How Shall We Judge Herschel, Teen Assassin?

Last week was the 59th anniversary of a murder. An assassination committed by a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris, by the name of Herschel Grynszpan.

You probably know something about Herschel Grynszpan, or at least about his act. You probably know that in late October, 1938, Herschel, then a stateless fugitive sought by the police, learned about the horrific fate of his parents. They were Polish Jews living in Hanover, Germany, unwanted by both Poland’s and Germany’s anti-Semitic regimes. They’d been rousted from their home by squads of Gestapo thugs wielding bullwhips; they’d been forced to abandon their lives and possessions, and were driven across the border to Poland, where they shivered, hungry and unwanted, in primitive detention, slowly starving to death.

You probably know that, driven to distraction by rage, grief and his own fugitive state, Herschel bought a gun, walked into the German Embassy in Paris, seeking the Ambassador, and shot the first official he saw, a relatively minor functionary named Ernst vom Rath.

You probably know about the consequences of the shooting: Vom Rath hovered between life and death from the bullets Herschel put into him for a couple of days; the news of his death reached Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in Munich as they were celebrating the anniversary of the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923 and the Nazi “martyrs” who fell while Hitler slipped away from the line of fire.

You probably know that Hitler let slip the order that the S.A. should “have its fling”; that within hours Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich saw to it that all over Germany, howling mobs were burning synagogues, shattering the windows of Jewish-owned shops, beating and murdering Jews while police rounded up and dragged some 25,000 innocents off to concentration-camp detention. You probably know that because of the spectacle of the streets full of shattered glass, the murderous, nationwide pogrom acquired the name Kristallnacht , the Night of Broken Glass.

It was the moment when the mask, or what was left of the mask, came off the Third Reich. But what about the boy whose act ripped the mask off; what are we to think of him, what became of him? These are questions that are still shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty.

For many years, Herschel Grynszpan has languished in a kind of limbo of historical judgment because many have not been sure what to make of him and his act. Was he a fool whose reckless act cost the lives of fellow Jews? Or was he a hero, a prophet whose courageous gesture of resistance alerted his fellow Jews to the horrific truth behind the mask and in effect saved the lives of many more by prompting them to escape the Third Reich before it became too late?

The former view, a kind of distancing, if not repudiation of Herschel, seemed to prevail for a half-century after his act, but things started to change a decade ago, when a cautious and respected scholar, Michael Marrus, author of The Holocaust in History , published an important essay in The American Scholar called “The Strange Story of Herschel Grynszpan.” In it, Professor Marrus re-examined the Grynszpan case, not just the act itself and the Kristallnacht consequences, but the odyssey of the assassin before and after the act.

Professor Marrus reminds us of the brutality Herschel’s family was subjected to by citing the elder Grynszpan’s testimony at Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial: “The S.S. men used whips to hurry us across the fields to the frontier line. Those who faltered were struck, blood spurted … I was struck and fell into a ditch.” He reminds us that Herschel saw his act as more than personal vengeance for his own family, but a symbolic gesture on behalf of all Jews. “When I think of our tragedy,” he wrote his uncle on an unmailed postcard found on him when he was arrested, “and that of all 12,000 [expelled] Jews, I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest.”

Professor Marrus has no illusions about the grave consequences of Herschel’s act. Kristallnacht ‘s ugly brutality, and the worldwide obloquy it earned for the Third Reich, led to a quickening of Nazi plans for a “final solution” to the Jewish question-which first took the form of quickened expulsions, “the very policy in reaction to which Herschel Grynszpan had struck on Nov. 7.”

But Professor Marrus also finds much to admire in the way this 17-year-old kid handled himself with the weight of the world and, for all he knew, perhaps the fate of his people upon him, finds much to respect in the way Herschel handled the decisions about his legal defense when in French custody, and then, later, after the German invasion when he fell into the hands of Hitler and Goebbels in the heart of the beast in Berlin.

From the outset, there was considerable pressure on Herschel to defuse the explosive potential of his act by denying its nature as a symbolic anti-Nazi protest. His French attorney urged him to allege a homosexual relationship with the murdered German embassy official and to construe the killing as a crime of passion, a lesser offense, and one that would not exacerbate the consequences for Jews in Germany by making it seem he’d done it specifically on their behalf.

Herschel refused to go that route; he maintained his principled stand that his was an act of protest against Nazi barbarism. And by doing so, he inspired worldwide protests on his behalf, principally in the United States, where crusading anti-Nazi journalist Dorothy Thompson made Herschel and Kristallnacht the subject of nationwide outrage. It was a defining moment in the evolution of U.S. attitudes toward intervention in Hitler’s Europe and the war that would soon break out. The savagery of Kristallnacht made it impossible for Nazi-sympathizing isolationists like Charles Lindbergh to argue that neutrality was a morally neutral stance in a meaningless foreign conflict. Not after the Third Reich had been unveiled, unmasked for anyone who hadn’t been able to see it, as no legitimate regime but a gang of racist murderers masquerading as a state.

But Professor Marrus evinces even more admiration for Herschel Grynszpan’s dramatic endgame in Berlin, where one undersized Jewish prisoner managed to frustrate the grand design of Hitler and Goebbels and the entire Third Reich. Before Herschel’s case came to trial in the French court, the Germans invaded, and he was evacuated from Paris with other French prisoners south to Vichy territory. The Nazis dispatched a special Gestapo squad to hunt him down and demanded the French surrender him, which, needless to say, they promptly did.

Transported to a special prison in Berlin, alone, barely 20, Herschel then pulled off an amazing act of defiance. Hitler and Goebbels wanted to stage a huge, internationally covered show trial with Herschel as the sacrificial centerpiece in order to “prove” that a Jewish conspiracy was responsible for starting World War II. Somehow Herschel had the smarts to figure out exactly what was going on, and the courage and resourcefulness to defy and defeat their strategy.

What he did was revive the (false) story that the killing grew out of some homosexual liaison and insist that he would testify to that in any public trial. Which caused a bitter Goebbels to complain in his diary that it was “a shameless fabrication. But … a lucky inspiration … since if it were brought to trial, it would become a dominant theme in adverse propaganda.”

Professor Marrus calls Herschel’s canny strategy a self-sacrificing ” coup de théâtre … an act of extraordinary courage on Grynszpan’s part” because “he almost certainly knew that he was only being kept alive for the purposes of a trial, and by subverting these plans, he might have been signing his own death warrant.”

That death warrant: A remarkable amount of confusion and uncertainty, a remarkably persistent subcurrent of rumor and whisper for such a famous prisoner, has shrouded the fate of Herschel Grynszpan in Nazi captivity. Most assume that he was executed or perished because of harsh prison conditions after he forced the cancellation of the show trial, but there is no official record, no surviving witness to his death.

Some have suggested that with his resourcefulness, Herschel might have survived the war and slipped into a life of postwar anonymity somewhere. Professor Marrus cites reports that Herschel survived, but casts doubt on the reliability of the rumors.

But a new book by young English scholar, Andy Marino ( Herschel , Faber and Faber), revives the speculation-even reports a rumor “that Herschel eventually lived in the Midwest of America, somewhere like Minneapolis or Cincinnati, and opened a record store.”

Somehow I like that detail (even if I don’t believe it for a minute); I like the notion of Herschel Grynszpan-now 76-spinning platters for American teenagers in a mall somewhere, knowing he possessed an incredible secret.

But in thinking about the rumors, the question struck me: Why do they all portray Herschel living in anonymity, concealing his identity? Is it because they project upon him the ambivalence many still feel about his act, project upon him, perhaps, a feeling of guilt for his act and for its consequences, the uncertainty he may have felt about how he’d be received by his people, the uncertainty over whether he was a reckless fool or a reckless hero?

That’s what I like about Andy Marino’s book: It makes an all-out unapologetic case for Herschel as a hero. Yes, Mr. Marino pursues a dubious and ironic theory that Herschel’s victim, Vom Rath, wasn’t a Nazi at all, not at heart, and that he might in fact have been part of the conservative German resistance to Hitler, even supplying French intelligence with German espionage secrets, even (in a final, far-fetched leap) information that could have prevented the German conquest of France.

But for the most part, I like Mr. Marino’s book for its impassioned defense of Herschel and his act. Because, while I believe there are difficult questions still to be resolved about how we evaluate the wisdom and consequences of Herschel’s act, he deserves an all-out unabashed partisan to make the case for his heroism, the case that Professor Marrus first cautiously adumbrated and Mr. Marino now celebrates . Mr. Marino argues that the long-term consequences of Herschel’s act resulted in saving far more Jewish lives-by prompting far more rapid emigration of the tens of thousands of Jews who escaped from Germany before escape became impossible and extermination inevitable-than the hundreds that were lost in Kristallnacht . An awful calculation to make, but it was a time of only awful choices.

Perhaps if Herschel is still alive, living in anonymity, uncertain of the reception he’d get if he disclosed his identity, Mr. Marino’s book might encourage him to shed his disguise and reveal himself before he dies in utter obscurity. And while I don’t believe he really is still alive and in our midst, still, as the 60th anniversary of his reckless and heroic act approaches, I think that, in some profound way, Herschel Grynszpan lives .