'Jews shared a negative view of him. He was not a hero'

Kristallnacht assassin Herschel Grynszpan: Heroic ‘boy avenger’ or psychopath?

83 years after the teenager murdered a German diplomat in Paris, ostensibly giving the Nazis a pretext to spark the pogroms, his reputation has started to improve

Herschel Grynszpan after being arrested on Nov. 7, 1938, in Paris (public domain)
Herschel Grynszpan after being arrested on Nov. 7, 1938, in Paris (public domain)

Ever since 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan assassinated a German diplomat in Paris on November 7, 1938 — two days before the Kristallnacht pogroms — Jews around the world have resisted elevating him to hero status.

Grynszpan’s impulsive action drew attention to the plight of Jews under Nazism, but his critics — including philosopher Hannah Arendt — labeled him a psychopath employed by the Gestapo.

This is because when Grynszpan shot German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, the Jewish teen inadvertently gave the Nazis an enticing pretext for violence. While vom Rath lay dying in the hospital, Hitler and propaganda minister Josef Goebbels planned the pogrom that came to be called Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass.”

The power of Germany’s propaganda machine convinced nearly everyone — including German Jews — that Grynszpan’s actions ignited the largest pogrom in Germany since the Middle Ages. To drive home the retribution point, Goebbels ordered the words “Revenge for vom Rath” painted on Jewish buildings.

“Everyone shared a negative view of Herschel Grynszpan in the Jewish world. He was not a hero,” said historian Raphael Gross in an interview with The Times of Israel. “There were those people who felt he really was responsible for the outburst [of Kristallnacht].”

No Jewish organization rushed to his legal defense, and he was not lauded from rabbinical pulpits or editorial pages. For Jews in Germany and abroad, Grynszpan’s actions were an embarrassment.

Herschel Grynszpan in custody. (public domain)

In recent years, though, Grynszpan’s posthumous reputation has started to improve with the publication of several books about his “short, strange” life.

Born to Polish Jews who emigrated to Germany, Grynszpan was not eligible for German citizenship. As the noose was tightened around the Jews, Grynszpan’s parents sought to relocate their youngest son. The physically frail youth was rejected by several Zionist groups and eventually found himself in Paris.

Known as “Hermann” to friends and family, Grynszpan has been described as “very emotional and prone to anxiety.” In Paris, he joined thousands of refugees pouring into the city and was subsidized by allowances from relatives.

The catalyst for Grynszpan taking up arms was the so-called “Polish Aktion” before Kristallnacht. In three days at the end of October, the regime expelled 12,000 Polish-origin Jews from Germany, including Grynszpan’s parents, brother, and sister.

The freshly minted refugees were deposited into a no-man’s-land between Germany and Poland, with neither country agreeing to back down and allow them in. Meanwhile, media reported on the increasingly dire situation.

Jews in no-man’s land between Germany and Poland following the Nazis’ ‘Polish Aktion’ of October 1938 (public domain)

Enraged by the plight of his family and other Jews, Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris pretending to be carrying “secret documents.” When introduced to vom Rath, Grynszpan delivered what he called a “message” on behalf of his fellow Jews — five bullets, poorly aimed.

“I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me. Hermann,” read a note found in Grynszpan’s pocket, addressed to his parents.

Taken into French custody, Grynszpan awaited trial during the year and a half before Germany’s invasion of France. When a German security squad entered France to capture prominent enemies of the Reich in 1940, Grynszpan was first on the list.

Herschel Grynszpan in custody (public domain)

By putting Grynszpan on trial, Hitler hoped to demonstrate the perfidious schemes of global Jewry. Meanwhile, Grynszpan became an object of curiosity for regime honchos, including Adolf Eichmann, who visited him in prison while Grynszpan’s “show trial” was organized.

‘Who is on trial in this case?’

During the months that Grynszpan was languishing in a French prison, most Jews wanted to put him and the pogrom he wrought out of mind. Fortunately for the condemned teenager, an American celebrity journalist would not let the world forget about him.

“They say he will go to the guillotine without a trial by jury,” said Dorothy Thompson in a radio speech delivered four days after Kristallnacht. “Who is on trial in this case? I say we are all on trial.”

Having been kicked out of Germany for her anti-Nazi reporting, Thompson was determined to elevate Grynszpan’s deed into a heroic response to Germany’s persecution of Jews. Raising funds for Grynszpan’s legal defense, the journalist insisted major contributions come from non-Jews, so the Nazis could not smear her efforts.

American journalist Dorothy Thompson during a radio broadcast (public domain)

“They say a man is entitled to a trial by a jury of his peers, and a man’s kinsmen rally around him when he is in trouble,” said Thompson. “But no kinsman of Herschel’s can defend him. The Nazi government has announced that if any Jews, anywhere in the world, protest at anything that is happening, further oppressive measures will be taken. They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage.”

German diplomat Ernst vom Rath (public domain)

Through donations to the so-called “Grynszpan committee,” French attorney Vincent de Moro-Giafferi was hired to defend Grynszpan. Known internationally for his impassioned oratory, Moro-Giafferi convinced Grynszpan to abandon his “avenger of the Jewish people” defense in favor of something more salacious.

“The murder could be presented not as a political act but as a “[crime of passion]” — a lover’s quarrel, in which the German diplomat could be judged incidentally as having seduced a minor,” wrote historian Michael Marrus of the new defense plan.

“By adopting this legal strategy, they hoped to defuse the [case against Grynszpan] and also reduce the penalty drastically, possibly even prompting a suspended sentence,” wrote Marrus. “Moro-Giafferi shared the fears of Grynszpan [supporters] at the time of Kristallnacht that a political trial would be a catastrophe for the Jews of Germany and elsewhere.”

Aware that Paris was awash with rumors of the late vom Rath’s alleged homosexuality, Moro-Giafferi took advantage of the regime’s paranoid homophobia. The notion of vom Rath being portrayed as a gay “predator” in pursuit of a Jewish adolescent was too dire to fathom, so Hitler and Goebbels canceled the trial.

“Grynszpan has invented the insolent argument that he had a homosexual relationship with vom Rath,” wrote Goebbels in his diary. “That is, of course, a shameless lie; however, it is thought out very cleverly and would, if brought out in the course of a public trial, certainly become the main argument of enemy propaganda,” wrote the Nazi propaganda chief.

‘There’s no reason to portray him in a bad light’

Following the aborted “show trial,” Grynszpan’s immediate fate bore similarities to that of other “prominent prisoners” of the Reich, including Father Martin Niemöller. To that end, Grynszpan was sent to the forced labor camp Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, as opposed to one of the Holocaust death camps.

According to historians, Grynszpan likely perished in Sachsenhausen in 1942. Four years prior, the camp was filled to capacity with thousands of Jewish men arrested during the pogrom that Grynszpan’s actions supposedly ignited.

In death, Grynszpan was never elevated to hero status like, for example, David Frankfurter, the Croatian Jew who shot Nazi representative Wilhelm Gustloff in Davos. Nor was Grynszpan considered to be in the same league as Stefan Lux, the Slovak-Jewish journalist who committed suicide in front of a League of Nations meeting in 1936.

The father of Herschel Grynszpan, Zyndl, testifies at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem (public domain)

Fitting for a young man “given to acts of grandeur,” Grynszpan’s next posthumous appearance in headlines was during the Jewish state’s most famous trial. Having survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel, Gynszpan’s father — Zyndl Grynszpan — was called as a witness in the Adolf Eichmann trial of 1961.

In her coverage for The New Yorker magazine, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about Zyndl Grynszpan’s “shining honesty” during his brief testimony. The elderly Grynszpan’s account of the “Polish Aktion” and what happened to his family afterward — including Herschel — took 10 minutes.

When it came to Herschel, Arendt saw nothing to praise. Writing him off as a “psychopath” who “knocked about” between school expulsions, Arendt claimed Grynszpan was an “agent provocateur” on the Gestapo’s payroll.

Herschel Grynszpan in custody (public domain)

In the opinion of German-Jewish historian Raphael Gross, Grynszpan has not received a fair hearing. Unfortunately, said the Kristallnacht expert, Arendt’s description of Grynszpan did not exactly rehabilitate his legacy.

“I don’t think we know enough to somehow take sides in terms of speaking badly about him,” said Gross. “There is no reason to portray him in a bad light.”

Emphasizing that Grynszpan was a Jewish refugee “without any chance,” Gross said the doomed youth’s story is still relevant today.

“His situation is one that many, many people are in now,” said Gross. “Stateless, without a passport, without a future or any country that will accept them. He was in a horrible situation.”

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