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.
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.
In 1989 I accompanied my parents and brother on my mother’s first visit back to her birthplace of Freiburg im Breisgau – a charming medieval city in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. My mother’s family had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the terrors of Kristallnacht, and her return trip, more than a half-century later, was sparked by news that the city was reaching out to Jewish former citizens. Hosting a series of annual reunions, Freiburg invited Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meetings and events aimed at reconciliation and remembrance. At the time I was a correspondent for The New York Times and, in writing about our visit for the paper, forged what would become a lasting friendship with the city’s press secretary, Walter Preker.
About fifteen years later, Walter informed me that a German artist,Gunter Demnig, had launched a remarkable nationwide project in which he was embedding memorial markers into the sidewalks of city streets. Demnig was placing so-called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” outside the homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust so that current residents and passersby would be confronted on a daily basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s victims. Each metal-covered “stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones were set, and Walter wondered whether I would be interested in arranging for Stolpersteine to be placed in front of my grandparents’ Freiburg home at Poststrasse 6. He suggested it might be necessary to obtain permission from the current owners, still the same family, my grandparents’ former neighbors, who had “purchased” it from them at a grossly undervalued price in 1938.
Through work on my book – Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed – I had developed a good relationship with their grandson, Michael Stock. His family had divided the handsome building into five apartments, such that he continued to live there with his mother, along with several tenants. When I called him to broach the issue of the Stolpersteine, Michael raised no objection, and so in 2005, Gunter Demnig memorialized my grandparents, Samuel Sigmar Günzburger and Alice Berta Günzburger, in the sidewalk before the home from which they’d fled.
The following year, the Stolpersteine proved useful in an entirely unexpected way. A French businessman from Lyon, on an extended stay in Freiburg, stopped in surprise when he noticed a familiar name inscribed on two Stolpersteine on the sidewalk where he was strolling. An avid genealogist, he had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to tracing family history, and he immediately recognized Sigmar Günzburger as a relation. Indeed Sigmar’s father had been the brother of his own great-grandfather, which meant that we were cousins. Thanks to the artist’s representative in Freiburg, my enterprising cousin promptly got in contact with me – reconnecting branches of the family separated in the Diaspora of the Nazi years.
In 2007 he hosted a family reunion in Paris, and he graciously insisted that my son go to visit him in Lyon while studying in France in his senior year of college. Meanwhile, my cousin proved indefatigable in his continuing research. He discovered and financed the publication of Hebrew sermons written by a common ancestor, an esteemed eighteenth-century Alsatian rabbi. He organized a family expedition to Freiburg and its environs. And made a pilgrimage of sorts to Gurs, the French detention camp near the Pyrenees to which the Nazis in 1940 deported all the Jews who still remained in Freiburg and other regions near the Rhine. Supportive of my book research, he generously sent me photographs and documents and details of familial roots and shoots on an almost weekly basis.
Shockingly, I would learn that as children in France, his mother and aunt had been turned over to the Nazis by their own school principal. Both girls had been deported to a camp, my cousin told me, and his aunt had perished. Then came a revelation that, after all our previous discourse, somehow proved more shocking still: as a very young man, he had converted to Christianity. His wife was Christian, as were his sons.
He made this known to us one day when, visiting with my mother in her suburban Washington, D.C. apartment, he asked her for a copy of the Bible and read aloud the verses that predicted the coming of the Messiah. If the Jewish sacred text anticipated His arrival, our cousin challenged us, how was it that we failed to recognize that He had already come?
The moment proved awkward, as I struggled for an answer, and my mother gaped in disbelief. What had led this Holocaust survivor’s son, so devoted to Jewish family history, to spurn the faith of the forebears he revered? Was my newfound cousin, grappling with a painful past as I myself was doing, rejecting an identity that had spelled danger for many centuries? While tracing the branches of our tree, it seemed he was denying our common ground. His question lay between us like another sort of stumbling stone, but because I’d come to love him, I chose to step around it.
For the past ten years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.
But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the nineteenth century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.
And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.
If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.
Dr. Abigail Green’s new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.
What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.
A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was
written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.
Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.
Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.
Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.