This Day in Jewish History / A Teenager Shoots a Nazi, Then Foils Their Show Trial

The Germans wanted to showcase Herschel Grynszpan’s attack on Ernst vom Rath as Jewish evil, but the 17-year old claimed they’d been homosexual lovers.

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Herschel Grynszpan in 1938, after being arrested by French police.
Herschel Grynszpan in 1938, after being arrested by French police.

On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-Jewish refugee living in Paris, entered the German embassy there and shot a junior diplomat named Ernst vom Rath, 29, who died two days later. Grynszpan immediately confessed, saying he had acted alone, in revenge for Germany’s expulsion of his family a few days earlier. But the Nazi regime pinned the attack on “world Jewry,” using it as a pretext for unleashing the “spontaneous” nationwide pogrom of Kristallnacht, on November 9-10.

In Germany, occupied Austria and the Sudetenland, more than 250 Jews were killed, 30,000 arrested, and most of the country’s 200-odd synagogues destroyed.

The Grynszpan affair is one of the more bizarre sagas of the Holocaust, not least because it has never been definitively determined just when Herschel Grynszpan died – or even that he did die – and also because of the ingenious defense devised by the teenager, which stymied the German plan to mount an elaborate show trial for him.

Grynszpan was born in Hanover, Germany on March 28, 1921 to Sendel and Riva Grynszpan, who had immigrated there a decade earlier from Poland in search of a better life. Herschel attended a state primary school and briefly attended a yeshiva in Frankfurt before deciding, in 1936, as the atmosphere grew increasingly hostile to Jews, to immigrate to Palestine. The local Zionist office said he was too young, and told him to come back in a year.

Instead, he and his parents decided he would join his aunt and uncle in Paris. Even that was a challenge, as France was no longer admitting Jewish refugees in 1936, so he entered the country illegally, and then found he couldn’t work or study.

By August 11, 1938, Grynszpan was ordered to leave France within four days. But his German and Polish papers had expired, and he went into hiding. In early November, Herschel learned from a postcard from his sister Berta that his family was stuck, along with 12,000 other Polish-German Jews, in Zbaszyn, a town on Poland’s border with Germany, after being stripped of their citizenship by both countries. Germany had also confiscated their property.

That news drove Grynszpan over the edge.

After his arrest, he told French 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.” He bought a revolver and a box of bullets, took the Metro to the Solferino station, and walked into the German embassy, where he asked to speak with an official. He was referred to vom Rath. Grynszpan entered the diplomat’s office and shot him.

Although he escaped custody during the confusion, he turned himself in to police and was held in a French juvenile prison until the German occupation of Paris, in June 1940. The next month, the Gestapo shipped him to Berlin.

Records found after the war reveal that a show trial was carefully scripted, down to the last detail – and then never convened, after Grynszpan revealed his line of defense to his captors: He planned to testify that he and vom Rath had been lovers, and that his motive for killing him was personal. The Nazis couldn’t risk having a spectacle meant to expose the machinations of world Jewry turned into trial of a romantic crime. But after that, the trail of Herschel Grynszpan runs cold.

His parents survived the war, and immigrated to Palestine. In 1958, they asked a German court for compensation for the death of their son, though they had no evidence of his fate. The court agreed that Herschel must be dead and issued a death certificate in 1960. However, a variety of hearsay reports claim that Grynszpan had survived the war, even that he lived under a new identity in Paris.

In truth, there is no definitive information about Grynszpan’s fate. Were he alive today, he would be 93.

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