The Short, Strange Life of Her­schel Gryn­sz­pan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplo­mat, and a Mur­der in Paris

  • Review
By – May 6, 2013

In May of 1942, at the height of World War II, Adolf Hitler sent his for­eign min­is­ter a note inquir­ing into the life of one of the many mil­lions of pris­on­ers in the Third Reich. Ribben­trop recalled that he was asked whether he thought the time was right to under­take the Gryn­sz­pan tri­al.” After a short con­sul­ta­tion with the Nazi pro­pa­gan­da min­is­ter, Ribben­trop replied that he did not believe the time was right. Instead the pris­on­er was trans­ferred to Magde­burg. No offi­cial doc­u­ment of the Third Reich dis­clos­es his fate.”

Jonathan Kirsch, a writer who has often cov­ered top­ics relat­ed to reli­gion, as well as Judaism, notes in his intro­duc­tion that “[Her­schel] Grynzs­pan has indeed all but dis­ap­peared from the his­tor­i­cal record….he is a miss­ing per­son when it comes to the vast lit­er­a­ture of the Sec­ond World War.” One of the experts on Grynzs­pan not­ed that Jews felt he did a great dis­ser­vice to Jews every­where” and the schol­ar Han­nah Arnedt claimed he was a psy­chopath” who was secret­ly a Ger­man agent. The Gryn­sz­pan affair,” in which a Jew­ish assas­sin killed a Nazi diplo­mat in Paris, was the scape­goat used by the Nazis to unleash the Kristall­nacht pogrom of Novem­ber 9 – 10, 1938. Kirsch sets out to pro­vide the first biog­ra­phy of this extra­or­di­nary man who com­mit­ted an impor­tant act, but to whom his­to­ry has been so unjust.

The prob­lem with a biog­ra­phy of this sort is that not that much is known about the sub­ject. Grynzs­pan was born in March of 1921 in Hanover, Ger­many. When the Ger­mans sought to expel Jews whose par­ents were immi­grants Gryn­sz­pan was mere­ly one of count­less hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jew­ish men, women, and chil­dren who faced the exis­ten­tial threat of state­less­ness in 1938.” Instead of going to Poland, he fled to Paris by way of Bel­gium. Most impor­tant­ly this book pro­vides a biog­ra­phy of the Ger­man diplo­mat and seeks to exam­ine the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the Gryn­sz­pan affair. Kirsch shows how both Raul Hilberg and Han­nah Arendt invent­ed nar­ra­tives about Gryn­sz­pan with­out both­er­ing to check the his­tor­i­cal record. An acces­si­ble and inter­est­ing account, the only down­side of this mono­graph is that it includes numer­ous digres­sions about well-known events, such as Kristall­nacht, that seem to be added just to make this a book-length tale. Acknowl­edge­ments, bib­li­og­ra­phy, chronol­o­gy, notes.

Read­ing Jonathan Kirsch’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

The Ques­tion of Jew­ish Resis­tance and Her­schel Gryn­sz­pan
Seth J. Frantz­man received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem where he cur­rent­ly holds a Post-Doc­tor­al Fel­low­ship. He is a colum­nist for the Jerusalem Post and Fel­low at the Jerusalem Insti­tute of Mar­ket Studies.

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