific context of 1938.

In March of that year, German troops entered Austria to carry out the annexation of that country to the Reich. Jews in Austria were immediately attacked and publicly humiliated, their property and businesses seized, and harsh anti-Semitic legislation was enacted against them. In July, America convened a 32-nation conference in Evian, France, to address the crisis of Jewish refugees. The conference led to no serious action whatsoever, even by the United States. At the end of September, Britain and France signed the Munich agreement, agreeing to Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In the following month, more than 12,000 Jews were summarily stripped of their homes, property, and businesses and expelled from Germany with no place of refuge.

A week later, Herschel Grynszpan walked into the German embassy in Paris with a gun, trying to make the Jewish voice heard. From a moral standpoint, which was more problematical: Herschel’s action or the world’s inaction?

Even with four books on Grynszpan, we are still left with the questions raised by Ron Roizen in 1986: was Herschel Grynszpan a heroic martyr or a misguided pariah? Was the assassination of vom Rath a moral act or an immoral act? Was it productive, or counter-productive? And how are we to decide?

The four books on Grynszpan demonstrate that there is no single or simple answer. But they also demonstrate that Herschel Grynszpan deserves to be remembered and memorialized. At age seventeen, as the worst disaster in Jewish history unfolded, he fought back, refusing to be treated like a dog or to react like an ostrich.

The author thanks the librarians of American Jewish University for facilitating his research.

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