‘In the Cage, Trying to Get Out’

À l’intérieur du camp de Drancy

by Annette Wieviorka and Michel Laffitte
Paris: Perrin, 382 pp., e23.00 (paper)
Imagno/Getty Images
Herschel Grynszpan at his first interrogation, one day after he shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath at the German embassy in Paris, November 8, 1938

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…

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