Herschel Grynszpan11 February 2019.

This will tell you something: in October 1938 Germany’s Nazi government ordered the expulsion of many Jews of foreign nationality who were then residing in the Reich.  The Jews—especially the Polish Jews—didn’t want to go.  Five years after the Nazis had come to power, and two years after the “fake nice” show of the Berlin Summer Olympics, they didn’t want to go.  Jews had left Poland and Rumania and Hungary for a reason.  From September 1939 on, everywhere in German-controlled Europe would become increasingly, unimaginably worse for Jews.  But not now in October 1938.  There were still places worse than Nazi Germany.  Out they went all the same.  However, the Polish Republic refused to accept the returnees.  So those people sat in the squalid space between the German and Polish border train stations.  The international press reported the suffering of these people.

One attentive reader of the stories lived in Paris.[1]  Like the Moldavian cleaning ladies and Portuguese plasterers with whom my son was supposed to be learning French (instead of pan-handling in the Place Beaubourg the instant my back was turned), Hershel Grynszpan had gained illegal entry into the Republic.  He had come through Holland from Hanover, where he had grown up.[2]  Then he spent some time in the wind.  Grynszpan’s parents and sister were among the deported Jews freezing the in the mud just short of the Polish customs post.

On 7 November, Grynszpan bought a pistol, then went to the German Embassy and shot a young diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, who had been assigned to see him.  Rath died on 9 November 1938.  That night, the Nazi government unleashed a pogrom against the Jews in Germany.  It has come down to later generations as “Kristallnacht” (The Night of Broken Glass).[3]  The gigantic riot shocked Western peoples.  Along with the German occupation of Rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it played an important role in persuading French and British opinion that, much as they wanted something else, the Germans needed another beating.

The Nazis made Ernst vom Rath a race-martyr in the eyes of the Germans.  He was hardly that: Rath seems to have been merely a standard-issue late-joining, careerist, upper-class German.  French Jews made Grynszpan a pariah.  Then Grynszpan’s lawyer intimated that the murder resulted from a lovers quarrel between the killer and the killed, with allegations that Rath had suffered from anal gonorrhea.  The French courts quickly convicted Grynszpan, but spared him from the guillotine.  He was in a jail cell when the Germans conquered France in summer 1940.  The Nazis dragged him off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The Nazis were just as big on “show trials” as were the Stalinists.  They just weren’t as good at them.  In the end, Grynszpan disappeared into “night and fog.”  He may have been murdered in late 1942.

In spite of what he hoped and what historians may say, Herschel Grynszpan has no larger significance.  Either the Holocaust was on rails from Hitler’s early career OR the Holocaust sprang from decisions taken in the Winter of 1940-1941. But individuals act all the same.

[1] Stephen Koch, Hitler’s Pawn (2019).

[2] Unfortunately for mythology and film, Grynszpan was a jerk.  He was “a loner, immature, self-absorbed, quick to quarrel, [and] not always given to thinking things through.”

[3] Huge numbers of identifiably “Jewish” sites—stores, offices, synagogues—were destroyed or had their windows broken, the homes and businesses of individual Jews were looted, 30,000 Jews were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps until they were ransomed, and thousands of Jews caught a beating—of whom 91 died.

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