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.
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.
Last month, shortly before the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, my wife, Ann, and I took a tour of Terezín, the fortress near Prague where more than 100,000 Jewish men, women and children were briefly held by the Germans and their accomplices in a transit camp before being sent on to the death factories and the killing fields.
Our local guide felt it appropriate to tell us that the Jews in their tens of thousands were guarded only by 22 SS men.
The guide was dead wrong. “[B]y the end of 1941, [Terezín] housed some 7,000 German soldiers and Czech civilians,” writes Saul Friedländer in The Years of Extermination, the second volume of his masterwork, Nazi Germany and the Jews. But the subtext of the guide’s remark is not different from the question that Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner asked the survivors who appeared as witnesses at the Eichmann trial: Why did you not fight back?
A good deal of Holocaust scholarship, in fact, has been devoted to showing that the Jews did fight back in greater numbers and more various ways than our guide at Terezín was willing to admit. Yehuda Bauer has adopted the word Amidah, a reference to the “standing prayer” that is the centerpiece of the synagogue service, to honor the Jews who “stood up” against the Germans and their collaborators, some with “cold” weapons like sticks and stones, some with “hot” weapons like guns and bombs, some by smuggling food and medicine, and some by teaching a few words of Hebrew to the children before their lives were taken from them.
The question of Jewish resistance is sore point for me, too. When I set out to tell the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old boy who was among the earliest Jews to engage in an act of armed protest against Nazi Germany, I was both saddened and puzzled at the way he had been wholly written out of history, and as much by the Jewish community as by the rest of the world. At a time when the Jewish world was terrorized by the Nazis, Herschel sought to call the world’s attention to their plight, but he was shunned at the time and forgotten afterwards.
Why, then, is Herschel Grynszpan not celebrated as the hero he fully intended to be? “To bring the attention of the world to what was being done to the Jews was an act of resistance,” Prof. Friedländer told me in an interview. “Why Herschel Grynszpan has been overlooked, even if his act had unfortunate consequences, is strange and baffling.”
That’s precisely the question I sought to answer in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright). And it’s a question I will explore in my subsequent postings as a guest blogger for the Jewish Book Council.
As it turns out, I found a few clues to the mystery in Herschel’s scandalous life story, and I look forward to sharing them with you.