It was about 9:30 am on a hazy autumnal Monday morning when a young man walked down the Rue de Lille in Paris. His destination was the German embassy in the Hôtel Beauharnais, a city palace at number 78. The 17-year-old had a loaded revolver in his coat pocket that he had bought just an hour earlier and had the firm intention of “making a mark” on November 7, 1938 “.
Shortly before the embassy, he asks an elegant gentleman in his late fifties who is also heading there, how he can reach the German ambassador? The gentleman referred the visitor to the porter, which probably saved his life, since he was Johannes Graf Welczek, the German ambassador in Paris. The young man turned to the concierge and asked to be allowed to hand over important papers to the ambassador - "in person", as he repeated several times and insistently.
But Welczek, who had meanwhile returned to his official apartment in the embassy after his usual morning walk and shaved, wanted nothing to do with the seemingly unreliable visitor; he had him referred to one of the younger embassy secretaries.
But because the attaché who was actually responsible for visitor traffic was late that morning and had not yet turned up for work, the unexpected guest was taken to the office of legation secretary Ernst vom Rath. Exactly what happened in the following seconds could never be clarified - the only thing that is certain is that Grynszpan shot vom Rath five times, missed him three times from a distance of about two meters, but scored twice and injured him seriously. Two of the ambassador's employees rushed into the office after the shots were fired, arrested the assassin and handed him over to the French police. The seriously wounded victim was taken to the hospital, but Ernst vom Rath succumbed to his injuries two days later.
As soon as the first reports about the assassination attempt appeared in German newspapers on November 8, SA men committed individual acts of violence against Jews. The "Völkischer Beobachter", the central organ of the NSDAP, commented: "It is clear that the German people will draw their own conclusions from this new act." That is what happened, albeit very sporadically at first. Still.
The following morning, the Times, the leading British newspaper, reported: "The 400,000 Jews still remaining in the Third Reich are awaiting in fear and anxiety a renewed attack on their race tonight, which, if the tone of the officially controlled press is taken as an indication will surpass in violence and brutality any that has taken place in the past five years.”
The newspaper was right: the controlled pogrom that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels unleashed with Hitler's approval after the death of Ernst vom Rath on the evening of November 9, 1938, surpassed in brutality everything that German Jews had come to know as "normal" since 1933. In the night of November 9th, 1938, synagogues burned all over Germany, Jewish shops were looted and Jewish Germans were humiliated, and in many cases even killed.
The November pogroms are widely known under the term "Kristallnacht" or "Reichskristallnacht", which is at least doubly imprecise: Firstly, the origin of this term is unclear (is it a Nazi propaganda creation or did the cheeky Berlin vernacular create the word?), secondly, it wasn't just a matter of one night. Rather, the riots lasted from around midnight on November 10 until the morning of November 12, and in some places even until November 13, 1938.
Herschel Grynszpan did not initially learn anything about the consequences of his crime when he was interrogated in Paris. He openly admitted that the oppression of the Jews in Germany was the background to his attack. At the age of 15, Grynspan left his hometown of Hanover at the request of his parents in order to be able to grow up safely. But in Paris, where he stayed with his uncle, he never gained a foothold. He was like many other emigrants.
However, unlike those who fought their way through, accepting some of the lowest jobs totally inappropriate to their education, Herschel Grynszpan lived for the day at the expense of his relatives. On November 6, he fell out with his uncle, who had lodged him until then, and checked himself into a comfortable hotel under an assumed name. However, the daily price was such a strain on his cash that he would be penniless within two weeks. So, after just one night, Grynszpan bought a revolver and ammunition with most of his money and headed to the German embassy.
Born on March 28, 1921 in Hanover, the youngest of four children of Polish-born tailor Sendel Grynszpan (translated as "Greenspan") and his wife Ryfka, Herschel had never received German citizenship. He attended elementary school and turned out to be intelligent but lazy. He dropped out of school and subsequent training.
In the summer of 1936 he traveled legally to his paternal uncle in Brussels, but he did not get along with him, so friends illegally took him from Belgium to France, where he stayed with his other paternal uncle. In Paris, Herschel lived day-to-day, worked at most as a part-time job, otherwise hung around in the red-light milieu, also in establishments for homosexuals, which were of course illegal at the time. It is unclear whether he really went on the road.
His Polish passport had been invalid since January 1938, he was not given a residence permit for France, and the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich made it impossible for him to return to Hanover. When he found out that his parents and his only sister had been deported to the Polish border by the German police at the end of October 1938 and had to live there under catastrophic conditions, he felt compelled to "set an example".
In prison, after learning about the November pogroms in Germany, Herschel Grynszpan declared that he had no political motive; the murder was a relationship act between two homosexuals. That vom Rath was homosexual was one of the open secrets in the German diplomatic service.
In view of this, the Nazi leadership dropped the planned show trial of Grynszpan, who had been handed over to the German authorities after France's defeat in July 1940. At the beginning of 1942, Goebbels dictated to his secretary in disappointment: “The Grünspan murder trial is now up for debate again. Grünspan invented the cheeky argument that he had had a homosexual relationship with the legation councillor, vom Rath, who had been shot. This is of course an outrageous lie; nevertheless it is skilfully conceived, and if it were put forward in the public trial it would certainly become the main argument of all opposing propaganda.”
Herschel's trace in German court files is lost in 1942. Everything else is sheer speculation. He may have been murdered soon after; but it is possible that he survived the Holocaust and was photographed in 1946 in a camp for "displaced persons" in Bamberg.
Apparently Grynspan was even married in the late 1950s and had two children who knew as little about his past as his wife did. However, Herschel's father, Sendel, testified at the Eichmann trial in Tel Aviv in 1961 that, despite all attempts, he was unable to contact his son, who was allegedly in hiding.
As early as June 1, 1960, the District Court of Hanover had legally certified Herschel's death. “May 8, 1945 was determined as the time of death,” the judge concealed his ignorance about the whereabouts of the assassin on November 7, 1938. The photo from Bamberg from 1946 has also proved to be a dead end: because if it were to show Herschel Grynspzan , so it remained the only indication of his survival.
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