I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.
I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest,life can be so much bigger than religion.
At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.
Then he sang.
It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.
And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.
“The schools would fail through their silence, the Church through its forgiveness, and the home through the denial and silence of the parents. The new generation has to hear what the older generation refuses to tell it.” ― Simon Wiesenthal
I worked for many years with batterers—men who were adjudicated into a program for domestic violence prevention, men who had beaten, hit, punched, and sometimes killed their wives. They sat and stared at me, denying with the most innocent of eyes the very crimes I had laid out in photos in front of me.
She ran into my fist.
I grabbed her arm and then she ran in circles around me, and that is how she broke her own arm.
She had a soft head, and that is why she died when her head hit the iron railing.
People ask if the men ever changed and my answer remains the same: only if they are able to face their crimes and cruelty. Denial, and the shame these men felt (whether shame at being caught, shame at hurting people they should have loved, or shame at their hidden crimes being brought into the bright sunlight), blocked their change. How do you change if you can’t admit what happened? Continue reading
“It is obvious that the war which Hitler and his accomplices waged was a war not only against Jewish men, women, and children, but also against Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, therefore Jewish memory.” ― Elie Wiesel, Night
Like most Jewish children born in the fifties, the Holocaust was a constant shadow. If the German generation born after WWII suffered from collective guilt, trying to cast off the shame of their parents and grandparents, or convince themselves or the world of the innocence of their parents and grandparents, the generation of Jewish children born of the same time, suffered from collective fear.
I didn’t grow up in a traditional Jewish family (if such a thing exists) by any stretch of the imagination. The first time I entered a synagogue was for a friend’s Bar Mitzvah. But I read voraciously, and from the time I received my ‘adult’ card at the Brooklyn Public Library, I was reading accounts—fiction and nonfiction—of the Holocaust. The non-fairy tales of my youth were The Diary of Anne Frank, Mila 18, and Night (which then morphed to Jubilee and Roots, as I conflated the horrors of slavery and concentration camps into one mass of fright).
I grew up with a sense of doom—partly from these stories I consumed, partly due to my own family’s silence (my paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Germany, but I never knew why) and perhaps partially the hours spent looking at photos my father sent my mother from his post in Africa during WWII. That vast wasteland of desert merged in my mind with the nuclear wasteland I envisioned thanks to those elementary school drills spent under my classroom desk—the desks meant to shield us come the nuclear attack.
I never knew whether it was more likely I’d end up a survivor of a bomb, cowering under a desk, or sleeping on a wooden plank in an Auschwitz-like camp. Sophie’s Choice haunted me after my daughters were born. When I received an engagement ring, my crazy first and unbidden thought was that I could sew it into the lining of my coat if I needed to bribe a guard or save a child. Continue reading
Gluckel of Hameln was an intrepid businesswoman, a mother of twelve children, a passionate wife, and a memoirist. She died in 1724, at the age of seventy-eight. Her memoirs are a rare window into the life of European Jewish women of the period. What struck me most vividly by her account of her days was her ability to bridge a business career (otherwise known as financial survival) and family concerns, living a unified, if exhausting, life.
“My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married.” So ends Gluckel’s childhood. As often happened, Gluckel’s marital deal included her being exported to another town. In this case, she was crammed into a peasant cart along with the rest of the wedding party (her mother was much put out, having expected carriages) and bustled off to the “dull and shabby hole” of Hameln, a small village. “There I was, a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg into a back-country town where lived only two Jews.” After the wedding festivities were over, however, Gluckel adapted fast. She adored her father-in-law. After a year, however, her young husband’s ambitions were too big for Hameln and the married children moved to Hamburg, living with Gluckel’s family, where her father’s “pack of servants” helped them with daily life. There, as it was the fashion among gentiles to “wear solid gold chains, and gifts were all in gold,” her teenaged husband traded in gold, “plying his trade from house to house, to buy up the precious metal. Then he turned it over to goldsmiths, or resold it to merchants about to be married; and he earned thereby a tidy profit.” In addition to these efforts, Gluckel calls her husband “the perfect pattern of the pious Jew”; he set aside fixed times to study Torah each day, and fasted Mondays and Thursdays, to such an extent that he compromised his health. He was a tower of patience. In its maturity, their relationship was both harmonious and, in its way, egalitarian. Referring to the fact that her husband asked her advice about a business decision, Gluckel effuses, “my husband did nothing without my knowledge.” Continue reading
The Internet is a tricky beast. Sitting alone, cozy in ragged sweatpants, writing while curled on the couch, it’s easy to believe that you’re cloaked in isolation, even as you spill on that most public of forums. Thus, I hesitate before committing words online. After reading a recent well-intentioned post—about an SS officer—a piece written by a friend of a dear friend, an article meant in good will, I wrestled more than usual.
The essay focused on a particular slice of the copious research this first-generation American author did while writing a novel (which I have not read) about Germany before, during, and after WWII, from the point of view of a young German woman who falls in love with a Jewish man.
During her research, the writer (through her family ties in Germany) met with an elderly former SS officer—an officer and doctor— who the writer concludes was stationed on the front lines, not in a camp.
They met in the man’s home, where a German Mother’s Cross (a program begun by Hitler, encouraging German women to have more Aryan children, which yearly—on Hitler’s mother’s birthday—awarded women crosses centered with swastikas for fertility) hung on the wall, a menorah sat on top of a cabinet, and, in an album of wartime shots shared with the author, was a photo of the officer standing with Hitler.
The author doesn’t question these displayed and shown items: she doesn’t want to discomfort the family member who arranged the interview, upset the doctor’s wife, or continue the process of “collective guilt.” Perhaps the officer was forced into his role, the author suggests. The author herself was a victim of assumption, having been taunted by being called a Nazi because her parents were German.
Despite her sincere attempt to be fair (“who was I to judge him now?” she asks), after finishing the essay I was shaken. Badly. Before writing a comment, I spent hours pondering the wisdom of ignoring the post versus attempting conversation. I didn’t want to anger or insult the writer, or publicly ‘call her out,’ and thus hesitated to commit my feelings to public paper. Still, however well-intentioned, her words felt like slaps against my history. I couldn’t get the essay out of my mind.
Not writing didn’t seem like an option.
The word used by the notorious propaganda chief of the Nazi party is a mangled version of the Yiddish word for ‘family’ (mishpocheh), and it conveys the cruelty and contempt that the Nazis held for the Jewish people. To hear the mamaloshen fall from the lips of a man who seeks to murder every Jewish man, woman, child and baby within his reach carries a special kind of horror.
I quote the journal entry in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), and I use “mishpocheh’ as a kind of leitmotif in the story I tell. At the age of 15, Herschel was sent out of Nazi Germany by his doting mother and father, and the boy was passed along from uncle to uncle until he finally reached Paris, where he was given a place to live by his Uncle Abraham. They were all tragically wrong in assuming that France offered a safe refuge for the Grynszpans, but they acted loyally and courageously in an effort to save the life of the youngest member of the family.
While living in Paris, Herschel learned that his mother, father and older siblings back in Germany had been arrested by the Nazis and driven at gunpoint into the no-man’s-land on the Polish border along with some 12,000 other Polish Jews. Herschel was so distraught over the fate of his cherished family that he bought a revolver, contrived a ruse that allowed him to enter the German embassy in Paris, and assassinated a minor German diplomat as an act of protest and resistance. Ironically, Herschel and the uncle who sheltered him in Paris did not survive, but his father and brother were still alive to testify at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961.
As it happens, I first heard the story of Herschel Grynszpan from one of my own mishpocheh — my late father, Robert Reuven Kirsch. He was a literary critic for the Los Angeles Times for nearly thirty years and the author of many books of his own, and he told me in the late 1970s about the novel he intended to write about Herschel’s life and exploits. Sadly, my father fell ill and passed away before he could undertake the project, but I never forgot the strange and even scandalous details of Herschel’s life story. I decided to honor the memory of my beloved father by writing the book that he did not live long enough to write.
That’s why the word mishpocheh appears for the first time in my biography of Herschel Grynszpan on the dedication page: “For my father, Robert . . . and the mishpocheh for whom [his] memory is a blessing.”
Kristallnacht, the first incident of state-sponsored mass violence against the Jews of Nazi Germany, marks a turning point in history. Hitler used the shooting of a minor German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath by a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris — the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris(Liveright) — as the pretext for the sudden escalation of his war against the Jews on November 10, 1938. One of the overlooked but highly telling facts about Kristallnacht is that the Nazi regime issued a list of approved phrases to be painted on Jewish storefronts during the “spontaneous” demonstration of righteous German anger. Among the sanctioned graffiti was “Revenge for the murder of vom Rath.”
Here is another reason why history has not been kind to Herschel Grynszpan. When he fired a shot in anger at a Nazi diplomat on that day in 1938, much of the Jewish world was still convinced that passivity and patience offered the only strategy for survival in the face of Nazi anti-Semitism. The shot that Herschel fired in Paris was seen by his fellow Jews as nothing less than a catastrophe. So it was that one Jewish newspaper in Paris was moved to publish an open letter of apology to vom Rath’s mother in which the writer “expressed great sorrow on the death of her son” and implored her that “it was unjust to blame all Jews for her son’s death.”
Today we know that the Jewish response to the Final Solution was tragically misplaced. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, for example, Jews in Germany were required to surrender any weapons they might own. In my book, I tell the story of a man named Rosenberg in the town of Fürth who defied the order by throwing his Browning pistol into the Pegnitz River. A time would come soon when the ghetto fighters and partisans in eastern Europe would risk their lives to add a single battered weapon to their tragically sparse arsenals, and yet the thought apparently never occurred to Rosenberg that he might one day need a weapon to defend himself against the government that sent the Brownshirts into the streets on Kristallnacht.
Of course, the Nazis themselves claimed to see a threat in the Jewish population of Europe. Himmler, the master architect of the Holocaust, once told his Nazi comrades that it would have been “cowardly” for him to spare Jewish children from mass murder precisely because they would “grow up to be the avengers who would kill our fathers and our grandchildren.” That was the whole point of the show trial that Hitler planned and Herschel foiled. Jewish vengeance only came later and never posed a real obstacle to the Final Solution, but we cannot deny that Herschel Grynszpan was one of the first Jewish resisters. To dismiss young Herschel as nothing more than a distraught adolescent — or the aggrieved victim of a homosexual seduction — is to ignore the meaning that he fully intended to convey to the world when he picked up a gun.
“For three lines in history that will be written about the youth who fought and did not go like sheep to the slaughter,” declared Dolek Liebeskind, a member of the Zionist underground in the Cracow ghetto, “it is even worth dying.” One of my goals in writing The Short, Strange Live of Herschel Grynszpan has been to afford him something more than three lines in the history of Jewish resistance.
Before I’m labeled a raging feminist for mentioning that gunmen have been men, I’m telling you I love men but hate machismo. This is a call to purge the world of macho “gunitis” (to coin a new word) like it was hepatitis.
The Gun mystique is glaringly present world over: in every park or city square, there’s a monument mounted on high of some big general flashing his sword or some GI Joe clutching his bayonet. I used to wheel my baby grandson Mendy in Central Park and I made sure to point out (even though he was only two years old) that there was no glory in carrying a rifle, no pride in wearing a uniform. My indoctrination began when I saw his delicate baby face looking up at the fierce military statue on 71st Street and fifth Avenue. A group of bronzed soldiers appear to be falling onto the ground. “Oh,” I whined, “my goodness, look, Sweetie, the soldiers are going to get all dirty; what do you think the soldiers should do?”
Baby Mendy blurted out loud and clear, “they should go home to their Mommies.”
It’s confounding, isn’t it, how some baby boys when they become toddlers, play “bang, bang, you’re dead.” Where did these darlings learn this? Continue reading
At the age of 17, as a refugee from Nazi Germany living illegally in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan saw the world in 1938 as a dire and dangerous place, a perception that he shared with all of his fellow Jews. Unlike them, however, he was capable of imagining the atrocities that the Germans would be willing to carry out in the next few years, and he resolved to call attention to the plight of the Jews by assassinating a Nazi diplomat. That’s the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright).
“I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest,” he wrote to his parents in a confessional postcard that he was unable to mail before his arrest, “and this I intend to do.”
Herschel is not the only young Jew who showed more vision and more courage than his elders in those terrible times. After all, it was the youthful activists of the Bund and the Zionist movement, both left and right, who banded together in the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw and elsewhere while some older and supposedly wiser members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans in drafting the deportation lists. (To be sure, young people can be impulsive and even reckless — we have seen yet more evidence of this fact in recent headlines — but we should not deny that sometimes a hotheaded boy can be right.)
Yet it is the young ghetto fighters who are remembered, honored and celebrated, while Herschel Grynszpan is almost wholly ignored.
More than one reason can be cited to explain why Grynszpan has been derogated, diminished and sometimes entirely left out of the history of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. In my book, I explore all of the rumor and speculation that has attached itself to the Grynszpan case, including a catalogue of conspiracy theories, some focusing on the Jews and some on the Nazis, which have been offered to explain his exploits. (Hannah Arendt embraced one of the more bizarre theories in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) One reason, however, stands out.
At a crucial moment in the Grynszpan case, when the boy was awaiting his murder trial in Paris, Herschel’s attorney made a remarkable proposal to his client. The French were fearful of war with Germany, he pointed out, and no jury would dare to acquit him of the crime if they believed that he had murdered a Nazi diplomat as a gesture of protest against the Third Reich. But what if his motive was something more intimate? What if the Nazi diplomat whom he killed was a sexual predator who had seduced and then abandoned him? If so, the attorney suggested, the jury might be persuaded to regard the whole affair as case as a crime passionelle rather than a political assassination.
Grynszpan rejected the scandalous theory of defense and insisted on justifying his crime as a legitimate act of protest against Nazi mistreatment of the Jewish people. The idea was abandoned by his attorney, who dismissed Herschel as “that absurd little Jew,” but not by Herschel himself. Once in Germany custody, utterly alone in a Gestapo cell, he saw a single way to frustrate Hitler’s plan for a show trial. If put on trial, he courageously told his interrogators, he would testify that he murdered the Nazi diplomat as an act of revenge against a homosexual predator who had ruined and betrayed him.
Here was Herschel’s single greatest act of courage and vision. He understood that the Nazis hated homosexuals as much as they hated Jews, and he recognized that they would not stage a show trial if he were to sully the honor of the Third Reich by characterizing his victim as a gay man. The decision was made by Hitler himself after he had been warned of Herschel’s intentions by the trial planners, and the elaborate script that had been prepared for the Grynszpan trial was shelved. Herschel had sabotaged the Nazi plans for a propaganda coup, but he also managed to cast a shadow over his own motives. “I guarantee you, if everything about Grynszpan’s case was the same, except that he slept with Anne Frank,” wrote journalist Jonathan Marks in the New York Jewish Week in 2010, “there’d be floats in his honor at the Salute to Israel Parade.”
No hard historical evidence supports the allegation that he had been seduced and abandoned by the man he assassinated. Indeed, we do not know with certainty whether or not Herschel was gay at all. But it is beyond serious debate that the explosive issue of sexual orientation that he injected into the case while in German custody cast a pall over his exploits. The Nazis were hardly the only homophobes, then or now, and his avowed sexual orientation may help us understand why he is treated so coolly even in Jewish circles.
My new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), is the biography of a 17-year-old boy who sought to write himself into history but, ironically, has been almost wholly ignored in the scholarship of World War II and the Holocaust.
Herschel achieved a brief moment of fame in 1938, when he entered the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat. Indeed, his deed was the focus of a media frenzy, and one famous American journalist, columnist and broadcast Dorothy Thompson organized a defense committee that hired a famous French attorney to represent him in the courts. No less a world-historical figure than Leon Trotsky wrote about the case for the newspapers, and English composer Michael Tippett was inspired to write an oratorio about Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, the world press moved on from coverage of the Grynszpan case, and he disappeared into a Gestapo prison cell after the German invasion of France. Significantly, “the Jew Grynszpan,” as the Nazis invariably called him, was well known to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler was eager to mount a show trial that would justify the mass murder of the Jews by focusing on the armed resistance of one Jew. For Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, the Grynszpan case was not less than an obsession.
But Herschel himself, no longer represented by famous lawyers or championed by celebrated columnists, was forced to find his own to foil Hitler and his henchmen. As I explore in my book, and will revisit in my next blog, the scandalous sexual secret that he revealed to his German interrogators — Adolf Eichmann among them — succeeded in convincing Hitler to postpone the show trial, but it also explains why Herschel Grynszpan is not embraced as the Jewish hero he sought to be.
Today, the world is divided into a large number of people who have never heard of Herschel Grynszpan, and a much smaller number who recall his name and deed, although even these people rarely know the whole story or the real story. My mission in writing The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan has been to restore the 17-year-old boy to the pages of history. Ironically, that’s exactly where he aspired to put himself when he took up arms against Nazi Germany in a symbolic act of violence in Paris in 1938.
Hitler knew Grynszpan by name. So did Goebbels and Eichmann. And so should we.