The Magazine

Hero and/or Martyr

One desperate act and its unintended consequences.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Who was Herschel Grynszpan? He was a 17-year-old Polish Jew, born and raised in Germany, who in November 1938 walked into the German embassy in Paris, where he had been living for two years, and shot a 29-year-old diplomat named Ernst vom Rath, who died two days later. Vom Rath’s assassination was the immediate pretext for Kristallnacht in Germany, the Nazi pogrom in which some 90 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned, and nearly 8,000 businesses destroyed.

Hero and/or Martyr

The fact that Grynszpan’s name is not widely known is puzzling to the author of this brief study, Jonathan Kirsch. He believes that the shooting of vom Rath was not an isolated murder but an act of Jewish resistance in the face of Nazi tyranny, a symbolic gesture of defiance on the eve of the Holocaust. “We are obliged to remember Herschel Grynszpan,” he concludes, “and to regard him as the hero he sought to be.” 

Far be it from me to decide who should, or should not, be identified as a Jewish hero. But the fact that Grynszpan’s reputation, such as it is, remains ambiguous in the long history of the Jews is no great mystery. It is not clear, and will never be known, whether his futile act was the impulsive gesture it appears to have been or a principled self-sacrifice. As a practical matter, however, it was disastrous. Kristallnacht, in some form or another, would have come in due course in Hitler’s Germany; but the direct consequence of Grynszpan’s random act of violence merely deepened the misery of Jews in the Third Reich. 

Like more than a few assassins in history, Herschel Grynszpan was a curious combination of self-drama and inconsequence: Vain, argumentative, and ineffectual, he had some reason to be self-pitying. The Grynszpans were a poor family, forsaken by their Polish homeland and unwelcome in Germany—Grynszpan’s father eked out a living as a tailor after 1911 in Hanover—where Ostjuden such as the Grynszpans were scorned even by fellow Jews. At 15, Herschel left school and, unable to emigrate to Palestine, was sent to live with an uncle in Paris, where his situation was equally marginal. Uneducated, unskilled, and scarcely competent in French, he found himself, by the fall of 1938, in a twilight existence: an illegal alien, unable to work, fearful of discovery by the Paris police, devoid of a Polish passport, barred from returning to Germany.

In the Reich, meanwhile, “direct action” against Jews soon swept up the Grynszpan family in Hanover: Some 18,000 Ostjuden were arrested and transported east to the border—where Poland initially refused to admit them. Stranded in a refugee camp, and kept from starvation by the Red Cross, Herschel Grynszpan’s sister wrote her brother in Paris a sorrowful postcard describing the family’s plight. 

At that instant, Grynszpan seems to have conflated his own misery with the tragic predicament of Europe’s Jews, and after a sleepless night in a Paris hotel—“Again and again, I ask myself, ‘What have we done to deserve such a fate?’ ”—he concealed a pistol in his raincoat, walked to the German embassy, and announcing that he possessed “important papers” that he needed to show someone, was directed to the third secretary on duty, vom Rath. After the shooting, police found a note in Grynszpan’s pocket addressed to his father: “I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do.”

In some respects, the most astonishing aspect of the story is its aftermath. The Germans demanded the extradition of Grynszpan, which the French refused, hoping that time might lessen the political implications of a German diplomat murdered in Paris. The case did become a minor cause célèbre—the American journalist Dorothy Thompson raised funds for Grynszpan’s defense—but no trial had taken place by the time the Germans arrived in Paris in June 1940. Grynszpan, along with other prisoners, had been removed to the south of France; and when the Gestapo tracked him down, he was immediately transported to Berlin, where Joseph Goebbels made plans for a show trial. 

Which left Grynszpan one last futile gesture. Aware, no doubt, that he was likely to die, Grynszpan bought himself some measure of time by insisting that, far from being a political act, his shooting of vom Rath had been the culmination of a lovers’ quarrel between the two. Of course, this frustrated Goebbels’s plans for a public tribunal, and the Nazi machinery of state seems to have grappled with the problem of what to do with Grynszpan at least until December 1942, when he was presumably killed.

One instructive irony remains. Because the elder Grynszpans had been stranded in Poland, and were shipped further east, they fell into the hands not of the Wehrmacht but of the Red Army—and survived the war. In 1961, Grynszpan’s aged father, Zindel, was the first Holocaust survivor to take the stand as a witness in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. 

Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.