Herschel Grynszpan, 17, murdered German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, 29, at the German embassy in Paris in 1938
Trembling uncontrollably with the shock of what he had just done, Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish teenager, dropped the smoking revolver he’d bought a little over an hour earlier on that morning in November 1938.
It now lay on the floor of the German embassy in Paris, the price tag of 210 francs still tied on with red string.
‘I don’t intend to escape,’ he told those who grabbed him. As he was led away, he shouted out again and again his defiance: ‘Sales boches!’ (Filthy krauts!).
A few yards away, the victim of the shooting, a young diplomat of the Third Reich by the name of Ernst vom Rath, clutched at his stomach as blood poured from a shattered spleen and a pierced pancreas.
He was alive but mortally wounded. Two days later, after an emergency operation failed to save him, he died.
His assassination was the pivotal point in a remarkable and little known story of one individual with the temerity to pit himself against the full might of the Nazi regime.
A new book tells how, against the odds and in the face of humiliating defeat, he won a sort of victory for which he’s rarely been recognised.
Brave, self-sacrificing Herschel Grynszpan was the pawn who was exploited by Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels as a tool in their persecution of the Jews.
But then, in his own small way, he turned the tables and check-mated them.
His was a one-man crusade — though, in truth, he could barely be called a man. The self-confessed killer was no more than a kid, really; just 17 and baby-faced, as a photo taken at the scene of the crime shows, hunched in an over-sized trench coat and with the surly stare of an adolescent lost in his own thoughts.
Grynszpan told police that he murdered vom Rath because he had picked him up at the Place de la Republique and paid him for sex in a hotel room
A thin and frail youngster, he had come to France on his own two years earlier, in 1936, sent away from Germany by his parents who could see all too clearly the foul, anti-Semitic way the wind was blowing under the Nazis.
Discriminated against and abused, adult Jews could only leave if they surrendered all their possessions, but children were allowed to go without penalty, so the boy was shipped off to his Uncle Abraham in Paris.
But France was not the haven he wished for. He could not get a visa to enter and had to slip across the border as an illegal immigrant.
His application for a residence permit was turned down as the French government — unwilling to annoy its powerful neighbour and itself riddled with anti-Semitism — cracked down on Jewish refugees like him. He couldn’t get a job and had to live on a meagre allowance from his uncle.
A brooding type, with a hair-trigger temper and a tendency to depression, his mind focused, not unreasonably, on the increasing persecution of what, with tears welling from his eyes, he called ‘my people’.
Grynszpan's murder therefore became a crime of passion rather than one with political motivations and he avoided a show trial
‘We have a right to exist on this Earth,’ he insisted, yet ‘if you are a Jew, you . . . are hunted like an animal.’
With the French police on his tail in order to deport him, he went into hiding, locking himself into a small room in his uncle’s flat and always on alert for a knock on the door and a demand to see his papers.
News came from Germany that his family — who originated from Poland — had been stripped of all possessions and brutally expelled.
With 18,000 others, the Gestapo had rounded them up, transported them by train to the Polish border and dumped them in no-man’s-land without money or food.
Grynszpan went mad when he heard.
‘The constantly gnawing idea of the suffering of my race obsessed me,’ he said later. He was determined to hit back in a very public way that would wake up the world to what was being done to Jews.
‘Germany’s conduct provoked me beyond measure. I wanted to create a stir.’
He’d never fired a gun before and the man behind the counter in the shop had to show him how to load and fire it. From there, he made his way on the metro to the German embassy down by the River Seine.
He told the receptionist he had important documents to deliver to one of the senior diplomats and was shown into an office where vom Rath was sitting in a leather chair.
‘You’re a filthy kraut!’ he shouted at the top of his voice as he pulled out the pistol from and fired five shots. Then he waited, unresisting, for his chance to tell the world why he had done it and thereby expose the evils of the Nazis.
Brave, foolhardy, naive, self-sacrificial, suicidal: his action was all those things. But Grynszpan had made his point.
Except that it instantly backfired. He got publicity all right — but not the sort he wanted.
In Germany, Hitler was planning a nationwide terror attack on Jewish properties, to be disguised as a spontaneous outpouring of disgust at ‘World Jewry’ by the people. The assassination in Paris was just the pretext that he and Goebbels were looking for.
A trial date was set in May 1942, but as the time approached, the Nazi hierarchy grew increasingly uneasy. Goebbels conveyed his ‘grave doubts’ to a rattled Hitler, who had his closest henchman, Martin Bormann, announce that the trial was postponed to an indefinite date and Grynszpan had his victory
Herschel Grynszpan would be their unwitting scapegoat
The expert Nazi propaganda machine went into top gear, hailing vom Rath as a hero and a martyr for the cause (which was a lie, as privately he likened Hitler to the Antichrist). His assassination by a Jew had to be avenged.
‘The shots in Paris will not go unpunished,’ screamed Nazi party newspapers.
News of vom Rath’s death on November 9 unleashed what became known as Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass. Hitler’s brown-shirted thugs went on the rampage, ransacking and burning down thousands of Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues and randomly beating Jews.