Biblical scholar and Los Angeles Times columnist Kirsch (The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, 2008, etc.) examines a forgotten young Jewish assassin, eliciting new queries about Jewish armed resistance during World War II.
The name of Herschel Grynszpan may have “ended up in the dustbin of history,” but his deed—the shooting of German official Ernst vom Rath, which so enraged the Nazis that they unleashed Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938—did not. Kirsch believes it is time to take another look at the life of this troubled Hanover-born Jewish teenager, who was sent to Paris in 1936 in a last-ditch attempt by his desperate family to find some opportunity for advancement or even survival. By 1933, the Grynszpan parents had already survived pogroms in Poland and three decades of poverty in Hanover; once the Nazi vise tightened, the youngest son was sent to Paris to stay with uncles and aunts. Herschel was at his wit’s end when money ran out and employment was closed to him, and the French and Germans both rejected his request for visas. Trapped in Paris, he subsequently learned that his parents and sister had been rounded up and dumped on the Polish border. Under financial and familial pressure, in hiding and subject to anti-Jewish reprisals, Grynszpan bought a gun, proceeded to the German embassy and shot vom Rath in a desperate act of vengeance not unlike what moved the young medical student David Frankfurter to shoot Swiss Nazi functionary Wilhelm Gustloff in 1936. Grynszpan’s deed gave the Nazis a “convenient pretext” for the unleashed barbarity against Jews, while Jewish reaction was divided. Journalist Dorothy Thompson offered an impassioned radio address in his defense. Suspicions of conspiracy and homosexuality abounded, and Kirsch expertly picks through the murky details to shed new light on the historical significance.
A compelling study of “a spectral figure whose real nature remains a mystery and whose historical significance is profoundly enigmatic.”