How Nazis Used the Crime of Herschel Grynszpan, a Young Jewish Boy to Excuse the Holocaust

In the dark tapestry of history, certain names are etched in tragedy. One such name is Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish teenager whose desperate act in 1938 set in motion a series of events that would become the ominous precursor to the Holocaust. Let’s delve into the poignant narrative of Herschel Grynszpan, exploring the circumstances that led to that fateful day and the chilling exploitation of his crime by the Nazis.

A Boy Born In Exile

Herschel Feibel Grynszpan entered the world in Hanover, Germany, part of a family known as “Eastern Jews” or Ostjuden. This working-class family, having fled anti-Semitic persecution in Radomsko, Poland, sought refuge in Germany in 1911. Little did they know that the Germany they embraced for its perceived enlightenment would transform under the shadow of the Nazi Party.

Credit: Police photo

Herschel, a scrawny boy with a quick mind and a hair-trigger temper, witnessed the demise of the Weimar Republic with the rise of the Nazis in 1933. Struggling under the oppressive regime, Grynszpan made a pivotal decision—to escape to Paris, leaving behind the increasingly perilous life in Germany.

The Fateful Murder Of Ernst Vom Rath

Grynszpan’s sojourn in Paris, however, contrasted sharply with the suffering of his family in Hanover. In 1938, his parents and siblings, along with 12,000 other Jews, were forcibly marched to a refugee camp in Poland. Grynszpan, feeling helpless abroad, received desperate pleas for help from his parents. Fueled by frustration and a desire for vengeance, he purchased a five-shot revolver for 245 francs.

Ernst vom Rath, the diplomat who Herschel Grynszpan shot. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On a November night in 1938, Grynszpan, with intentions known only to himself, entered the German Embassy in Paris. Calmly approaching the reception desk, he requested to speak to a member of the embassy about a secret document. This led him to the office of Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old German diplomat. Grynszpan, in a moment of fury, shot vom Rath twice, setting off a chain of events that would reverberate through history.

How The Nazis Took Advantage

The motivations behind Grynszpan’s act remain shrouded in mystery. Was it an impulsive act of a frustrated teenager seeking revenge for his family, or were there deeper, unseen forces at play? Regardless, the Nazis swiftly seized upon this tragedy to further their malevolent agenda.

Shortly after Herschel Grynszpan was arrested in France, his case sent shock waves through Germany. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Adolf Hitler and his inner circle exploited the incident, turning it into a propaganda tool. Hitler even dispatched his personal physician to treat the wounded diplomat. The aftermath was swift and brutal—Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels venomously blamed all European Jews for vom Rath’s murder, unleashing a nationwide pogrom against Germany’s Jews. Thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed, synagogues were damaged, and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

A Spectacular Legal Drama Goes Nowhere

In the midst of this chaos, Herschel Grynszpan found himself in a legal quagmire. Arrested by French police, he awaited trial in Paris. American journalist Dorothy Thompson rallied behind him, providing a legal defense fund, and famed Corsican lawyer Vincent de Moro-Giafferi took the lead in his defense.

Herschel Grynszpan shields his face as he is escorted by police officers to court in Paris Credit: AFP via Getty Images

However, the Nazis, adept at manipulating narratives, sought to turn the trial into a media circus. Grynszpan faced personal interrogation by Adolf Eichmann, the infamous architect of the Holocaust. Moro-Giafferi proposed framing the case as a crime of passion, suggesting a romantic entanglement between Grynszpan and vom Rath. Yet, before the trial could unfold, the 1940 invasion of France interrupted the legal proceedings.

Grynszpan, caught in the crossfire of history, was subsequently transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, where his trail disappears from official records after September 1942.

Rumors Of Herschel Grynszpan’s Survival

The post-1942 fate of Herschel Grynszpan remains a tantalizing mystery. Declared legally dead by his parents in 1960, an unexpected twist occurred in 2016. A 1946 photo surfaced, purportedly of Grynszpan in Palestine. German historian Armin Fuhrer asserted the authenticity of the photo, raising more questions than answers.

Speculations abound. Did Grynszpan manage to escape the clutches of the Nazis, or did he meet an unknown end? Some even propose the unthinkable—that Grynszpan, initially perceived as a lone avenger, might have been coerced by the Nazis to provide a pretext for their horrific actions.

Concluding the Tragic Tale


The furniture and ceremonial items from the synagogue in Mosbach engulf in flames in the town square during Kristallnacht. Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

As we conclude the unsettling tale of Herschel Grynszpan, questions linger in the air like haunting echoes. Was he a desperate avenger acting alone, or a pawn in a sinister game? The shadows of the Holocaust obscure the truth, leaving us to grapple with the enigma of a young man whose one act of violence rippled through the corridors of history.

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