In retrospect it made perfect sense. I was in one of the most isolated places on earth, deep in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. There was no electricity and no running water. In the rainy season, which was just beginning, the roads were flooded and the dirt landing strips often too muddy for even small airplanes to land. Other than the occasional United Nations helicopter the people here were completely cut off.
I was six years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its Nazi villains, made everyone I knew want to be an archaeologist with a bullwhip. We read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in junior high. Schindler’s List came out my freshman year of college and I went to see it with my parents when I was home on winter break, while Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were prominently featured on the syllabus.
Studying German, the Holocaust was ever present. One of the first lines of poetry you learn is Paul Celan’s “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland,” death is a master from Germany. Unfortunately for the people of South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the master’s disciples still roam the earth.
I arrived in Nairobi a year ago to work as the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times but I hadn’t quite finished working on The Eternal Nazi, a book that grew out of my work as the newspaper’s Berlin bureau chief. That was how I found myself sitting in a plastic chair, under a tree trying to rewrite the epilogue. The young South Sudanese man approached, wanting to know what I was doing on my MacBook.
“I’m working on a book,” I said.
“What’s it about?” he asked. His English was quite good because, as a refugee, he had gone to school in Kenya.
“Nazis,” I said, prompting the question that so disarmed me. “They were really bad and they killed lots of people.”
For the people of South Sudan, after decades of war with terrible atrocities against civilians committed by all sides, that described a lot of people.
“Like how many?” he asked skeptically. I thought about the six million killed in the Holocaust, the Soviet soldiers and civilians, the people buried in the London blitz or drowned in ships sunk by U-boats.
“Millions,” I said. “Tens of millions.”
“Oh,” he said, nodding, finding the number sufficient. “That really is a lot.” He paused then asked me, “What were they called again?”
“Nazis,” I said.
“I’ll remember that,” he said, then left me alone to write for as long as my battery lasted or until I could find a generator.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I was in Vienna earlier this month to talk about my book and to show the documentary film I made at the U.S. Embassy’s Amerika Haus cultural center. During my research for this project, I had previously made two separate trips to Vienna but hadn’t been back to the city since the fall of 2010. It was a beautiful morning—bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, a warming spring day—and I took a long walk to revisit some of the places I’d gone to before, all of which figured, one way or another, in Gil and Eleanor Kraus’ rescue mission.
I first stopped at the Kunstlerhaus, a nineteenth century artists’ exhibition hall that, in the spring of 1939, was the site of the Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—exhibit, which had traveled throughout Germany and Austria since its original opening, attended by Hitler himself, in Munich in 1937. Gil and Eleanor came to see the exhibition a day or two before they left Vienna with the fifty children. Coincidentally, I had attended only a couple of weeks earlier a fascinating and disturbing exhibition of some of that same “degenerate” art at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Suddenly it struck me as I walked past the Kunstlerhaus that I had gazed upon several of the very same paintings that Gil and Eleanor had viewed 75 years earlier.
After passing by the elegant Bristol Hotel, where Gil and Eleanor stayed while they were in Vienna, I made my way up Kartnerstrasse, one of the city’s fashionable shopping streets (as it was in 1939) and walked past the massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A few minutes later I found myself on Seitenstettengasse, the street where the offices of Vienna’s Jewish community are located today as they were when the Krauses were here. This is where Gil and Eleanor met with the parents and interviewed the children hoping to come to America. Not long before the Krauses arrived, the Nazis raided these offices, arrested Jewish community leaders and took control. During my visit, two armed police officers maintained a vigilant watch at one end of the street. A synagogue adjoins the Jewish community office, as it did in the 1930s. But the police are now stationed here to guard against anti-Semitic attacks, rather than to help carry them out as they did during the Kristallnacht riots of November 1938.
As I continued my stroll through Vienna’s inner city, I tried to imagine a time when these same, cobblestoned streets were teeming with Jews—lawyers, shopkeepers, merchants, journalists, writers, doctors—all of whom had contributed to the rich vibrancy of this once great cultural capital of Europe. In the 1930s, just like today, Vienna’s lovely green parks were lined with wooden benches. By 1938, little plaques had been affixed to the benches announcing they were reserved for Aryans. By the time that Gil and Eleanor arrived, Jewish children and adults alike were no longer even allowed in the parks. On this warm spring day, I’m free to take a seat on those same wooden benches. But the echoes of that once-thriving Jewish culture have vanished into silence. Only a tiny sliver of a Jewish community exists now in Vienna, and that earlier world is gone forever. I slowly made my way back to my hotel, passing yet another row of empty benches. Without warning, my eyes moistened with tears. I was surrounded only by ghosts.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
“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
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.
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.