Did the Jew 'Responsible' for Sparking Kristallnacht Survive the Holocaust?

Experts say recently found post-war photo shows Herschel Grynszpan, whose killing of a German diplomat ostensibly sparked Nazi pogrom, and was thought to have died during war.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Herschel Grynszpan in a 1938 photo, left, taken after his arrest and, most likely, in the 1946 photo that recently surfaced in the archives of the Vienna Jewish Museum.
Herschel Grynszpan in a 1938 photo, left, and, most likely, in the 1946 photo that recently surfaced in the archives of the Vienna Jewish Museum.Credit: German Federal Archives/Vienna Jewish Museum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Did Herschel Grynszpan, whose November 1938 killing of a German diplomat in Paris served as the “excuse” for the Nazi pogrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht, survive World War II?

An archive photo from 1946, found recently in the Vienna Jewish Museum, raises the possibility that Grynszpan, who was assumed to have died in a concentration camp during the war, actually survived it.

The photo, found in the museum by chance, shows a group of Jews in a displaced persons camp in Bamberg, Germany on July 3, 1946, demonstrating for the right to emigrate to Palestine. The only person facing the camera looks strikingly like Grynszpan, who would have been 24 at the time.

German journalist and historian Armin Fuhrer, who in 2013 wrote a book called, “Herschel, The Assassination by Herschel Grynszpan on the 7th of November 1938 and the Beginning of the Holocaust,” believes it is Grynszpan in that photo.

“It’s highly likely that this picture indeed shows Herschel Grynszpan,” Fuhrer wrote in the German newspaper Focus in November, after he was asked by the museum to give his opinion. “This photo is a real surprise, because Grynszpan’s fate was never clear. The question of whether he survived the war and the Holocaust remained open. Until now.”

The photo was found in the collection of Eliezer Breuer, a representative of the religious Poalei Agudat Yisrael organization, who was sent to the displaced persons camp to help pave the way for Holocaust survivors to come to Palestine. The picture also shows an American policeman pointing a gun at the demonstrators. It isn’t known if Breuer took the photo or if it had been given to him by someone else.

Is this Herschel Grynszpan in a displaced persons camp in 1946?Credit: Vienna Jewish Museum

On back of the picture it says, “Jews protesting against the closure of the gates of [Palestine] in 1946. American military policemen are keeping order with drawn weapons. I protested this and with the help of this picture the policemen were punished. The drawn pistols raised ire and difficult memories bordering on mass hysteria.”

The photo had never been published and bounced around between different locations until it reached the Vienna museum in the 1990s as part of a collection of some 30 photographs documenting Jews in the DP camps. It didn’t attract much attention at the museum either until its chief archivist, Christa Prokisch, recently stumbled across it and recognized a person she thought was Grynszpan.

“It didn’t seem as if the photographer photographed Grynszpan deliberately or recognized him, even though Grynszpan’s picture made headlines all over the world in 1938,” Fuhrer wrote.

On Sunday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the picture had undergone a scientific examination involving comparisons to actual photos of Grynszpan and concluded that there was a 95-percent likelihood that it was indeed him.

If Grynszpan were still alive today he would be 95.

“It’s not out of the question,” Fuhrer told the Guardian. “He could be living under an assumed name in Israel or the United States.”

However, in the past, relatives who survived the war and immigrated to Israel have ruled out that possibility.

In an interview with Haaretz in 2008, Grynszpan’s niece, Malka Grynszpan (the daughter of his brother Mordechai, who died in 1996), said: “Our main proof that he did not live is that he did not make contact with us. He was so attached to his family that it is unreasonable to think he would not have looked for us.”

Grynszpan’s father, Sendel, who testified at the Eichmann trial in 1961, said he had found no proof that his son was alive.

Grynszpan was born in Germany in 1921 to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Poland. When he was 15 he moved to Paris. On November 7, 1938, he shot to death Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary at the German embassy in Paris. The murder provoked Nazi Germany to launch a pogrom in Germany on November 9-10 that became known as Kristallnacht, in which synagogues were destroyed, Jewish stores were looted, some 100 Jews were killed and tens of thousands were sent to detention camps. Most historians consider Kristallnacht to be the prelude to the Holocaust.

The motive for the shooting remains unclear. The most accepted explanation is that Grynszpan attacked the German official in revenge for the suffering caused to his parents and other Jews who were being expelled from Germany. But there are some who believe he had a romantic attachment to Vom Rath, and shot him when he refused to save his parents or help legalize his own status in Paris.

Initially, Grynszpan was arrested by the French; in 1940, when the Germans invaded France, he was transferred to Berlin and then to the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The last official confirmation found in Nazi archives that he was alive is from September 1942. After that, there is no trace of him.

Many historians assume that Grynszpan died in the camp, either from illness or at the hands of the Nazis. But there have always been rumors that he survived the Holocaust and was living in Paris, Hamburg or even in Israel. Some have claimed that he had a family and lived under an assumed identity for fear of being assassinated.

In 1960, a German court pronounced Grynszpan dead, paving the way for his surviving relatives to get a pension from Germany.

Fuhrer told the Guardian that the photograph “raises more questions than answers. Not least, what did he do with the rest of his life, and perhaps more importantly, how did he manage to survive the Nazis – was he protected and if so, by whom?”

Archivist Prokisch told the British newspaper that discovery of the photo might prompt people to come forward with new information, but “we might not like the answers we get,” she said. “For someone of his prominence to have survived, as very few others did, the suspicion has to be that he collaborated with the Nazis in some way.”

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