The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris

  • Jonathan Kirsch
  • Livewright
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Laurence I. Barrett
  • May 6, 2013

The author revisits, in brisk storytelling, the case of a 17-year-old Jewish boy whose provocative act in Nazi Germany attracted international attention.

Short and skinny, the lad who approached Paris policemen guarding the German embassy looked younger than his 17 years. He talked his way through the gate despite his ragged French, then reverted to his native German to persuade a receptionist that he needed to hand deliver an important document.

This frail ruse got Herschel Grynszpan into the tiny office of a junior diplomat, at which point the youth produced a small pistol purchased that morning, the price tag still dangling from the trigger guard. At close range, he discharged all five bullets. Two hit their target. Although 19 fresh cartridges remained in his pocket, Grynszpan calmly placed his weapon on the floor and watched the wounded man stumble into the corridor. The assailant told the French police: “I do not regret it. I did it to avenge my parents who are miserable in Germany.” In his coat, gendarmes found a note addressed to his family: “I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest, and this I intend to do.”

Jonathan Kirsch describes these events and the dramatic developments following in brisk, colorful prose. The author of well received books on biblical and Jewish themes, Kirsch also provides the context for Grynszpan’s act. The youth was part of a little-remembered cohort of victims, Ostjuden  (Eastern Jews), thousands of whom had moved west from Poland and found a degree of tolerance in pre-Nazi Germany. Grynszpan’s parents arrived in Hanover in 1911, after which they had three children. 

During Hitler’s early years in power, he emphasized making life so miserable for the Jews that they would flee the country, even if it meant leaving most of their property behind. Grynspan’s parents had nowhere to go and no money to get there, but they decided to smuggle out their oldest child. Herschel made it to Paris in hopes of obtaining a coveted visa for Palestine. But he became a stateless person in France. While he hid from authorities who would have deported him, the youth learned that his parents were among 12,000 Ostjuden being hauled to the border, stripped of most possessions and expelled from Germany.

Ironically, it was thanks to the Hitler regime that Grynszpan’s act attracted international attention.  On November 9, 1938, two days after the shooting, Ernst vom Rath died of his wounds. The Nazis had already begun to denounce Grynszpan’s act as an example of “world Jewry’s” infamy. Rath’s death made him an instant martyr and provided the excuse that Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, had sought to launch the biggest pogrom up to that point in their war against the Jews.

Hours after Rath died, orders went out to the Gestapo and the paramilitary units known as Brownshirts to conduct “spontaneous” acts of terrorism. Signs reading “Revenge for the Murder” were stuck on synagogues, Jewish-owned stores, schools and residences soon after midnight, November 10. The orgy of violence known universally as Kristallnacht — night of glass — was under way. Grynszpan’s name would be linked to it forever.

Because Berlin went to such lengths to vilify Grynszpan, some leading anti-fascists rushed to his defense. The most prominent  was Dorothy Thompson, the American journalistwhose prescient reporting on Hitler’s plans had resulted in her expulsion from Germany. Using her radio program and  column, she appealed for donations to underwrite his defense. Money poured in, a legal team was retained in Paris and the case became a long-running sensation.

Kirsch performs a valuable service by reminding today’s readers of the desperate circumstances that the Jews faced even before Hitler started to carry out the “final solution.” The Herschel Grynszpan story has been told before, most fully in Gerald Schwab’s 1990 book The Day the Holocaust Began, on which Kirsch candidly relies.

What Kirsch brings to the enterprise is not new factual material. Rather he brings a new argument: that Grynszpan deserves respect as an early and courageous Jewish resister, one who not only took up arms against the Germans but who later thwarted the Nazis’ planned show trial.

Why is this defense needed? Because controversy and conspiracy theories have enveloped Grynszpan’s reputation ever since his name hit the headlines. In 1938, many European Jews believed that avoiding provocation represented the best survival strategy. To that naïve faction, Grynszpan seemed complicit in Kristallnacht. Even Schwab, writing half a century later, called Grynszpan’s act “useless, dangerous, a great disservice to Jews everywhere.”

Others who examined the case, Jew and Christian, could not fathom the idea that this diminutive teenage fugitive, who ostensibly had never fired a weapon before, could get himself into a diplomat’s office and calmly kill  him. Had the two known each other? Could they have been homosexual lovers whose affair hit the rocks? The most lurid theory depicted Grynszpan as a Gestapo agent with a double mission: to give Hitler an excuse for Kristallnacht while eliminating an individual who had become hostile to the regime. Hannah Arendt forcefully asserted this notion in Eichmann in Jerusalem, arguing that the Nazis had recruited Grynszpan to kill a man “who had been shadowed by the Gestapo because of his openly anti-Nazi views and his sympathy for Jews.”

Kirsch quickly disposes of the notion of Grynszpan as Nazi cats’ paw, noting that no one has ever offered any evidence thereof.  To the contrary, Rath had joined the Nazi Party, and become a Brownshirt, even before Hitler took power. As to Kristallnacht,  Kirsch carefully reviews the record, demonstrating that Hitler was already planning a nationwide pogrom to regardless of a specific provocation. 

Yet Kirsch acknowledges that Grynszpan himself stoked confusion by offering varying accounts of his motives, and of the final moments in Rath’s office, during interrogations and court hearings  while in French custody. The author points out that the youngster often displayed “magical thinking,” as when he initially refused to accept the legal team hired with Americans’ donations unless his family was granted safe passage to Paris. 

In the fall of 1941, the Gestapo conducted a final interrogation in preparation for the show trial that Hitler himself had requested. Here Grynszpan offered yet another explanation: that he and his victim had indeed been lovers. The youth wanted to end the affair, Rath refused and, fearful that the diplomat would inflict vengeance, Grynszpan silenced him. The Gestapo called in psychiatrists to probe this assertion. The prisoner responded by embellishing his latest explanation, making clear that this would be his story in court.

When this development was passed up the line, interest in a show trial evaporated. The prospect of any mud attaching to the martyred Rath was too distasteful to contemplate. Kirsch argues that Grynszpan thus committed a second heroic act by denying the Germans their propaganda exercise. He had to know that this ploy would doubtless end his status as a privileged inmate and earn him a gnickschuss — a  bullet in the back of the neck. In fact, German archives contain no mention of him after December 7, 1942.

In a twist of fate, Grynszpan’s parents and brother survived the war and eventually settled in Israel. Herschel’s father, Zindel, testified for the prosecution in Adolph Eichmann’s trial. One of the counts against the former colonel was his orchestration of the forced expulsion of Ostjuden. At least in symbolic terms, the Grynszpan family continued to fight the Nazis.

Laurence I. Barrett spent 39 years at two publications, The New York Herald Tribune and Time. He is the author of The Mayor of New York and Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House. He now freelances. 


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