In November 1938, a seventeen-year-old Jew, Herschel Grynszpan (pronounced “Greenspan”), shot and fatally wounded a German embassy official in Paris. After shooting the official with a tiny handgun that still had the price tag dangling from its grip, he surrendered himself. Grynszpan survived several prisons and concentration camps before dying under unknown circumstances.
On the face of it, Grynszpan hardly seems a promising subject for a full-scale biography. It is a real tribute to Stephen Koch’s storytelling talent that he manages not only to draw readers into the young man’s story, but to leave everyone asking why they haven’t heard about him before. Who was this kid?
Young Herschel Grynszpan grew up in Germany in a close-knit, Polish Jewish family. In 1936, with antisemitism deepening under the Reich, his parents sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle in Paris. He was only fifteen and had no real papers entitling him to live in France, much less to work, but he muddled through – until he received unbearable news. Some 18,000 Ostjuden living in Germany, including his own family, had been rounded up and deported across the Polish border, left to fend for themselves in the bitter winter weather. Grynszpan wanted to send his sister money he didn’t have, wanted to rally support, but couldn’t even talk his own uncle into action. In desperation, he bought the gun that he used to shoot the German official. What he couldn’t have known was that Hitler and Goebbels would use this assassination to rally their storm troopers to commit the massive pogrom known as Kristallnacht.
Alas, this was not the end of Grynszpan’s usefulness to the Reich. What if a huge show trial could be mounted in Germany, where it could be proven that this boy was the pawn of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to murder Aryans? Could this be twisted into a rationale for the Final Solution?
Grynszpan was not going to allow himself to be used a second time, and Koch masterfully unfolds the boy’s complicated plans. He also highlights the rise of fascism in the Nazi period — the opportunists and their power plays, the crafting of the “big lie”, the staging of mass pageantry — in such a way that readers can’t help but think about the parallels to today’s world politics. By avoiding explicit comparisons, Koch wisely allows readers to make these connections themselves.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.