ON THIS DATE in 1938, one of the most enigmatic Jewish figures of the Holocaust shot and killed a Nazi diplomat in the German embassy in Paris.
Seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis an excuse for launching Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass, which resulted in the razing of 265 synagogues and 200 houses, the demolition of 7,500 business establishments, and the incarceration of 30,000 Jews in concentration camps.
Grynszpan has been called “the boy who started a war.” A www.pbs.org broadcast called Kristallnacht “a turning point in German policy, setting into motion the Nazi’s systematic extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Christians, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and other Nazi enemies.”
So what should we make of Grynszpan? Was he a reckless assassin whose actions brought pain and death to millions, or a principled rebel who killed a Nazi in a show of strength?
The New York Times in 1999 called Grynszpan’s shooting of vom Rath “a desperate, unconsidered, ill-directed act of revenge,” while Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky declared in 1938 that he was in “open moral solidarity” with Grynszpan.
A month before the shooting, Grynszpan’s parents were among 12,000 Polish Jews living in Germany who had been driven from their homes by Gestapo thugs and deported to Poland, which didn’t want them, either. They suffered from freezing weather and lack of food while living in a wretched state of limbo.
The younger Grynszpan left no doubt as to his motivation for the shooting. “Being a Jew is not a crime,” he said after his arrest. “I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on earth.” In an unmailed postcard he had written, “When I think of our tragedy and that of all 12,000 [expelled] Jews, I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest.”
According to a 1997 New York Observer story, Grynszpan and Kristallnacht solidified anti-Nazi sentiment in the U.S. “The savagery of Kristallnacht made it impossible for Nazi-sympathizing isolationists like Charles Lindbergh to argue that neutrality was a morally neutral stance in a meaningless foreign conflict,” Ron Rosenbaum of the Observer wrote. “Not after the Third Reich had been unveiled, unmasked for anyone who hadn’t been able to see it, as no legitimate regime but a gang of racist murderers masquerading as a state.”
The Gestapo snatched Grynszpan after Germany’s invasion of France and shipped him to a special prison in Berlin. Nazi leaders planned a special show trial for the assassin, who thwarted their plans by threatening to testify in a public trial that a failed homosexual liaison with vom Rath had provided his motivation for the shooting. Vom Rath’s ambiguous sexual leanings made this seem possible. Nazi party leaders wanted nothing to do with such a spectacle, and canceled plans for the show trial.
Grynszpan likely died at Nazi hands, although no one knows for sure. There are reports that he was executed in 1940, although some believe he died later. The wildest theories are that he somehow survived, although there’s no evidence for that.
Most of Grynszpan’s family survived the war and immigrated to Israel. Grynszpan’s father testified in the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.