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.
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.
The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.
As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn’t replace moral condemnation or emotional release.
Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.
Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.