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

Liveright  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

Restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the Pages of History

A Scandalous Theory of Defense and Herschel Grynszpan

Kristallnacht and Herschel Grynszpan

The Mishpocheh Connection

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