Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Herschel Grynszpan

Herschel Grynszpan

Herschel Grynszpan (born March 28 1921, date of death unknown), political assassin and victim of the Holocaust, was born in Hanover, Germany, of Polish-Jewish parents. He studied at a yeshiva in Frankfurt-am-Main, but by 1935 his position as a Jew in Germany was becoming impossible. He applied to emigrate to Palestine but was rejected. His parents then decided to sent him to live with his uncle and aunt, Abraham and Chawa Grynszpan, in Paris. He entered France illegally via Brussels in September 1936.

Grynszpan spent the next two years trying to get legal residence in France, but was rejected by French officials. In August 1938 he was ordered to leave the country. He continued to live in Paris illegally. In October he heard that his parents, brother and sister were being deported to Poland by the Nazi authorities. When Poland refused to accept them, they (and thousands of other Polish-Jewish deportees), were stranded at the border.

On 7 November Grynszpan went to the German Embassy, where he shot Ernst vom Rath, a junior diplomat, three times in the abdomen. Vom Rath died two days later. The assassination was run on the front pages of all German newspapers, on the instructions of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. It was the excuse used by the Nazi regime to launch a massive pogrom against the German Jewish communities, known to history as the Kristallnacht.

There are two theories about Grynszpan's motives. The first is that he simply went to the Embassy in a rage and shot the first German he saw. A variant on this is that he mistook vom Rath for the German Ambassador, Graf Johannes Welczek. This view, that Grynszpan acted solely out of rage at the persecution of his family, is still the most widely accepted view.

Ernst Vom Rath

The second, more controversial, theory, is that Grynszpan knew vom Rath and intended to shoot him. In 2001 Professor Hans-Jürgen Döscher, a leading German authority on the period and author of Reichskristallnacht, published documents which he said showed that Grynszpan and vom Rath had had a sexual relationship.

According to this account, vom Rath was well-known in Paris to be homosexual, and was known as "Madame Ambassadeur" and "Notre Dame de Paris" among Paris gay men. He met Grynszpan in a Paris gay bar, Le Boeuf sur le Toit. It is not clear whether Grynszpan was himself homosexual, or whether he was using his undoubted good looks to gain an influential friend. According to Döscher, vom Rath had promised to use his influence to get Grynszpan's position in France regularised. When vom Rath reneged on this promise, Grynszpan went to the Embassy and shot him.

In support of this theory, Döscher quoted extracts from the diary of the French writer Andre Gide, himself homosexual and well-informed on Paris 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."

The American writer Dr Ron Roizen, however, maintains that either Grynszpan or his lawyers made up the story about a homosexual relationship with vom Rath after the murder, in order to assist in his defence. Goebbels refers to it as a defense tactic in his diary entry dated April 5 1942 (see text below), and in his entry of April 14, states his intention to stifle this and the deportation of Jews to Poland at the impending trial.

Grynszpan was imprisoned in the Fresnes juvenile prison while the French authorities decided what to do with him. He was not a legal resident of France, and he was a minor. There was some doubt that he could be tried for murder. France at this time had a left-wing Popular Front government in which the Socialist leader Leon Blum, who was Jewish, was a leading figure. Such a government would not deport Grynszpan to certain death in Germany—he was not in any case a German citizen.

As a result of the events of Kristallnacht, Grynszpan's case received a great deal of publicity in Europe and the United States. Jewish opinion was generally horrified at his actions, but also keen to assist him. More than US$30,000 was donated to his defence and a leading lawyer hired to defend him. But Grynszpan was still in prison awaiting a determination of his status when the German Army approached Paris in June 1940.

The French authorities evacuated the inhabitants of the Paris prisons to the south, and Grynszpan was in the prison at Bourges when France surrendered to the Germans. On 18 July, Grynszpan was seized, presumably by the Gestapo, and taken to Germany. It was apparently Goebbels's intention that he be made the subject of a show-trial, to prove the complicity of "international Jewry" in the vom Rath murder. As the Goebbels Diaries entries appear to show, this plan was thwarted by Grynszpan's claim that vom Rath had been his lover.

Grynszpan's fate after 1942 is not known. It is believed he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was either executed or died some time before 1945. There were persistent rumours after the war that he had survived the war and was living under another name in Paris, but there is no real evidence for this. He was declared legally dead by the West German government in 1960. It is a sad irony that his parents sent him to "safety" in Paris, while they and his siblings stayed in Germany, yet they survived the war and he did not. They were deported to Poland and from there escaped to the Soviet Union.

Herschel Grynszpan's story is a minor one, but emblematic of the fate of the European Jewish communities at the hands of the Nazis. After his arrest he said to 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."

Goebbels on Grynszpan

Entry from the Goebbels Diaries, April 5 1942:

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]. Grynspan 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 Grysnpan 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.

Further reading

Ron Roizen: "Herschel Grynszpan: the fate of a forgotten assassin," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol 1 No 2, 1986