The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris
À l’intérieur du camp de Drancy
Herschel Grynszpan shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on November 7, 1938. The Nazis claimed that the young man was an agent of the international Jewish conspiracy, and that his act of murder was an early salvo in the “Jewish War” against Germany. In fact, he was a confused and angry teenager who, like thousands of European Jews in late 1938, was unwanted both in Poland, where he was a citizen, and in Germany, which he knew as home. Both Germany and Poland were pursuing policies designed to get rid of Jews, Berlin with deadly but hidden purpose, Warsaw with cynicism and calculation. Anti-Semitism, however, did not unite the two governments but rather ruined their mutual relations. People like Grynszpan were caught in the middle. He was the victim not of German-Polish agreement but of a growing German-Polish conflict.
In Poland in 1938, an authoritarian clique in power had to deal with public anti-Semitism as well as opposition from an anti-Semitic party, the National Democrats, that had never run the state by itself and organized pogroms as a challenge to public order. There were three million Jews in Poland, a tenth of the total population, a third of the urban population. There were about as many Jews in the Polish cities of Warsaw and Łódz as there were in all of Germany, or for that matter in all of Palestine.
In domestic policy the Polish regime copied some of the tactics of the National Democrats, founding a ruling party that did not admit Jews and presenting mass Jewish emigration as a goal of foreign policy. Polish leaders supported the establishment of a state of Israel with the most expansive possible boundaries. In secret the foreign ministry and the ministry of defense supported the right-wing Zionist militants of Betar and Irgun. Young Jewish men were trained on Polish military bases and then sent back to Palestine to make trouble for the British Empire in the hardly hidden hope that the British could be driven out, or at least induced to permit mass emigration of Jews from Poland.
In Germany, Hitler had already made Jews second-class citizens and proclaimed his hatred of them and his intention to eliminate them. The Nazi leadership was far more anti-Semitic than the general population, for whom Jewish matters in general had little salience. Less than 1 percent of the German population was Jewish, and most German Jews would be induced to emigrate by repression and theft. “World Jewry,” the wraith that haunted Hitler’s speeches, was mostly present, even in the Nazi mind, beyond the borders. In 1938 Hitler, Göring, and Ribbentrop confused Polish leaders by proposing to them as common interests a war against the Soviet Union and the deportation of the Jews.
The Poles, though fearful of Soviet power and desirous of reducing their Jewish population, did not see how those two goals could be pursued at the same time. Surely a large-scale continental war would disrupt any plan for Jews to emigrate? The group of Polish “colonels” who ruled the country, though quite cynical after their own fashion, could not begin to anticipate where Hitler’s logic would lead after 1938: toward the mass killing of Jews under the cover of war.
In any event, German policy in 1938 was bringing Jews to Poland rather than drawing them away. After the German annexation of Austria (or Anschluss) in March 1938, some twenty thousand Jews with Polish citizenship living in Austria tried to return to Poland. After humiliating pogroms, Austrian Jews were subjected to a systematic policy of expropriation and forced emigration devised by Adolf Eichmann. As these methods were then applied to German Jews, Polish diplomats feared that the tens of thousands of Polish Jews living in Germany would also seek to return. The foreign ministry decided to exclude Polish Jews abroad from the protection of the Polish state.
Right after the Anschluss, the Polish government demanded that all of its citizens living abroad register with embassies—and in October, right before the deadline, instructed its ambassador in Berlin not to stamp the passports of Jews. The Germans could see where this was headed, and responded by deporting about 17,000 Polish Jews to Poland in late October. Very often these were people whose entire lives had been spent in Germany and whose connection to Poland was quite limited. Grynszpan’s parents, for example, had moved to Germany in 1911, before an independent Poland had been established. Their children had been born in Germany.
Grynszpan’s parents had sent their son, then fifteen years old, to an aunt and uncle in Paris in 1936 to spare him from Nazi repression. By 1938, both his Polish passport and his German visa had expired, and he had been denied legal residency in France. He faced what his biographer Jonathan Kirsch perceptively calls the “existential threat of statelessness.” His aunt and uncle had to hide him in a garret so that he would not be expelled. They shared with him a postcard from his sister, mailed right after the family was deported from Germany to Poland: “Everything was finished for us.”
The young man had some sort of disagreement with his aunt and uncle about how to react to the family tragedy, and left the house in a rage. The next day he bought a gun, took the métro to the German embassy, asked to meet a German diplomat, and shot Ernst vom Rath, the one who agreed to meet him. It was, he confessed to the French police as he allowed himself to be arrested, an act of revenge for the suffering of his family and his people.
Kirsch has a dramatic story, and he tells it well. There is a climax: Hitler and Goebbels seized upon the murder as an occasion for the first national German pogrom, the Kristallnacht of November 9 and 10, 1938. There is the long, slow denouement: Grynszpan, when the Germans later got hold of him, changed his story, and claimed that Rath was his lover. German jurists dutifully added a violation of Paragraph 175, the ban on homosexual intercourse, to the list of the charges against Grynszpan. This of course implicated Rath, whom the Nazis wished to present as a blood martyr, in crimes of a sexual and racial character involving a minor. Kirsch argues that Grynszpan believed that Hitler would not be able to tolerate his testifying about a love affair on the witness stand.
Kirsch’s version (which here follows an earlier book by Gerald Schwab*) credits Grynszpan with an intelligence he did not always display, but this defense had already been suggested to him in France by a lawyer, and he had a long time to consider his strategy. Most likely the crime was political but the defense was calculated. Rumors about a sexual connection between Grynszpan and Rath were current after the shooting but seem unlikely to be true. Kirsch, to his credit, is interested in the purported homosexual relationship only as a possibility to be considered and analyzed in order to clarify what happened.
Bernard Wasserstein has set himself a difficult task in On the Eve, his history of the Jewish Europe of the 1930s: to hold the attention of readers who already know how the story will end. His research is superb, but in an important respect he has written a work of art rather than of social science: he seeks to convey a moment rather than arrive at an explanation. The pertinent epigram is from Simon Dubnow, the founder of modern Jewish historiography: “The historian’s essential creative act is the resurrection of the dead”—which in this case means the murdered. The challenge comes with a double edge if we remember that Dubnow himself is one of those murdered, shot in Riga in 1941 during the Holocaust.
We cannot forget the Holocaust when we read of the Jews of the 1930s, nor does Wasserstein expect any such thing. But we must remember that our knowledge of a Holocaust in 1941 cannot have been shared by Jews in 1938, and more broadly that the meaning of lives cannot be reduced to the motives of the murderers. Wasserstein meets Dubnow’s challenge with a dozen thematic chapters about Jewish ways of life; one of the later ones, on “youth,” is perhaps the most representative and the finest. For young people (such as Grynszpan) formed entirely by the 1930s, this moment was everything they had, all they knew of life. In essays written by Jewish schoolchildren in Poland, Wasserstein finds a haunting collective loneliness.
In earlier sections devoted to Western and Central Europe, Wasserstein calls attention to the absence of children, seeing the smallness of Jewish families as evidence of an individualist “road toward collective oblivion.” This seems to take the demographic doomsaying of the 1930s too seriously. For one thing, as Wasserstein acknowledges a few pages later, Jews had smaller families in Western and Central Europe not because they were in despair about the fate of their people but because they had become bourgeois. Their low fertility rates, low infant mortality, and long lives anticipated the demographic transition of postwar Europe. For another, Jews in the major Jewish homeland, Poland, were still reproducing at a fairly high rate; without emigration the Jewish population grew by about 50,000 a year. And as the Polish origins of the Grynszpan family remind us, in Germany immigration rather than reproduction was the natural source of demographic growth.
The extreme difficulty of movement in the late 1930s thus becomes the theme of the book. After the United States restricted immigration in 1924 and the British limited migration to Palestine in 1936, most Jews knew that their fate, whatever it might be, would come in Europe. Although German and Polish restrictions on citizenship policies toward Jews set the final trap for families like the Grynszpans in 1938, these policies were part of, and in some measure a reaction to, the global constriction of emigration. The Évian Conference of July 1938, on the issue of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, had demonstrated that no major country was willing to take the Jews of Germany—and, to Warsaw’s frustration, the far more numerous Jews of Poland were not even discussed. Insofar as Jews in Poland were moving at all, it was from the small towns to the cities. Wasserstein gives excellent descriptions of Jewish urban misery, although much of the misery was, of course, simply urban and not particularly Jewish. Polish peasants, whose unemployment rate was even higher than that of the Jews, were also flooding the cities.
Wasserstein writes of “New Jerusalems,” the cities that Jews considered to be special. In Poland this was Vilna (Wilno in Polish, Vilnius for Lithuanians, whose capital it is today), where the historian Simon Dubnow, among many others, gathered historical and ethnographic materials for YIVO—the Institute for Jewish Research (today in New York). From the neighboring Soviet Union, the other European country with a Jewish population in the millions, Wasserstein chooses Minsk: notable indeed for its Soviet-era Yiddish culture, at least before the Stalinist Great Terror of 1937–1938 and the Holocaust.
* The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan (Praeger, 1990). ↩
The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan (Praeger, 1990). ↩