To avenge the brutal abduction of his Polish Jewish parents in Germany, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who was living in Paris, on November 7, 1938, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and shot Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath.
For Adolf Hitler, the shooting in Paris provided an opportunity to incite Germans to 'rise in bloody vengeance against the Jews'. It supplied the pretext for massive Nazi pogroms launched against Jews in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland - the orgy of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The tide of anti-Semitism under Nazi rule was given impetus: in the next 24 hours Nazi storm troopers along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, brutalized Jewish women and children, destroyed 265 synagogues, looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, smashed Jewish cemeteries, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps.
The Kristallnacht pogrom was the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, over a million Roma and Sinti, gay people as well as communists, trade unionists and many, many others.
The day the Holocaust began ..
Herschel Feibel Grynszpan, who decided to fight back against Nazi oppression, was born on March 28, 1921, in Hannover, Germany. He later travelled to Frankfurt am Main to study Hebrew in a Yeshivah to prepare to immigrate to Palestine. After a year he returned to his family home and looked for work as an apprentice plumber or mechanic but in vain, because he was a Jew. At the advice of a friend Herschel turned his attentions toward France and his father made arrangements for the boy to live with his uncle and aunt, Abraham and Chawa Grynszpan, in Paris while the rest of the family remained in Germany.
In the autumn of 1938 Herschel's family in Hannover - father, mother, sister and brother - were among ten thousand Jews ruthlessly removed from their homes and deported to Poland in boxcars, but his sister Berta managed to send a postcard to Herschel in Paris, describing the torments his family went through. The youth, enraged by what he read, bought a pistol and went to the German Embassy in Paris on 7 November 1938, to take revenge and kill the ambassador, Count von Welczek. But the Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath, was sent out to see what the young man wanted and was shot.
Herschel Grynszpan arrested
Herschel Grynszpan was arrested and in a poignant statement taken immediately after the arrest the young Jew told the police: 'Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal.' He declared that he had to avenge the Jews, to draw the attention of the world to what was happening in Germany.
Herschel was never brought to a French trial but was held in custody for twenty months, longer than any juvenile in French legal history, in spite of continuous efforts to get him freed. While in Fresnes Prison south of Paris Herschel wrote a letter to his cousin Leo dated 29 March 1939:
'Dear Leo, I hope you have received my letter. How is it you have not written to me about Lena? Has she got married yet? I very much enjoyed reading your letter. I should be so glad if you were to send me a picture of yourself. How are you? My life in prison is very monotonous. I hope that French justice will understand me and act accordingly. From your sister I have received a few letters; unfortunately I am unable to reply as I have lost her address; please do let me have it. Nothing else is new. Regards and kisses from your cousin Herschel.'
Herschel Grynszpan was held in prison until the French Government evacuated Paris and the Germans marched on the city in June of 1940. A month later he was in Nazi hands, illegally extradited to Germany on 18 July 1940 now being interrogated by the Gestapo in anticipation of a major show trial. But it never came off - the trial was canceled.
Herschel Grynszpan - did he survive ?
Herschel Grynszpan was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp where the Nazis kept special prisoners such as Pastor Martin Niemoeller, an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Later Herschel simply disappeared ...
Shortly after the war, one of Grynszpan's original lawyers reported that the youth had been executed by the Nazis after his transfer into their hands in 1940. But even today many believe that the boy miraculously managed to survive.
In November 1959 the London Magazine World Jewry ran an article by German journalist Egon Larsen titled, 'The Boy Who Pulled the Trigger. German Documents Reveal How Feibel Grynszpan Survived It All'. Beyond reaffirming the survival hypothesis, it reported that
'Grynszpan was kept in prison until the end of the war and finally freed by the Allies. He returned to Paris, adopted a new name, and started a new life. Now [in 1959] in his late thirties, married and with two children, he works in a Paris suburban garage. His apparent fear that if it were known who he really is he might one day become himself the victim of revenge, may not be too far-fetched.'
Herschel Grynszpan's parents survived the war and later emigrated to Israel. They played a part in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Herschel's father and brother testified that all their previous efforts to find Herschel had failed.
But as the Grynszpan family told
the Jerusalem Post in 1988: Herschel's act was one of the first expressions
of Jewish resistance to the Nazis.
The Nizkor Project
Wisconsin State Journal
Roizen, "Herschel Grynszpan: the Fate of A Forgotten Assassin"
Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 1, No.2. pp. 217-228,1986.
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