Hitler’s Pawn: The Boy Assas­sin and the Holocaust

  • Review
By – January 7, 2019

In Novem­ber 1938, a sev­en­teen-year-old Jew, Her­schel Gryn­sz­pan (pro­nounced Greenspan”), shot and fatal­ly wound­ed a Ger­man embassy offi­cial in Paris. After shoot­ing the offi­cial with a tiny hand­gun that still had the price tag dan­gling from its grip, he sur­ren­dered him­self. Gryn­sz­pan sur­vived sev­er­al pris­ons and con­cen­tra­tion camps before dying under unknown circumstances.

On the face of it, Gryn­sz­pan hard­ly seems a promis­ing sub­ject for a full-scale biog­ra­phy. It is a real trib­ute to Stephen Koch’s sto­ry­telling tal­ent that he man­ages not only to draw read­ers into the young man’s sto­ry, but to leave every­one ask­ing why they haven’t heard about him before. Who was this kid?

Young Her­schel Gryn­sz­pan grew up in Ger­many in a close-knit, Pol­ish Jew­ish fam­i­ly. In 1936, with anti­semitism deep­en­ing under the Reich, his par­ents sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle in Paris. He was only fif­teen and had no real papers enti­tling him to live in France, much less to work, but he mud­dled through – until he received unbear­able news. Some 18,000 Ostju­den liv­ing in Ger­many, includ­ing his own fam­i­ly, had been round­ed up and deport­ed across the Pol­ish bor­der, left to fend for them­selves in the bit­ter win­ter weath­er. Gryn­sz­pan want­ed to send his sis­ter mon­ey he didn’t have, want­ed to ral­ly sup­port, but couldn’t even talk his own uncle into action. In des­per­a­tion, he bought the gun that he used to shoot the Ger­man offi­cial. What he couldn’t have known was that Hitler and Goebbels would use this assas­si­na­tion to ral­ly their storm troop­ers to com­mit the mas­sive pogrom known as Kristall­nacht.

Alas, this was not the end of Grynszpan’s use­ful­ness to the Reich. What if a huge show tri­al could be mount­ed in Ger­many, where it could be proven that this boy was the pawn of a world­wide Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy to mur­der Aryans? Could this be twist­ed into a ratio­nale for the Final Solution?

Gryn­sz­pan was not going to allow him­self to be used a sec­ond time, and Koch mas­ter­ful­ly unfolds the boy’s com­pli­cat­ed plans. He also high­lights the rise of fas­cism in the Nazi peri­od — the oppor­tunists and their pow­er plays, the craft­ing of the big lie”, the stag­ing of mass pageantry — in such a way that read­ers can’t help but think about the par­al­lels to today’s world pol­i­tics. By avoid­ing explic­it com­par­isons, Koch wise­ly allows read­ers to make these con­nec­tions themselves.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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