Media Watch: The Rest Of The Kristallnacht Story

Was the assassin avenging his parents or affair gone wrong?

11/03/10
Associate Editor
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A thin veil and close calls separates this world from the world of the dead. Two weeks ago, four radical Muslims were convicted of attempting to bomb a pair of New York synagogues, a plot foiled by the FBI. Last week, terrorists in Yemen, presumably al Qaeda, mailed two bombs to a pair of Chicago synagogues, a plot foiled by the Saudis, of all people. And next week, we have the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938), when 267 German synagogues were destroyed in a devil’s night of fire and broken glass.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, each anti-Semitic incident is unhappy in its own fashion, but in another sense they are all alike.

Jeffrey Goldberg blogged in The Atlantic (Oct. 29) that the people who manufactured the bombs intended for the Chicago shuls “are fundamentally annihilationist in outlook, meaning that they have as a primary goal the killing of Jews, everywhere.” Some might think “that al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are angry over settlements. They are not. They are angry over the continued existence of Jews.”

What if Jews, feeling alone and angry, started to get violent themselves about the ongoing war against Jewish existence? On Nov. 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed Ernst Vom Rath, a Nazi assigned to the German embassy in Paris. Two days later, Germany was burning.

Next to Anne Frank, Grynszpan is arguably the most pivotal teenager of the Holocaust. For years, he was a major media story. Now, he’s a historical cipher. Kristallnacht commemorations and articles mostly ignore him, other than a fleeting mention as a prelude or pretext to the pogrom.

The Nazis not only orchestrated Kristallnacht — aside from synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses were vandalized, 91 Jews were killed, 30,000 Jews were arrested — but they tried to orchestrate the media coverage, too.

They charged that German-language papers in France were guilty of anti-German incitement that led Grynszpan to kill.

Historian Alan Steinweis noted that the German News Agency directed German newspapers to link Vom Rath’s murder to “international Jewry,” bent on “the extermination” of Nazi Germany.

In the United States, Grynszpan became a media darling. Dorothy Thompson, a writer for The New York Herald Tribune, tried in print and on the radio to arouse sentiment for Grynszpan. She soon received “thousands of letters, many enclosing money,” reported The New York Times (Nov. 16, 1938). Heywood Braun and John Gunther were among the writers joining Thompson’s “Journalists Defense Fund” for Grynszpan. They only raised money from Christians, so the Germans couldn’t blame “international Jewry” and retaliate against German Jews yet again.

According to the Associated Press (July 2, 1939), “international tension is holding up the trial of Herschel Grynszpan.” There were doubts about finding an impartial jury because of anti-German feeling.

Readers were told how Grynszpan, 17, a former yeshiva student resembling the baby-faced Sal Mineo in “Exodus,” had been living with relatives in Paris. Several days before the shooting, his parents in Germany were deported with 12,000 other Polish Jews who had been living in Germany to the German-Polish border. The Poles wouldn’t accept them. The Germans kept the deportees living in the wild, without shelter, along the border.

(In 1961, at the Eichmann trial, Grynszpan’s father testified that at the border, “the SS started whipping us. … Those unable to walk were dragged on the road, blood was flowing on all sides.” The New York Times detailed the deportation in a front-page story, Oct. 29, 1938).

On Nov. 7, 1938, the diminutive Grynszpan, five-feet tall and dressed for history in a suit and tie, entered the German embassy ostensibly to deliver a document. Ushered into Vom Rath’s office, Grynszpan announced: “In the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews, here is the document,” and he fired five bullets.

The Times’ two-column front-page headline let it be known that Grynszpan acted “To Avenge Expulsions By The Nazis.”

The day after Kristallnacht, the Times (Nov. 11, 1938) headlined, “Paris Slayer Weeps At News From Reich.”

As far away as New Zealand, the Evening Post (Nov. 15, 1939) reported that Grynszpan asked French authorities if he could be released into the service of the French army “so that I can kill some more Germans.” He remained in jail.

When France surrendered to the Germans, benevolent French police drove Grynszpan more than 100 miles from Paris, setting him free. Grynszpan inexplicably decided he’d rather return to jail.

Said the Times (Sept. 8, 1940), “Grynszpan’s trip across France, knocking on prison doors in search of officials to accept his surrender, will probably remain unique in prison annals.”

Vichy France delivered Grynszpan to the Nazis. The Nazis, said the Times (March 24, 1941), decided to keep Grynszpan alive for “an elaborate German ‘show trial’ to be held after the war in an effort to reveal a world-wide Jewish-Masonic plot to kill many high Nazi leaders…”

At the 1961 Eichmann trial, Adolf Eichmann testified that he met with Grynszpan, possibly as late as 1944.

The Nazis sent psychiatrists to Grynszpan’s cell, which led to a stunning revelation. Grynszpan told the Nazi psychiatrist that he was not only gay but Vom Rath’s lover. According to Haaretz (Nov. 13, 2008), Dr. Victor Mueller-Hess said Grynszpan met Vom Rath, 29, on a Paris street. In exchange for sex, Vom Rath promised to use his influence at the embassy to help Grynszpan’s parents.

When the affair did not lead to help from Vom Rath, the teenager shot him.

The gay angle was discussed in Josef Goebbel’s diary as a potential problem for the show trial; it led to a West German libel and perjury trial (reported in the Times, Jan. 12, 1966); and was substantiated in the diary of Nobel Laureate Andre Gide. It was discussed in newspapers as distant as The Scotsman, in the U.K. (Nov.1, 2001), and San Francisco’s gay paper, the Bay Area Reporter (Feb. 2, 2008).

The unseemly discomfort of mixing Nazi-Jewish homosexuality with Kristallnacht is likely the reason why Grynszpan, once a media and Jewish hero, stopped being mentioned at most Kristallnacht commemorations beyond a sentence or two.

That is even though Haaretz reported that Grynszpan also wrote a coded note in Hebrew saying his gay confession was a ploy. His lawyer — the Nazis allowed him a lawyer — had discovered that Vom Rath was guy, and Grynszpan figured that outing the martyred Nazi would throw a wrench into the “grand propaganda trial.”

There never was a trial.

In the early 1950s, the West German government said it had no record of Grynszpan’s death, though they had meticulous records of deaths even in Auschwitz and other prisons.

In 1959, there was a story in London that Grynszpan was liberated by the Allies and he returned to Paris, changed his name, and was working in a garage.

It wasn’t until 1960 that a West German court declared him dead.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

But do we?

E-mail: jonathan@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

11/12/2010 - 09:01

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I have been unable to find an article about the libel case in The Times issue of 12 Jan 1966. The libel case against Soltikow was reported in The Times, Wed 16 Nov 1960, p.10 col B (including that a witness had stated that Herschel Grynszpan was still alive) and The Times, Fri 23 Dec 1960, p.6 col B.

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