Herschel Grynszpan

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File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1988-078-08, Herschel Feibel Grynszpan.jpg
Herschel Grynszpan just after his arrest (7 November 1938)

Herschel Feibel Grynszpan (German: Hermann Grünspan) (28 March 1921 — last known to be alive 1942, declared dead 1960) was a Polish-Jewish refugee, born in Germany. His assassination of the Nazi[1] German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on 7 November 1938 in Paris provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, the antisemitic pogrom of 9–10 November 1938. Grynszpan was seized by the Gestapo after the German invasion of France and brought to Germany.

Grynszpan's fate is unknown. However, he most probably did not survive World War II.[2]

Early years

Herschel Grynszpan was born in Hanover, Germany. His parents, Sendel and Riva were Polish Jews who had emigrated from Poland in 1911 and settled in Hanover, where Sendel opened a tailor's shop, from which the family made a modest living. Because of the German Citizenship Law of 1913, based on the principles of Jus sanguinis, Grynszpan was never a German citizen despite being born in Germany.[3] They became Polish citizens after World War I, and retained that status during their years in Germany.[4] Herschel was the youngest of six children, only three of whom survived childhood. The first child was stillborn in 1912. The second child, daughter Sophie Helena, born in 1914, died in 1928 of scarlet fever. A daughter Esther was born on 31 January 1916, and a son, Mordechai, on 29 August 1919. A fifth child, Salomone, was born in 1920 and died in 1931 in a road accident. On 28 March 1921, Herschel was born.[4]

The Grynszpan family were de (Ostjuden) ("Eastern Jews") as the Germans described Jews from Eastern Europe. The Ostjuden usually spoke Yiddish and tended to be considerably more religiously observant, impoverished and less well educated than German Jews. Given the situation of the Ostjuden in Germany, unlike German Jews who tended to see themselves as Germans first and Jews second, Grynszpan grew up with an intense sense of his Jewishness, and always regarded himself as a first and foremost as a Jew. Grynszpan dropped out of school at the age of 14.[5] As a student, Grynszpan was considered by his teachers to be an intelligent, if rather lazy, student who never seemed to try to excel at his studies.[5] Grynszpan himself later complained that his teachers disliked him because he was an Ostjude, and that he was treated as an "outcast" both by his German teachers and fellow students.[5] As a child and a teenager, Grynszpan was well known for his violent temper, and his tendency to respond to any anti-Semitic insult with his fists, leading him to be frequently suspended from school for the fights that he was always getting into.[5]

Hanover to Paris

Herschel attended a state primary school until he was 14, in 1935. He later said that he left school because Jewish students were already facing discrimination. He was an intelligent, sensitive youth with few close friends, although he was an active member of the Jewish youth sports club, Bar-Kochba Hanover. When he left school, his parents decided there was no future for him in Germany, and tried to arrange for him to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. With financial assistance from Hanover's Jewish community, Herschel was sent to a yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) in Frankfurt, where he studied Hebrew and the Torah: he was, by all accounts, more religious than his parents. After eleven months he left the yeshiva and returned to Hanover, where he applied to emigrate to Palestine. But the local Palestine emigration office told him he was too young, and would have to wait a year. Rather than wait, Herschel and his parents decided that he should go to live with his uncle and aunt, Abraham and Chawa Grynszpan, in Paris. He obtained a Polish passport and a German residence permit, and received permission to leave Germany for Belgium, where another uncle, Wolf Grynszpan, was living. He had no intention of staying in Belgium, however, and in September 1936 he entered France illegally. He was unable to enter France legally because he had no financial support, while Jews were not permitted to take money out of Germany.[6]

In Paris, Grynszpan lived in a small Yiddish-speaking enclave of Polish Orthodox Jews, and met few people outside it, learning only a few words of French in two years. Initially, Grynszpan lived a carefree, bohemian life as a "poet of the streets", spending his days aimlessly wandering the streets of Paris reciting Yiddish poems to himself; Grynszpan's two biggest interests other than exploring Paris were hanging out in coffeehouses and going to the cinema.[5][7] Grynszpan spent this period trying to get legal residence in France, without which he could not work or study legally, but was rejected by French officials. His re-entry permit for Germany expired in April 1937 and his Polish passport expired in January 1938, leaving him without legal papers. In July 1937, the Prefecture of Police ruled that Grynszpan had no basis for his request to stay in France, and in August he was ordered to leave the country. He had no re-entry permit for Germany and in any case had no desire to go there.[8] In March 1938, Poland had passed a law depriving Polish citizens who had lived continuously abroad for more than five years of their citizenship.[9] Grynszpan effectively became a stateless person as a result, and continued to live in Paris illegally. The lonely Grynszpan living in poverty on the margins of French life as an illegal immigrant, and with no real skills not having much in the way of a future, grew increasingly desperate and angry as his situation continued to worsen.[7] Grynszpan was afraid to take a job because of his illegal immigrant status, and depended upon his uncle Abraham to support him, who himself was extremely poor, and could only provide so much for his nephew.[5] Grynszpan's refusal to work caused much tension with his uncle and aunt, who frequently told him that he was a major drain on their finances, and he had to take a job, regardless of the heightened risk of deportation that it entailed.[5] From October 1938 onwards, Grynszpan was in constant hiding as the French police were looking for him in order to deport him, a situation that put Grynszpan under considerable stress and strain.[7] The few who did know Grynszpan in Paris described him as a shy, but intensely emotional teenager who often cried when discussing the sufferings of Jews around the world, a subject that he was obsessed with, especially the suffering of his beloved family back in Germany.[7] Grynszpan came from an extremely close-knit, loving family and for him, his family was his world; Grynszpan often spoke of his great love for his family and of how much he missed them.[7]

From exile to assassin

Meanwhile, the position of the Grynszpan family in Hanover was becoming increasingly precarious. Sendel's business was declining, and Herschel's siblings both lost their jobs. In August 1938 the German authorities announced that all residence permits for foreigners were being cancelled and would have to be renewed. This was in reaction to a Polish decree which was to take away the Polish citizenship of Jews living outside the country, including those in Germany. A few days before that decree was to come into force, on 26 October, the Gestapo was ordered to arrest and deport all Polish Jews residing in Germany immediately. The Grynszpan family was among the estimated 12,000 Polish Jews arrested, stripped of their property, and herded aboard trains headed for Poland. At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Sendel Grynszpan recounted the events of their deportation on the night of 27 October 1938: "Then they took us in police trucks, in prisoners’ lorries, about 20 men in each truck, and they took us to the railway station. The streets were full of people shouting: "Juden raus! Aus nach Palästina!" ("Out with the Jews! Off to Palestine!").[10]

When they reached the border, they were forced to walk 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) to the Polish border town of Zbąszyń (Bentschen, in German). Poland refused to admit them at first as the Sanation regime had no desire to receive the Jews whom it had just stripped of their Polish citizenship.[11] The expulsions only stopped when the Polish government threatened to start expelling members of Poland's Volksdeutsche (ethnic German) minority into Germany[11] The Grynszpans and thousands of other Polish-Jewish deportees stranded at the border were fed by the Polish Red Cross.[12] Conditions for the hapless refugees trapped out in the open on the German-Polish frontier were extremely bad. A British woman who went to work with the Red Cross in providing help reported: "I found thousands crowded together in pigsties. The old, the sick and children herded together in the most inhumane conditions."[13] Life there was so bad, she continued "that some actually tried to escape back to Germany and were shot".[13] It was from Zbąszyn that his sister Berta sent a postcard to Herschel in Paris, recounting what had happened and, in a line that was crossed out, apparently pleading for help. The postcard was dated 31 October and reached Herschel on Thursday, 3 November.

On the evening of Sunday, 6 November 1938, Grynszpan asked his uncle Abraham to send money to his family. Abraham said he had little to spare, and that he was incurring both financial cost and legal risks by harbouring his nephew, an undocumented alien and unemployed youth. There was a furious scene, and Herschel walked out of his uncle's house carrying only about 300 francs. He spent the night in a cheap hotel. On the morning of 7 November, Grynszpan wrote a farewell postcard to his parents, which he put in a pocket. He went to a gunshop in the Rue du Faubourg St Martin, where he bought a 6.35mm revolver and a box of 25 bullets for 235 francs. He caught the metro to the Solférino station and walked to the German Embassy at 78 Rue de Lille. It is generally believed that Grynszpan wanted to assassinate Count Johannes von Welczeck, the German ambassador to France.[14] While entering the embassy, Grynszpan walked by the exiting Count von Welczeck, who went out for a walk on the Paris streets every morning. At 09:45 am at the Embassy reception desk, Grynszpan represented himself as a German resident and asked to see an Embassy official; he did not ask for anyone by name (an important point in the light of later events). Grynszpan claimed to be some sort of spy who had very important intelligence, which he had to hand over to the most senior diplomat available, preferably the ambassador. Unaware that he had just walked past Count von Welczeck, Grynszpan asked if he could see "His Excellency, the ambassador", to hand over the "most important document" he claimed to have.[15] The clerk on duty asked Ernst vom Rath, the more junior of the two Embassy officials available, to see him. When Grynszpan entered vom Rath's office, Rath asked to see the "most important document". Instead, Grynszpan pulled out his gun and shot vom Rath, five times in the abdomen. According to the French police account, he shouted "You're a filthy boche" and that he acted in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews.[16]

Grynszpan made no attempt to resist or escape, and identified himself correctly to the French police. He confessed to shooting vom Rath (who was in critical condition in a hospital), and again said that his motive for doing so was to avenge the persecuted Jews. In his pocket was the postcard to his parents. It said: "With God's help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me. Hermann [his German name]"[4]


File:Kristallnacht example of physical damage.jpg
Looted Jewish shops on the morning after Kristallnacht

Despite the best efforts of French and German doctors, including Adolf Hitler's personal physician Karl Brandt, vom Rath died on 9 November, aged 29. On 17 November, vom Rath was given a state funeral in Düsseldorf, which was attended by Hitler and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop with considerable publicity. In his funeral oration, Ribbentrop described the shooting as an attack by the Jews on the German people: "We understand the challenge, and we accept it", he said. Then, vom Rath's assassination was used as a justification for planned anti-semitic atrocities and pogroms in Germany. The day of Rath's death was the fifteenth anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, the "Tag der Bewegung" (Day of the Movement): the greatest day of the Nazi calendar. That evening Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, after consulting with Hitler, made an inflammatory speech at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich where the Putsch had been organised, in front of a crowd of veteran Nazis from all over Germany. It would not be surprising, he said, if the German people were so outraged by the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jew that they took the law into their own hands and attacked Jewish businesses, community centres and synagogues. Such "spontaneous outbursts", he said, should not be openly organised by the Nazi Party or the SA but neither should they be opposed or prevented. That Rath's death was only a pretext was shown by Goebbels's diary entry from that day where Goebbels wrote: "In the afternoon the death of the German diplomat vom Rath is announced. That's good...I go to the Party reception in the old Rathaus. Terrific activity. I brief Hitler on the affair. He decides: allow the demonstrations to go on. Withdraw the police. The Jews should feel the people's fury. That's right. I issue appropriate instructions to the police and party. Then I give a brief speech on the subject to the Party's leadership. Thunderous applause. Everyone dashed to the telephone. Now the people will act".[17]

Within hours, Nazis began a pogrom against Jewish communities throughout Germany, known as Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"), which lasted all night and into the next day. More than 90 people were killed, more than 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps (where over a thousand died of mistreatment before the remainder were released some months later) and thousands of Jewish shops, homes, offices and more than 200 synagogues smashed up or burned.[18] More than 1 billion Reichsmarks' damage to property was reported (about US$400 million at the time, or US$6.7 billion in 2015 dollars). Though Jews were able to make insurance claims for their property losses, Herman Göring, in charge of German economic planning, ruled that the claims would not be paid in this instance. These events shocked and horrified world opinion and helped bring to an end the climate of support for appeasement of Hitler in Britain, France and the United States. They also caused a new wave of Jewish emigration from Germany.[19]

Grynszpan was distraught that his action was used by the Nazis as a 'justification' for further violent assaults on the German Jews (although his own family, having already been deported to the Polish border, were safe from this particular manifestation of Nazi anti-Semitism). The assassination of vom Rath was a pretext for the launch of the pogrom. The Nazi government had been planning violence against the Jews for some time and were waiting for an appropriate pretext.[20]

Grynszpan's defence

Grynszpan after he was arrested by French police

The death of vom Rath and the horrors of the Kristallnacht pogroms brought Herschel Grynszpan international notoriety. Grynszpan enjoyed the celebrity status that killing Rath brought him, and from his prison cell, basked in the media spotlight, giving frequent interviews with journalists and writing letters to famous people around the world.[21]

On 14 November, Dorothy Thompson, who in 1934 had become the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany, made an impassioned broadcast to an estimated 5 million listeners in defence of Grynszpan, pointing out that the Nazis themselves had made heroes of the assassins of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss and German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau.

I am speaking of this boy [she said]. Soon he will go on trial. The news is that on top of all this terror, this horror, one more must pay. They say he will go to the guillotine, without a trial by jury, with the rights that any common murderer has... Who is on trial in this case? I say we are all on trial. I say the men of Munich are on trial, who signed a pact without one word of protection for helpless minorities. Whether Herschel Grynszpan lives or not won't matter much to Herschel. He was prepared to die when he fired those shots. His young life was already ruined. Since then, his heart has been broken into bits by the results of his deed.

"They say a man is entitled to a trial by a jury of his peers, and a man's kinsmen rally around him, when he is in trouble. But no kinsman of Herschel's can defend him. The Nazi government has announced that if any Jews, anywhere in the world, protest at anything that is happening, further oppressive measures will be taken. They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage. Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard. This boy has become a symbol, and the responsibility for his deed must be shared by those who caused it. [22]

Liberal and left-wing newspapers and commentators in many countries echoed her sentiments. While deploring the assassination, they argued that Grynszpan had been driven to his act by the Nazi persecution of German Jews and of his family in particular. Jewish organisations were horrified by Grynszpan's action, which they condemned more severely than most non-Jewish liberals, while echoing the plea of extenuating circumstances, and condemning the subsequent victimization of all German Jews in response to the act of an isolated individual. The World Jewish Congress "deplored the fatal shooting of an official of the German Embassy by a young Polish Jew of seventeen", but "protested energetically against the violent attacks in the German press against the whole of Judaism because of this act" and especially against the "reprisals taken against the German Jews." The Alliance Israélite Universelle in France "rejected all forms of violence, regardless of author or victim", but "indignantly protested the barbarous treatment inflicted on an entire innocent population."[23]

Several appeals were launched to raise money for Grynszpan's defence. In the U.S., Thompson launched an appeal which raised more than $40,000 in a few weeks: she asked that Jews not donate to the fund, so that the Nazis could not attribute Grynszpan's defence to a Jewish conspiracy. Jewish organizations also raised money. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, two Paris Jewish lawyers, Szwarc and Vésinne-Larue, were engaged by the Grynszpan family. Once the case became internationally known the family sought a well-known lawyer and retained Isidore Franckel[24] one of Paris's leading advocates and President of the Central Committee of the Alliance of Revisionist Zionists, also known as Hatzohar.

Isidore Franckel wanted a well-known but non-Jewish lawyer as co-counsel and engaged Vincent de Moro-Giafferi, a flamboyant Corsican, leading anti-fascist activist, and a former Education Minister in the Radical government of Édouard Herriot, and a Yiddish-speaking lawyer, Serge Weill-Goudchaux, as his associate. Legal fees and costs were paid from Thompson's fundraising for Grynszpan's defence. Until Franckel and Moro-Giafferi took over the defence, everybody had accepted that Grynszpan went to the Embassy in a rage and shot the first German he saw, as a political act to avenge the persecution of his family and German Jews in general. Grynszpan's own statements after his arrest supported this: he told the Paris police: "Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I have been, I have been chased like an animal."[3] Franckel and Moro-Giafferi, however, took the view that if Grynszpan was allowed to claim that he had shot vom Rath with such a motive, this would result in his certain conviction and possibly take him to the guillotine (despite his being a minor), since French law took a severe view of political assassination. If, on the other hand, the crime could be shown to have had a non-political motive, this might lead to an acquittal, or at least to a lesser sentence, since French law traditionally took a lenient view of the crime passionel (crime of passion). Moro-Gaifferi's legal strategy was thus to "depoliticize" Grynszpan's actions.[25] Grynszpan himself was enraged by Moro-Giafferi's proposed homosexual crime passionel defense, insisting vehemently that he was not gay, and had killed Rath as an act of political protest against the anti-Semitic policies of the German government.[26] The shy, socially awkward Grynszpan confided to Moro-Giafferi that he never had a girlfriend and was still a virgin, and asked that Moro-Giafferi arrange for him a sexual encounter with a suitably beautiful French girl, so in case he was convicted and sentenced to death, he would not go to the guillotine a virgin.[27] Grynszpan believed himself to be a hero who stood up to to the Nazis, and that when his case went to trial that his preferred "Jewish avenger" defense would lead to his acquittal.[28] The outcome of the Schwartzbard trial in 1927 when Sholom Schwartzbard was acquitted for assassinating Symon Petliura in 1926 under the grounds that he was avenging the pogroms committed by Ukrainian forces was a major factor in Grynszpan seeking the "Jewish avenger" defense, much to the chagrin of Moro-Giafferi.

The homosexual theory

A theory that Grynszpan was acquainted with Ernst vom Rath prior to the shooting has been circulated. According to this theory, vom Rath was a homosexual, and had met Grynszpan in a Paris bar, Le Boeuf sur le Toit. It is not clear whether Grynszpan was himself alleged to be homosexual, or whether he was said to be using his youth and appearance to win an influential friend. According to this theory, vom Rath had promised to use his influence to get Grynszpan's position in France regularized. When vom Rath reneged on this promise, Grynszpan went to the Embassy and shot him. In support of the theory, Hans-Jürgen Döscher, a leading German authority on the period and author of Reichskristallnacht, published documents in 2001 which he said showed that Grynszpan and vom Rath had had a sexual relationship. Döscher quoted extracts from the diary of French author André Gide, himself homosexual and well-informed regarding Parisian gay gossip. Vom Rath, Gide wrote, "had an exceptionally intimate relationship with the little Jew, his murderer". Later Gide said: "The idea that such a highly thought-of representative of the Third Reich sinned twice according to the laws of his country is rather amusing."[29]

There are arguments against the theory that vom Rath had a sexual relationship with Grynszpan. There is no evidence that they had ever met other than second-hand gossip of the type recorded by Gide. The officials at the German Embassy were clear that Grynszpan had not asked to see vom Rath by name, and that he saw vom Rath only because he happened to be on duty at the time Grynszpan visited the Embassy, and because the desk clerk asked vom Rath to see Grynszpan. While interned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941, Grynszpan told fellow inmates that he was intending to claim at his trial that he had had homosexual relations with vom Rath, but that this was not true.[30] Michael Marrus, a post-war historian, wrote:

The origin of the story of homosexuality was the defendant's French attorney, Maitre Moro-Giafferi. He claimed in 1947 that he simply invented the story as a possible line of defence, one that would put the affair in an entirely new light. In fact, however, rumors about vom Rath's homosexuality were in the air in Paris immediately after the assassination. Whatever the origins of the story, its utility was obvious: the murder could be presented not as a political act but as a crime passionel – a lover's quarrel, in which the German diplomat could be judged incidentally as having seduced a minor. Moro-Giafferi shared the fears of the Grynszpan committee at the time of Kristallnacht that a political trial would be a catastrophe for the Jews of Germany and elsewhere. By adopting this legal strategy, they hoped to defuse the affair and also reduce the penalty drastically, possible even prompting a suspended sentence.[31]

Further evidence is presented by Gerald Schwab in the form of a letter, sent to Ernst vom Rath's brother in 1964 by Erich Wollenburg, a communist exile from Nazi Germany who claimed to be an associate of Moro-Giafferi:

One day, and unless I am mistaken it was in the spring of 1939, I met Moro-Giafferi on Boulevard St. Michel, and I asked him for news of Grunspahn (sic) for whom he was the defence lawyer. He had just come from visiting him in his cell, and was revolted by the attitude of his client. "That young man is a fool, infatuated with himself", he said. "He refuses to give a non-political character to his act by saying for example that he assassinated vom Rath because he had had money quarrels with him following homosexual relations. Yet, such an attitude in regard to the murder of vom Rath is necessary, in order to save the Jews of the Third Reich, whose lives are becoming more and more precarious in regard to the prosperity, their health, their futures, etc. If only... he would deny the political motives of his crime, and assert that he had only personal vengeance in mind, vengeance as a victim of homosexuality, the Nazis would lose their best pretext for exercising their reprisals against the German Jews who are victims of his fit of madness and now, of his obstinacy." I asked him if Grunspahn really had had relations with vom Rath. He replied, "Absolutely not!" I said to him then, "But as a defender of Gruhnspahn [sic] shouldn't you protect not only the interests of your client, but his honour as well?" It was at that moment that Moro-Giafferi exclaimed, "Honour! Honour! What is the honour of that absurd little Jew in the face of the criminal action of Hitler? What does the honour of Grunspahn [sic] weigh in the face of the destiny of thousands of Jews?"[32]

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 2013), Dutch author Sidney Smeets published a book based on previously inaccessible archival sources. The book De wanhoopsdaad: hoe een zeventienjarige jongen de Kristallnacht ontketende (An Act of Desperation) delves into the court files regarding German journalist Michael Soltikow's (de) defamation-trials in the 1950s-60s. Soltikow was sued by Vom Rath's surviving brother in 1952 for libeling the deceased's name. New research reveals that the 'evidence' Soltikow presented to support his claims of a homosexual relationship between Vom Rath and Grynszpan did not stand up in a court of law. All witnesses, even those quoted to the contrary by Soltikow, under oath denied any knowledge of the alleged affair. Subsequently the author argues that Döscher's argument is untenable as he based it almost entirely on Soltikow's allegations. The book concludes Grynszpan and Vom Rath did not know each other and that there is no evidence either was homosexual.[33] Regardless, the claim of homosexuality proved very damagingly to Grynszpan's reputation. An American journalist Jonathan Mark (who believed in the theory of the Rath-Grynszpan relationship) wrote in 2010: "I guarantee you, if everything about Grynszpan's case was the same, except that he slept with Anne Frank, or some other nice Jewish girl, instead of Ernst vom Rath, he'd be the subject of symposiums and seminars every Kristallnacht and Yom HaShoah, too, and day school lesson-plans, and there'd be floats in his honor at the Salute to Israel Parade."[34] [35]

Paris to Berlin

From November 1938 to June 1940 Grynszpan was imprisoned in the Fresnes Prison in Paris while legal arguments continued over the conduct of his trial. The defence sought to delay the trial as long as possible by making procedural difficulties, in the hope that the publicity surrounding the vom Rath murder would quiet down and the trial would be less politicized. But the prosecution was also in no hurry. Goebbels sent Wolfgang Diewerge, a lawyer and a journalist who had joined the NSDAP in 1930 to represent the German government in Paris.[36] A prominent German lawyer and a professor of international law at the University of Münster, Friedrich Grimm, was also sent to Paris, supposedly representing the vom Rath family, but in fact was widely known to be an agent of Goebbels.[37] Grimm tried to argue that Grynszpan should be extradited to Germany, even though he was not a German citizen – there was no way the French government could agree to this. Grimn and Diewerge knew each other well, having worked closely together in the "Cairo Jew Trial" of 1934, and in many ways their efforts in Paris in 1938-39 was a repeat of their work in Cairo in 1934.[37] The Germans argued that Grynszpan had acted as the agent of a Jewish conspiracy, and their fruitless efforts to find evidence to support this contention further delayed the trial. Grimn and Diewerge, who were both fanatical anti-Semitics were obsessed with the belief that Grynszpan had acted on the behalf of an unknown Jewish "Hintermänner" ("backer") who was also responsible for the assassination of Wilhelm Gustloff by David Frankfurter in 1936.[38] Their attempts to find the "Hintermänner" and to link Grynszpan to Frankfurter served to slow down the case, not the least because neither men would accept the contention of the Paris police that the "Hintermänner" did not exist and there was no connection between the killings of Rath and Gustloff.[39] The American historian Alan Steinweis sarcastically commented that the complete lack of any evidence for the existence of the Jewish "Hintermänner did not lead either Grimn and Diewerge to the conclusion that the Hintermänner did not in fact exist, but rather to the conclusion that the Jewish conspiracy against Germany was far more invidious then either had realized as the Hintermänner had managed to erase all evidence of his existence.[39] The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 made it impossible for the Germans to participate further directly as their country was now at war with France (although they engaged a Swiss lawyer to represent their interests), and also causing the French authorities to lose interest in prosecuting Grynszpan[citation needed][clarification needed]. Grynszpan applied for release from detention so that he could join the French Foreign Legion, but this was refused.[citation needed]

Once war broke out, Moro-Giafferi changed tactics and demanded an immediate trial, confident that the anti-German mood, and the inability of the Germans to present evidence, would result in Grynszpan's acquittal. But the investigating judge had joined the army, the Ministry of Justice did not want the trial to proceed, and the Swiss lawyer engaged by the Germans employed various delaying tactics. As a result, there was no trial, and Grynszpan was still in prison when the invading German Army approached Paris in June 1940. The French authorities evacuated the inhabitants of the Paris prisons to the south in early June. Grynszpan was sent first to Orléans, from where he was sent by bus to the prison at Bourges. En route, however, the convoy was attacked by German aircraft. Some prisoners were killed, while others escaped in the confusion. One of these was apparently Grynszpan, since he was not among the survivors who arrived in Bourges. But Grynszpan had not escaped; he had merely been left behind. Remarkably, instead of making good his escape, he walked to Bourges and turned himself in to the police. From Bourges he was sent to make his own way to Toulouse. Presumably the French expected him to disappear, but he duly presented himself at the prison in Toulouse and was incarcerated. Grynszpan had no money, knew no one in France, and spoke little French. Apparently he believed he would be safer in a French prison than wandering the countryside.[citation needed]

The Nazis, however, were on Grynszpan's trail. Grimm, by now an official of the German Foreign Ministry, and SS Sturmbannführer Karl Bömelburg arrived in Paris on 15 June with orders to find Grynszpan. They followed him to Orléans, then to Bourges, where they learned that he had been sent to Toulouse, which was in the Unoccupied Zone to be run by the authorities of Vichy France. France had surrendered on 22 June, and one of the terms of the armistice gave the Germans the right to demand that France surrender all "Germans named by the German Government" to the German occupation authorities. Although Grynszpan was not a German citizen, Germany had been his last place of legal residence, and the Vichy authorities made no objection to Grimm's formal demand that he be handed over. On 18 July, Grynszpan was delivered to Bömelburg at the border of the Occupied Zone. He was driven back to Paris, flown to Berlin, and locked up in the Gestapo's headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse.[40]

Legal manoeuvers in Germany

Grynszpan spent the remainder of his life in German custody, being shuttled between Moabit Prison in Berlin and the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg. At Sachsenhausen he was housed in the "bunker" reserved for "special prisoners" – he shared it with the last pre-Anschluss Chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg. He received comparatively mild treatment because Goebbels intended that Grynszpan be the subject of a propaganda show trial, to prove the complicity of "international Jewry" in the vom Rath murder. Grimm and an official of Goebbels's ministry, Wolfgang Diewerge, were put in charge of the preparations, using the files which had been seized from Moro-Giafferi's offices in Paris (Moro-Giafferi himself had escaped to Switzerland).[40]

Goebbels, however, found it just as difficult to bring Grynszpan to trial in Germany as he had done in France. The Nazis held unchallenged political power, but the state bureaucracy retained its independence in many areas (and in fact harboured the most effective networks of the German Resistance). The Justice Ministry, still staffed by lawyers concerned to uphold the letter of the law, argued correctly that since Grynszpan was not a German citizen, he could not be tried in Germany for a murder he had committed outside Germany, and since he had been a minor at the time he could not face the death penalty. These arguments dragged on through 1940 and into 1941. The solution was to charge Grynszpan with high treason, for which he could be legally tried and executed if convicted. It took some time to persuade everyone concerned of the "legality" of this, and it was not until October 1941 that he was formally indicted. The indictment argued that Grynszpan's objective in shooting vom Rath had been to "prevent through force of threats the Führer and Reichschancellor from the conduct of their constitutional functions" at the behest of international Jewry.[41] In November Goebbels saw Hitler and gained his approval for a show trial that would put World Jewry in the dock. The trial was set for January 1942. It was arranged for the former French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet to testify that "World Jewry" had been responsible for dragging France into a war with Germany. This was the political objective of the trial.[42]

January 1942 came, however, and the trial did not take place. This was partly because of more momentous events. The United States had entered the war in December, the same month that the German armies had suffered a major setback on the Eastern Front before battling the Soviets near Moscow. In February the Riom Trial of Léon Blum and other French politicians was due to begin – Goebbels did not want two show trials at once. It was partly also because of further legal difficulties. It was feared that Grynszpan would challenge the legality of his deportation from France, which the Justice Ministry officials felt had been "irregular". Most disturbing of all, however, was the revelation that Grynszpan would claim that he had shot vom Rath because he had had homosexual relations with him. This was communicated to Grimm, Diewerge, and other officials by Roland Freisler, later the head of the People's Court, but at this time State Secretary of the Justice Ministry, on 22 January. Apparently Grynszpan, having rejected the idea of using this line of defence when Moro-Giafferi had thought of it in 1938, had decided that it was worth a try. He had told one of his Gestapo interrogators, Dr. Heinrich Jagusch, that he intended using this defence as long ago as mid-1941, but the Justice Ministry had not informed Goebbels, who was furious. He wrote in his diary:

Grynszpan has invented the insolent argument that he had a homosexual relationship with... vom Rath. That is, of course, a shameless lie; however it is thought out very cleverly and would, if brought out in the course of a public trial, certainly become the main argument of enemy propaganda. [43]

The Justice Ministry reacted to this claim by indicting Grynszpan under Paragraph 175, an act that infuriated Goebbels who argued that this additional indictment implied there was something to the claim of a homosexual relationship between Grynszpan and Rath.[44] In March Goebbels again saw Hitler, and assured him that the trial would get under way in May. He did not, however, warn Hitler of the problem of the possibility that Grynszpan might claim that he had had homosexual relations with vom Rath. In April he was still grappling with the problem. He wrote:

"I am having lots of work preparing the Grynszpan trial. The Ministry of Justice has deemed it proper to furnish the defendant, the Jew Grynszpan, the argument of Article 175 [the German law against homosexuality]. Grynszpan until now has always claimed, and rightly so, that he had not even known the Counsellor of the Legation whom he shot. Now there is in existence some sort of anonymous letter by a Jewish refugee, which leaves open the likelihood of homosexual intercourse between Grynszpan and vom Rath. It is an absurd, typically Jewish, claim. The Ministry of Justice, however, did not hesitate to incorporate this claim in the indictment and to send the indictment to the defendant. This shows again how foolishly our legal experts have acted in this case, and how shortsighted it is to entrust any political matter whatever to the jurists."[45]

On 10 April the acting Justice Minister, Franz Schlegelberger, wrote to Goebbels demanding to know whether Hitler, when he had authorized the trial, had been aware that Grynszpan was planning to use the "homosexual defence." The issue that was troubling the Justice Ministry was not the allegation that vom Rath had had a sexual relationship with Grynszpan – they knew that to be false, and in fact they knew Grynszpan had told some of his fellow prisoners at Sachsenhausen that it was false. The problem was their belief that vom Rath had in fact been homosexual, that Grynszpan knew details of this (these had been given to him by Moro-Giafferi in Paris), and that he would reveal them in court. This would embarrass both the vom Rath family and the Foreign Ministry. It was also learned that vom Rath's brother Gustav, a Wehrmacht officer had been convicted by a court-martial for homosexuality.[44] The fact that Gustav vom Rath was gay suggested the possibility that Ernst vom Rath may have also been gay.[44]

File:Stolperstein Grünspan verlegt.jpg
Marker for Herschel and his sister, Esther, at the Holocaust Memorial in Hanover

Soon after this, Hitler was made aware of the problem – by whom it is not clear, but it is probable that the matter had reached the ears of Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery and Hitler's private secretary, who thought it his duty to inform Hitler that Goebbels had not told him the whole truth about the Grynszpan case. It is probably not coincidental that the Riom Trial was called off on 4 April, after Blum and the other defendants had used it as a platform to attack the Vichy regime. This no doubt helped influence Hitler against a further risky show trial.[44] In any event, by the beginning of May 1942 it was clear to all that Hitler did not favour a trial. The matter was raised on and off for several months more, but without Hitler's approval there could be no progress. In recognition of this, Grynszpan was moved in September to the prison at Magdeburg. Grynszpan's fate after September 1942 is not known. Since his trial was never actually called off, merely postponed indefinitely, he was probably kept alive in case circumstances changed and a trial became possible. He was still alive in late 1943 or early 1944, when he was interrogated by Adolf Eichmann at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.

Grynszpan appeared before Adolf Eichmann in 1943 or 1944 according to Eichmann's own testimony at his trial in 1961, although he said he did not know, neither remembered, what happened to him in the end.[46]

I received an order that Grynszpan was in custody in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, and he had to be further examined concerning who was likely to have been behind the scenes. Accordingly I gave instructions to bring Grynszpan no, not this way – accordingly Krischak gave orders – Krischak was dealing with the matter – to bring Grynszpan and...either way it would have been useless, I said to myself. I still remember exactly, for I was curious to see what Grynszpan looked like.

Nothing, obviously, emerged from the whole thing and I merely said then to Krischak that if he had completed the interrogation, I wanted him to bring him to me upstairs, for I very much wanted – for once – to look at the man Grynszpan. I wanted to talk to him. And I did then, exchange a few words with Grynszpan. [...] I don't know what...what happened to him. I did not hear anything more. I didn't hear anything more about it.[46]

The fate of Grynspzan and the survival myth

Grynszpan's precise fate is unknown.

One report said he was executed in 1940 while Fritz Dahms, an official in the German Foreign Office, stated that he had died just before the end of the war. There were frequent rumors after the war that he had survived and was living under another name in Paris, but there is no evidence for this.[47] All of the best available evidence suggests that Grynszpan died at Sachsenhausen sometime in late 1942.[48] There are no historians today who accept the claim that Grynszpan survived.[49]

In April 1952, Michael von Soltikow, a German journalist and a man who had been an ardent National Socialist under the Third Reich published two articles claiming that Grynszpan was living in Paris, and repeated the gay lover theory for Rath's killing.[47] Graf von Soltikow as he liked to call himself (his real name was Walter Bennecke and he was not an aristocrat) was a self-promoting former SS officer who had specialized in writing anti-Semitic tracts under the Third Reich, and after the war engaged in much sensationalistic journalism, usually with the claim that he was boldly revealing "secrets" that no else dared to mention.[50] Soltikow professed that he was doing a service to "World Jewry" by "proving" that Grynszpan had killed Rath as a result of a homosexual relationship gone bad rather than because he was a Jew outraged at the treatment of his family.[47] However, there was a subtext to the Soltikow articles, namely that the devaluation of the suffering of the Grynszpan family trapped in the no-man's land between Germany and Poland. In effect, Soltikow by writing that Grynszpan had killed Rath as a result of a sordid homosexual relationship rather because of anger over the suffering of the 12,000 Polish Jews trapped out in the open on the German-Polish frontier was claiming the suffering of those Jews was not that serious, and was only used as an excuse to kill Rath.

Likewise, the theory that Grynszpan was living in Paris and was not being prosecuted for the murder of Rath despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt would have been attractive for many Germans after the war. In the 1950s, there were thousands of Germans who had been involved in the Holocaust who were not prosecuted for their crimes and were being allowed to live out their days in peace. The German historian Wolfram Wette wrote in 2002 that in the 1950s "...the vast majority of the population retained the nationalistic attitudes inculcated in them earlier. Not only did they not accept the verdict that war crimes had been committed, but also they expressed solidarity with those who had been convicted, protected them and demanded their release, preferably in the form of a general amnesty".[51] That the Jew who had murdered a German was not prosecuted for his crime by the French despite that he was supposedly living openly in Paris was used as argument for not prosecuting those Germans who been involved in the murder of Jews during the Shoah.

After publishing his articles, Soltikow was sued for defamation by the vom Rath family. In 2013, the Dutch historian Sidney Smeets called Solitkow a "con-man" whose statements about Grynszpan and Rath were all lies.[52] During his trial in Munich, Soltikow claimed that Grynszpan was present during the previous day's court proceedings, watching the trial as a spectator.[47] When the judge stated if that were the case, then Grynszpan would have to be arrested for Rath's murder, an angry Soltikow claimed that Grynszpan would never show his face again.[47] If Grynszpan had been present during the previous day, just why Solitkow did not point out his presence during that day as opposed to the following day was never explained by him.

In 1957 an article written by the German historian Helmut Heimer claimed that he was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and survived the war, while another one by Egon Larsen published two years later argued that Grynszpan had changed his name and was living in Paris and working as a garage mechanic.[53] Heimer's article was revealed to be based entirely upon various rumors that he claimed to have heard that Grynszpan was alive and well, living in Paris while Larsen's report was likewise based on talks with people who claimed in their turn to have met people who knew Grynszpan was living in Paris; despite their claims of Grynszpan's survival, no one had ever actually seen Grynszpan in the flesh.[47] The only person who claimed to have seen Grynszpan was the shady character Soltikow while everyone else claimed to have talked with other people who supposedly met Grynszpan.[47] In 1981, Heimer retracted his article of 1957, stating he now believed that Grynszpan had died during the war.[47]

The French doctor Alain Cuenot who carried out the most complete search for Grynszpan in the late 1950s reported that not only could he find no evidence that Grynszpan was alive, but that he find no references to Grynszpan in the German documents after 1942, which strongly suggested that Grynszpan had died that year.[47] Dr. Cuenot wrote: 'If Grynszpan had survived the years 1943, 1944 and 1945, it would seem quite unusual that documents would not have been added to those already gathered'.[47] Cuenot further noted that because of the poor living conditions that the inmates of Sachsenhausen were forced to live under, epidemics of various diseases regularly killed thousands of inmates at Sachsenhausen. Cuenot speculated that it was it quite possible that Grynszpan had died in one of the epidemics at Sachsenhausen, and that because the Grynszpan was supposed to be kept alive to be tried one day, that the SS camp officers would had a vested interest in covering up his death.[47]

By contrast, the American historian Alan E. Steinweis wrote that Grynszpan was executed by the SS in 1942 when it become clear that he would not be tried after all for the murder of vom Rath.[54] Grynszpan was declared legally dead by the West German government in 1960, at the request of his parents who declared that they had heard nothing from him since the war.[47] Given that Grynszpan was extremely close to his parents and siblings (indeed had been moved to assassinate vom Rath out of outrage at their treatment), it is highly unlikely that Grynszpan would have not contacted his parents or his brother if he were alive after the war. During his two years living in Paris between 1936 to 1938, the lonely Grynszpan had written frequently to his family in Hanover, declaring how much he missed them and how he desperately wanted to see them again.[55] The complete absence of any sort of communication with his family after 1945 would had been very much out of character for Grynszpan. His parents, having sent him to "safety" in Paris while they and his siblings stayed in Germany, survived the war. Having been deported to Poland, they escaped in 1939 to the Soviet Union, where his sister, Esther, was murdered in 1942.

After the war the remaining family members immigrated to the Palestine Mandate, which became Israel. Sendel Grynszpan, Herschel's father, was present at the Israeli premiere in 1952 of Sir Michael Tippett's oratorio about Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time.[56]

In his own lifetime, Grynszpan was a figure widely shunned by Jewish communities around the world who viewed him as an irresponsible, immature teenager who by recklessly killing vom Rath brought down the wrath of the Nazis in the form of the Kristallnacht.[57] The writer Ron Roizen suggested that the frequent claims of Grynszpan's survival despite all of the evidence suggesting that he died sometime in late 1942 reflected a bad conscience of the part of those Jews who shunned Grynszpan during his lifetime, making his "...abandonment seems a little less problematic, too, once it is believed that the boy miraculously survived the war. Grynszpan alive permits us to avoid more easily the painful moral issues his case so profoundly symbolizes. Was Grynszpan's action that of a heroic martyr or a misguided pariah? Were the reactions to Grynszpan's action among those for whom it was carried out appropriate or inappropriate? Though nearly a half century has passed since Herschel Grynszpan's assassination of Ernst vom Rath, little or no progress has been made on these painful questions."[47]


  1. Schwab, Gerald (1990). The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan. Praeger. p. 14. ...vom Rath joined the NSDAP (Nazi party) on July 14, 1932, well before Hitler's ascent to power<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Schwab 1990, p. 43.
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  41. Schwab 1990, p. 133.
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  49. Steinweis, Alan "The Trials of Herschel Grynszpan: Anti-Jewish Policy and German Propaganda, 1938-1942" pages 471-488 from German Studies Review, Volume 31, Issue #3, October 2008 page 484
  50. Kirsch, Jonathan The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, New York: W.W. Norton pages 257-258.
  51. Wette, Wolfram The Wehrmacht, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006 page 239
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  57. Martelle, Scott (9 August 2013). "'The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris' by Jonathan Kirsch". Washington Post. Retrieved 26 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>