Jewish Journal

Boy Avenger

by Michael Berenbaum

Posted on Apr. 3, 2013 at 9:19 am

I began reading Jonathan Kirsch’s “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright Publishing Co., 2013) with considerable skepticism. As Kirsch, a prolific author, attorney and book editor for the Journal,  notes, Grynszpan, the 17-year-old assassin of Ernst vom Rath — the third secretary in the German Embassy in Paris, whose death was used by the Nazis as an excuse to launch the November 1938 pogrom euphemistically known as Kristallnacht — might seem merely a footnote to history. How interesting could the life of a 17-year-old high school dropout be? What story could Kirsch tell? But it took only a few pages for my skepticism to turn to admiration, as Kirsch tells a powerful story with the skill of a novelist and the precision of a historian. His discoveries are many; here and there I might disagree with his interpretation of some events or his condensation of evolving German policies, but these are minor scholarly quibbles and do not affect the integrity of the work.

Grynszpan was the son of Zindel and Rivka, Polish Jews living in Germany who were expelled in October 1938 and forced to survive in no man’s land. Unable to remain in Germany, their home for years, they were not readmitted to their native Poland and lived in Zbaszyn, betwixt and between. Herschel’s sister wrote a postcard to her brother briefly describing their condition and the circumstances afflicting some 12,000 Jews who had been expelled, and that propelled Herschel to act. He bought a gun, entered the Paris embassy and shot a third secretary.

I knew that Herschel father’s had survived the Shoah and that he took the stand at the Eichmann trial in 1961, one of the few survivors whose testimony Hannah Arendt treated with a measure of sympathy. I also remembered that Herschel Grynszpan was not the first Jew to take a German’s life. Two years earlier, in 1936, David Frankfurter, a Jewish medical school student in Switzerland, assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi functionary, but that took place while Germany was hosting the Winter Olympics and instructions had gone out to put the best face forward: anti-Semitism was toned down; graffiti was covered over; racial posters were removed; and instructions had been given to be kind to tourists and give them the impression that the reports overseas about Nazi Germany were exaggerated, mere anti-German propaganda. So no collective retaliation was meted out to the Jewish community.

Grynszpan attacked vom Rath on Nov. 7, and the timing was unfortunate. Nov. 9 was a sacred date on the Nazi calendar, the anniversary of the 1923 failed putsch attempt that landed Hitler in jail but was regarded by the “old fighters,” the early Nazis supporters, as the launching pad for a movement. Hitler and his most ardent supporters had gathered in Munich for the celebration, and they exploited the opportunity for widespread violence against the Jews — more than a thousand synagogues were burned; 7,000 businesses were looted and ransacked; and 30,000 men ages 16 to 60 were arrested and sent to the newly enlarged concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, which for the first time had a majority Jewish population. The events of Nov. 9-11 in Germany — which by then also included Austria — were, as historians are apt to characterize it, “the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.” 

Like an artist painting a canvas, Kirsch is a master of context. He captures the tensions within the Grynszpan household in Germany, where they had lived since 1911, their efforts to eke out a meager living, their disappointment at Herschel’s lack of direction, and their brave but also necessary decision to send their youngest child away from Nazi Germany. Kirsch also portrays the extended Grynszpan family — Herschel’s grandmother, who feels abandoned by her sons who had left her behind in Poland, and each of Herschel’s uncles and aunts, who figure prominently in his escape first into Belgium and then to France, and his new life in Paris. Kirsch understands the family dynamics, the rivalry among brothers, the tensions among the sisters-in-law and the burdens placed on these relationships by the arrival of their troublesome nephew. He is able to trace Herschel’s sojourn in Belgium, his illegal crossing into France and his arrival in Paris, where he lived in constant danger of being discovered by the police. He depicts Grynszpan’s life on the streets of the City of Lights, the cafes he visited and the company that he kept. Kirsch’s description of the assassination itself is masterful, and he follows Grynszpan through from arrest to interrogation and then his strategy for defense. 

Remarkably, Grynszpan was immediately turned over by the Germans to the French police, and he remained in their custody even after Germany conquered France; Grynszpan, a high-profile political prisoner, was spirited out to Vichy France, eluding German capture for a time, because the French — or at least some of them — before they became craven and cowardly, wanted to deny Hitler a trophy. So, too, were the documents of his case, making it ever more difficult for the conquering Germans to get their hands on this prized possession.

Kirsch debunks rumors that vom Rath and Grynszpan were lovers, but not before skillfully exploring the rumor and how it might have been possible, and also not before depicting the Nazi German policy toward homosexual men and the macho bonds among the Nazi chieftains. Grynszpan used these rumors to prevent a show trial in Berlin, as German propagandists, headed by Joseph Goebbels, feared that instead of having a trial focused on the international Jewish conspiracy, it might show widespread homosexuality within the Nazi elite. Kirsch even follows Grynszpan through to the gates of the concentration camps and unto his death.

This book is the product not only of prodigious research, but also of gifted storytelling.

Significantly, Kirsch asks the largest of all questions: Why is Grynszpan not regarded as one of the giants of the Jewish resistance movements? Why is his name not mentioned alongside Mordechai Anielewicz, Abba Kovner and Tuvia Bielsky? Perhaps because he acted too early, only on his own or for reasons that seemed personal more than ideological and political. Or perhaps because the Nazis exacted such massive punishment.

Yet Kirsch has brought Grynszpan to life again and, in the process, rescued his character from being merely a footnote to history. Kirsch has rescued Grynszpan from oblivion, and for that, no one would have been more grateful than Grynszpan himself. 

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his blog, A Jew.

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