On the morning of November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee, Herschel Grynszpan, walked into the German embassy in Paris and in an act of desperation assassinated Ernst vom Rath, a low-level Nazi diplomat. He did it, he said, out "of love for my parents and for my people." Two days later, vom Rath lay dead, and the Third Reich exploited his murder to inaugurate its long-planned campaign of terror against Germany's Jewish citizens, in the mass pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht. In a bizarre concatenation of events that would rapidly involve Ribbentrop, Goebbels, and Hitler himself, Grynszpan would become the centerpiece of a Nazi propaganda campaign that would later describe his actions as the first shot of the Jewish War.
In The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, best-selling author Jonathan Kirsch brings to light this wrenching story, reexamining the historical details and moral dimensions of one of the most enigmatic cases of World War II. Was Grynszpan a crazed lone gunman, or was he an agent of the Gestapo, recruited to provide a convenient pretext for a major escalation of Nazi aggression? Was he motivated by a desire to strike a blow for the Jewish people as an early partisan fighter, or did his act of violence speak to an intimate connection between the assassin and his target, as Grynszpan later claimed?
In re-creating the life of this German-Polish refugee turned assassin, Kirsch convincingly demonstrates that the life of Herschel Grynszpan remains just as fascinating as the conspiracy theories that surround him. Challenging the perception of the European Jew as docile and unwilling to resort to violence in the face of aggression, Grynszpan was almost unanimously assailed by most German Jews, who were rightly fearful that the Nazis would use the murder to wreak widespread retribution. Yet he was at the same time embraced by the American journalist Dorothy Thompson, who rallied others to his international defense. Condemned by the likes of Goebbels at the time, he was still labeled as a psychopath and an agent provacateur by Hannah Arendt at the Eichmann trial two decades later.
As Kristallnacht increasingly becomes known as an international day for remembrance, Jonathan Kirsch brilliantly succeeds here in illuminating both a single life cast into the shadows of history as well as the countless tragic lives of Eastern European Jews in the terrible days leading up to World War II.
Kirsch expertly picks through the murky details to shed new light on the historical significance. A compelling study.
Herschel Grynszpan wanted nothing more than to be remembered for his rash, heroic actions. In Kirsch, he has finally found an objective, yet passionate, chronicler.--Ronald C. Rosbottom, professor of French and European studies, Amherst College
In his well-crafted study... Jonathan Kirsch manages to put some meat on the skinny frame of his protagonist and also to put a human face on his victim. In so doing, Kirsch has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of Kristallnacht, whose 75th anniversary falls this year.--David Clay Large
With a storyteller's touch and a lawyer's insight, Kirsch elevates this tragic tale and makes it read like a legal and moral thriller.--Thane Rosenbaum, author of Payback: The Case for Revenge and The Myth of Moral Justice
On Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled Jewish teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, got in to see a low-level Nazi attache and shot him dead--a killing that gave Hitler a pretext for the savage, anti-Semitic orgy of Kristallnacht.--Scott Martelle