Kristallnacht: Before the Glass Began to Break (Re “Jewish Week on (Gay) ‘Sex And Kristallnacht: The Boy Toy (And Boy Assassin) Who Started It All’”)

On the morning of November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish-German Jew, entered a gunsmith's shop in Paris and bought a pistol.

By Yotam Feldman
HAARETZ | November 13, 2008

On the morning of November 7, 1938, Herschel (Hirsch) Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish-German Jew, entered a gunsmith's shop on Faubourg Saint-Martin Street in Paris and bought a pistol. He then walked to the nearby Strasbourg Saint-Denis Metro station and got off at the Solferino stop, close to the German embassy. At the embassy he told the receptionist, a Herr Nagorka, that he had an important document he wanted to give to an embassy official. The receptionist escorted him to the waiting room on the ground floor and asked Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old diplomat who was the third secretary in the embassy, if he would receive the youngster. Vom Rath said he would. The receptionist ushered Grynszpan into the diplomat's office and returned to his post.

The events that followed in the closed office - which are unknown to anyone other than the two men involved, both of whom are dead - became the source of bizarre historical speculations, a novel, a libel suit and still-ongoing search.

Grynszpan afterward told the French police that when he and vom Rath were alone, he said to the German diplomat, "You are a filthy Kraut, and in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews [refering to the Polish Jews who had been arrested and deported by the Nazis], here is the document." Taking out the pistol from his jacket pocket, he fired five bullets at vom Rath from point-blank range. Vom Rath, hit by two bullets, staggered into the corridor shouting "I am wounded," and was evacuated to hospital. Grynszpan made no effort to escape, and even asked the embassy staff to turn him over to the police so that he would not have to remain in the building, which was considered German territory.

At the private Clinic de l'Alma, physicians worked feverishly to try to save vom Rath, who was suffering from serious internal bleeding. When the news reached Berlin that an attempt had been on the life of a German diplomat, Hitler sent his personal physician, Karl Brandt, to treat him and to transmit updated reports to the Fuehrer's bureau.

Herschel Grynszpan

The incident was a godsend for Nazi propaganda: The Nazis had been looking for a pretext to launch a well-orchestrated attack on the Jews, which would look like a spontaneous uprising. Vom Rath died of his wounds on the afternoon of November 9. The Nazi propaganda machine gave the assassination the widest possible media coverage, accompanied by rabid incitement against "international Jewry" for being behind the murder. That night, forever remembered as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Germans went on a rampage against Jews across Germany, burning synagogues and destroying Jewish homes and businesses. Some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested in Germany and Austria and thrown into concentration camps. A few days later, a state funeral was held for vom Rath in Germany, attended by Hitler and the top Nazi hierarchy.

On the way to a police station, Grynszpan told an officer, "I have just shot a man in his office. I do not regret it. I did it to avenge my parents who are miserable in Germany." [Source: Gerald Schwab, "The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan," Praeger Publishers, 1990.] The young Jew was imprisoned in Fresnes Prison in Paris.

Ten days earlier, Grynszpan's parents had been deported to Poland from Hannover, together with thousands of other Jews of Polish origin. Herschel's father, Zindel Grynszpan, testified in the Eichmann trial in 1961 about the "barbaric" deportation: "When we had been going for two kilometers [toward the Polish border], the SS started whipping us - over the heads - hitting us, those who fell behind. Those unable to walk were dragged on the road - blood was flowing on all sides. The bundles we had in our hands were torn away from us and thrown aside. They acted most barbarically; that was the first time I saw the barbarity of the German people ... I myself got a blow from behind; I fell into a ditch; my son [Mordechai] caught me by the hand: 'Papa, come along, otherwise you are a dead man!'" [Source: English version of the Eichmann trial transcripts at www.nizkor.org]

The refugees wandered aimlessly near the border without anyone agreeing to take them in, until finally some were transfered to a camp in the Polish border town of Zbaszyn. Just days before the assassination, Herschel's sister, Berta Grynszpan, sent him a letter about the family's desperate plight: "You undoubtedly heard of our great misfortune ... They didn't permit us to return home anymore. I asked to be allowed to go home and get at least a few things. I went, accompanied by a Sipo [Sicherheitspolizei - Security Police] and packed the necessary clothes in a suitcase. And that is all I saved. We don't have a pfennig. More next time. Best regards and kisses from all of us. Berta."

Embodiment of world Jewry

Mordechai Grynszpan, Herschel's brother, died in Israel in 1996. His widow, Riva Grynszpan, and their daughter, Malka, said in a recent interview in Riva's home in Tel Aviv, that Mordechai regaled them with stories about Herschel's courage and overweening self-confidence. "He had strong Zionist leanings," Malka recalls. "At the age of 14 he studied in a yeshiva in Frankfurt, and my father remembered him as a very sharp child, very smart. My grandfather [Herschel's father] said that he sometimes spoke freely before a large audience."

After a year in the yeshiva, Herschel Grynszpan returned to Hannover, where his family lived, and looked for work as an apprentice plumber or mechanic. His request for a visa to Palestine was rejected because he was too young. Instead, he went to Paris, where he had an uncle. As he did not have a visa for France, he first stayed with relatives in Brussels and in September 1936 entered France illegally. He tried to acquire residency status there, but without success.

Finally, in the summer of 1938, the French authorities ordered him to leave the country within four days. Germany was no longer willing to readmit him, and his Polish passport had been invalidated due to regulations enacted by the Polish government against Jews who left the country. Grynszpan was therefore in France illegally prior to the vom Rath assassination.

Now he was going to face trial for murder. The Nazi authorities, wishing to be involved in the legal proceedings, sent a lawyer to represent the vom Rath family, as well as a Gestapo interrogator, who was supposed to assist the French investigators. The French, for their part, who were then trying to create diplomatic accommodations with Germany, were concerned that a trial would further strain the already tense relations between the countries and were in no hurry to proceed. The eruption of World War II less than a year later made it look unlikely that the trial would be held anytime soon.

Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, the S.S. tracked down Grynszpan - who, after an escape while he was being transferred to another prison, eventually gave himself up to the police in Toulouse - and moved him to Berlin, together with the case files. In Berlin he was interrogated by the Gestapo and then incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Documents from Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and the Justice Ministry found after the war show that from the end of October 1941, the Nazi authorities began to prepare a major show trial for the Jewish assassin.

A key goal of the trial was to justify the Nazis' planned "Final Solution" for European Jewry. Thus, for example, Wolfgang Diewerge, an adviser in the propaganda ministry, who was in charge of preparing the trial, wrote: "The person of the assassin is basically of little interest ... World Jewry is in the dock ... The murder was World Jewry's signal for the start of the war against Nationalist Socialist Germany ... Germany's battle against Jewry before the war, both inside and outside its borders, was a battle for peace. The destruction of Jewry is a prerequisite for the coming European new order." [Source: Schwab, "The Day the Holocaust Began"]

The day before Grynszpan was to be indicted, on October 15, 1941, the first transport of Jews from the Reich to the East set out. S.S. Einsatzgruppen units had been butchering Jews in the Soviet Union since the German invasion of the USSR in June. Hitler and Goebbels were personally involved in planning the trial; Grynszpan was to be portrayed as the embodiment of "world Jewry." In March 1942, Hitler told several members of his entourage that a "most interesting trial" was to be expected.

However, an unexpected development disrupted the Nazis' grandiose plan: According to a Gestapo report, Grynszpan had revised his account and now claimed to have had an erotic relationship with vom Rath, and to have shot him because the diplomat had refused to utilize his position in order to regularize Grynszpan's status in France or to help his family.

In 1947, a psychiatrist, Dr. Victor Mueller-Hess, recalling an examination he had made of Grynszpan on October 15, 1941, gave this account of the prisoner's testimony: "A man stopped [Grynszpan] on the street - either in front of a news stand or a public toilet - and in the course of the conversation, persuaded him to have homosexual relations. At the same time he gave his name and said that he was counselor of embassy [sic] at the German legation. Since the man promised to use his position to help [Grynszpan's] parents, he agreed and had relations with him on several occasions ... Despite his pleas for positive action on behalf of his parents, Herr vom Rath repeatedly put him off. Infuriated by this, he committed the murder." [Source: "The Day the Holocaust Began"]

'Madame Ambassadeur'

Most historians of the subject believe that there is nothing to this revised version of events by Grynszpan, and that he provided it at the advice of his lawyer, Vincent de Moro-Giafferi, a noted French attorney. This is also the opinion held by Grynszpan's relatives in Israel. According to his niece, the Israeli branch of the family concealed its relations with Herschel until the Eichmann trial - at which his father and brother testified - in part because of the allegations that Grynszpan was a homosexual. Another reason was the anger of many Jews, who concluded (contrary to the historical facts) that the assassination was indeed a cause of the heightened Nazi suppression of the Jews.

There is also another interpretation of Grynszpan's later testimony. In recent years, German historian Hans-Juergen Doescher, from Osnabrueck University, has been trying to prove that there was in fact a prior romantic relationship between Grynszpan and vom Rath. Doescher relies on previously classified documents, which were collected ahead of the legal proceedings taken against Diewerge, the ministerial legal adviser, after the war.

Ernst Vom Rath

According to these testimonies, the investigators in the case were in possession of proof that Grynszpan frequented Paris bars and cinemas known to be gay hangouts. Doescher maintains that in the fall of 1938, Grynszpan and vom Rath used to meet at a Paris bar, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and that they were lovers. According to Doescher, vom Rath promised Grynszpan that he would get him the necessary papers to remain in France legally, and when he failed to do so, Grynszpan shot him. Doescher also quotes from the diary of the French writer and Nobel Prize laureate in literature Andre Gide, who was well informed regarding Parisian gay gossip. According to Gide, vom Rath "had an exceptionally intimate relationship with the little Jew, his murderer." Gide noted: "The idea that such a highly thought-of representative of the Third Reich sinned twice according to the laws of his country [by maintaining a homosexual relationship, and with a Jew] is rather amusing."

Additional circumstantial evidence that the two were acquainted, according to Doescher, is the fact that Grynszpan, upon entering the German embassy on that fateful day, asked to meet with the secretary and not with the ambassador, and the fact that the secretary agreed to see him immediately, without putting him through the usual procedure of requesting a meeting.

Doescher, who notes that vom Rath was known in Parisian gay circles as "Madame Ambassadeur," does not make do only with testimonies and documents. Extending his search for the truth to bodily organs, he cites a Jewish physician, Dr. Sarella Pomeranz, who in 1963 stated that she had treated vom Rath in 1937 for rectal gonorrhea. Doescher cites the physician's dubious assertion that without exception, all the patients who suffered from rectal gonorrhea were gay. According to Doescher, vom Rath went to a Jewish rather than an "Aryan" physician because he knew that the discovery of his disease and the reasons for it would mean the end of his diplomatic career. Doescher adds that vom Rath's brother, an officer in the Wehrmacht, the German army, was convicted of engaging in sexual relations with men, sentenced to prison and demoted.

The Nazis, who preferred to dismiss Grynszpan's amended account, were nonetheless disturbed by testimonies about his relations with vom Rath. Goebbels noted in his diary on April 5, 1942: "I am having lots of work preparing the Grynszpan trial. The Ministry of Justice has deemed it proper to furnish the defendant, the Jew Grynszpan, the argument of Article 175 [German laws against homosexuality]. Grynszpan until now had always claimed, and rightly so, that he had not even known the counselor of the legation whom he shot. Now there is in existence some sort of anonymous letter by a Jewish refugee, which leaves open the likelihood of homosexual intercourse between Grynszpan and vom Rath. It is an absurd, typically Jewish claim. The Ministry of Justice, however, did not hesitate to incorporate this claim in the indictment and to send the indictment to the defendant. This shows again how foolishly our legal experts have acted in this case, and how shortsighted it is to entrust any political matter whatever to the jurists." [Source: "The Goebbels Diaries," edited and translated by Louis P. Lochner, Popular Library]

The theory of a homosexual relationship between Grynszpan and vom Rath provided the inspiration for a 2005 semi-fictional novel, "The German Officer's Boy," by the American writer Harlan Greene. "One of the reasons I wrote the book," Greene told Haaretz , "is the negative approach that arises from the historical reports, concerning the possibility that they had relations. I say: If Grynszpan, who signed testimonies to the effect that he did have such relations with vom Rath, was being truthful, what of it?"

Greene maintains that the whole affair is enveloped in hypocrisy and homophobia. "For example, one of vom Rath's brothers [not the one convicted of having homosexual relations] sued a German journalist for writing, at the end of the 1950s, that a relationship existed between Grynszpan and vom Rath. I can hardly think of a more foolish cause for a lawsuit than a dispute over the sexuality of someone who is dead."

Vom Rath's family asked Herschel's brother, Mordechai, to testify in the libel case, but he refused.

Coded note in Hebrew

Most of the historians who have researched Grynszpan's life have not been impressed by the claims that he knew the German diplomat before shooting him. "I believe it was the idea of Giafferi, the lawyer," says the historian Prof. Michael Marrus, who has studied the affair. "In that period, French lawyers could win an acquittal for their clients, or at least get their sentence reduced, by entering a plea of 'crime passionnel' [a crime of passion], as other defendants did in the years before the event. What is certain is that these allegations upset the Nazis very much. They admired the Soviets' show trials, and they were obsessed with exposing the Maenner hinter [the people behind the scenes], in this case the leaders of 'international Jewry' who were [supposedly] behind the assassination. With one heroic step, Grynszpan was able to sabotage the trial that Nazi propaganda had labored over so mightily."

Grynszpan's revised version of events continued to perturb Goebbels and aggravated the already-simmering tension between him and the Justice Ministry. On April 10, 1942, the acting justice minister, Franz Schlegelberger, wrote to Goebbels: "Since the Fuehrer has ordered continuation of the criminal proceedings against Grynszpan and the trial is to begin on May 11, 1942, I would appreciate early confirmation that the Fuehrer, when he agreed to the trial before all the world, was aware that Grynszpan as part of his defense will allege homosexual relations with counselor of legation vom Rath." [Source: "The Day the Holocaust Began"]

This letter was intended to embarrass Goebbels, who had not informed Hitler about Grynszpan's new line of defense and had to request his agreement to continue the trial preparations. In the weeks that followed, the Nazis' senior hierarchy began to be persuaded that it would be foolhardy to hold the trial as planned. It was therefore postponed indefinitely. According to an internal memorandum disseminated on May 13, 1942, the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had also told Hitler that he was against going ahead with the trial at that time. Goebbels accepted his approach.

"I think the Nazis believed they would be able to break Grynszpan the way the Soviets did [with their prisoners]," Marrus says. "That is why they deferred the start of the trial repeatedly."

A coded note in Hebrew written by Grynszpan, in which he retracts the claim that he had homosexual relations with vom Rath, did not change the decision to abandon the trial. "When France extradited me to Germany, I thought that there would be no trial in that the Gestapo would murder me," Grynszpan wrote in the note, which the Foreign Ministry decoded on May 8, 1942 and which was found in the files of the Propaganda Ministry. This, he wrote, was more to his liking "than a grand propaganda trial whose results would be a death sentence and which undoubtedly would have resulted in bloody pogroms."

The reality, though, proved different. Grynszpan continued: "They did turn me over to the Gestapo as [a] prisoner, but they treated me exceptionally well." He added that other prisoners told him that those for whom the Nazis had special plans did in fact receive good treatment. [Source: "The Day the Holocaust Began"]

He also wrote in the note that in order to sabotage the Germans' attempt to exploit him in a show trial, he exploited information about "a touchy phase from the life of Mr. vom Rath" which he heard about from his lawyer, and on its basis fabricated false testimony to the Gestapo. To prevent the trial, he added, he tried twice to commit suicide, but was "unsuccessful due to the vigilance of guard Hollmurg. I have not given up the hope that I will succeed." Grynszpan added that he had "entrusted this admission to three persons in case they should wish to publish it, this will serve as a verification."

Survivor theory

Herschel Grynszpan's ultimate fate is as great a mystery as the question of his relations with vom Rath. Alain Cuenot, a Frenchman who wrote a biography of Grynszpan, reached the conclusion that he died of an illness (and was not executed) at the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943. He relies on the fact that no new documents were added to his files by the Nazis from 1943 to 1945. At the same time, in the 1950s and 1960s a number of reports appeared, most of them unreliable, to the effect that Grynszpan survived the war.

In November 1959, a report in the London-based magazine "World Jewry" by a German journalist, Egon Larsen, stated that Grynszpan had been liberated by the Allied forces: "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."

Grynszpan's family finds the whole notion of his survival far-fetched. "Our main proof that he did not live," Malka Grynszpan says, "is that he did not make contact with us. He was so attached to his family that it is unreasonable to think he would not have looked for us." To which the American Ron Roizen, who investigated Grynszpan's last years, adds, "When I heard the theory that he was living in Paris with a family, my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe that the one Jew that the Germans had a more or less justified reason to punish, had eluded them and survived. In the end, I discovered that the claims of his survival were quite feeble, and a close examination finds that they contain little of substance."

In 1958, Zindel Grynszpan requested compensation from the German government for his son's death. On June 1, 1960, a court in Hannover declared Herschel Grynszpan officially dead.

http://www.haaretz.com/before-the-glass-began-to-break-1.257119