Who was Herschel Grynszpan?
Herschel Grynszpan was a Polish-Jewish refugee. Born and raised in Germany, Herschel was charged with the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath. Herschel grew up in a middle class family which had emigrated from Poland to Germany in 1911. During his schooldays, Herschel was considered to be an extremely intelligent student. However, he was deemed lazy by his teachers as he refused to learn what was being taught at the school. He dropped out of school at the age of 14. He later accused his teachers and classmates of being racist towards him for being an ‘Eastern Jew.’ Herschel then moved to Belgium and later entered Paris illegally. In the late 1930s, many Polish Jews, including Herschel’s family, faced difficulties in Germany under the Nazi regime. In November 1938, Herschel decided to assassinate the German ambassador in France to avenge the persecuted Jews in Germany. However, he shot Ernst vom Rath, who was a junior Embassy official. Herschel was then kept in prison in Paris and was later handed over to Germany. His eventual fate remains unknown. On May 8, 1960, Herschel Grynszpan was declared dead in absentia.
Childhood & Early Life
Herschel Grynszpan was born in Hanover, The Weimar Republic on March 28, 1921. His family belonged to the Jewish community that emigrated from Poland to Germany. Herschel’s parents had moved to Germany in 1911 in search of better work opportunities.
His father ran a tailor shop and the family lived a very modest life. Herschel was the youngest among six children. However, only three of his parents’ six children survived childhood.
Due to the ‘German Citizenship Law’ of 1913, Herschel was not granted German citizenship in spite of being born in Germany. He also encountered racism, which was prevalent in Germany, especially towards the Polish Jews. Herschel was bullied at school and was called ‘Ostjuden’ (Eastern Jew). The German Jews were given higher priority as they considered themselves Germans first and Jews second.
Herschel was an intelligent student. However, his teachers called him lazy as he never made an attempt to excel in his studies. Tired of bullying and racism, Herschel decided to quit school at the age of 14. He later accused his teachers of disliking him because of the fact that he was an Eastern Jew.
Herschel grew up to become a proud Jew and was more religious than his parents. In fact, he did not hesitate to resort to violence when someone criticized his faith and religion. His short temper often landed him in trouble at school before he decided to drop out.
His parents, who were worried for him, sought financial help from Hanover’s Jewish community and sent him to Frankfurt, where he studied the Torah and Hebrew. However, he returned to Hanover after 11 months and made an attempt to move to Palestine. But the Palestine emigration office denied him permission as he was too young. His parents then decided that he should go to Paris where his uncle Abraham lived.
Herschel subsequently obtained a Polish passport and sought permission to leave for Belgium. However, living in Belgium was never his intention. He entered France illegally in September 1936.
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Years in Paris
Herschel lived in a Yiddish-speaking enclave consisting of Polish Orthodox Jews. He learned only a few French words during his stay in Paris. He spent his days reciting Yiddish poems and lived a carefree life.
He just walked around the streets of Paris without worrying about his career or future. He loved going to the coffeehouses and enjoyed watching films in theatres. He also tried getting legal residence in France, which was mandatory for him to study or work in France. However, he could not succeed as his applications were rejected by French officials.
In April 1937, his permit to re-enter Germany expired. His Polish passport expired in January 1938. In March 1938, Poland government announced that Polish citizens who have been living outside Poland for more than five years would be deprived of their Polish citizenship. Hence, Herschel was now stateless. He did not have any other option but to continue living in Paris illegally.
His uncle, who was a poor man, was his only source of income. His uncle would often ask him to find a job. But Herschel knew that if he worked anywhere, he would be caught as he was an illegal immigrant.
From October 1938, the French police had started a highly aggressive operation to send illegal immigrants back to their countries. Herschel knew that his time in Paris was about to be over.
The German-Jewish Trouble & Assassination
Herschel Grynszpan was hiding from the police officers in Paris, while his family in Hanover was suffering. His father’s business had suffered losses and his brothers had lost their jobs. The family had almost slipped into extreme poverty.
Also, the Polish government had made the announcement about taking away the citizenship of those Polish people who had been living outside Poland for over five years. To make things worse, the German government’s treatment towards the Polish Jews living in its country was becoming increasingly harsh. In October 1938, the ‘Gestapo’ (secret police of Nazi Germany) was ordered to deport all Polish Jews living in Germany to Poland.
On their way back to Poland, Herschel’s family and other Polish Jews were forced to stay in inhumane conditions. Many Polish Jews, who tried returning to Germany, were shot dead. Poland government refused to take them back, as they were not official citizens of Poland anymore. Poland also threatened to deport Germans living in its country. The situation had the immigrants stranded on the border for a long time.
Herschel, meanwhile, was seething with anger as he was aware of the situation in Poland and Germany. He asked his uncle to send some money to his family, but his uncle refused. He then stole 300 francs from his uncle and bought a revolver and a box of 25 bullets from a local shop in Paris.
His plan was to shoot the German ambassador, Count Johannes von Welczeck. On November 7, 1938, he wrote a farewell note to his parents, which he put in his pocket. He then entered the German Embassy and walked past Count Johannes von Welczeck without recognizing him. He approached the clerk on duty and asked for the German ambassador. He claimed to be a German spy with an important document.
The clerk asked Ernst vom Rath, the junior of the two Embassy officials to meet Herschel. Herschel shot Ernst vom Rath five times in the abdomen. He said that he had acted in the name of persecuted Jews.
Imprisonment & Death
Herschel Grynszpan did not make any attempt to escape. He was apprehended by the police and was kept in the ‘Fresnes Prison’ in Paris from 1938 to 1940. His act was considered heroic by the leftists and liberals all over the world.
He also gave many interviews from the prison. Funds were raised from all over the world to provide Herschel with a strong defense. His trial was still going on when Germany attacked France during the ‘Second World War’ in 1940. German troops were ordered to capture Herschel, but he was under French government’s custody.
He was eventually captured by the German troops in July 1940. He was first kept at a prison in Berlin and was then sent to a concentration camp. By now, a rumor about Herschel’s homosexual relationship with the late Ernst vom Rath had surfaced. Nazi government feared that the allegation if proven true would be an insult to them. That, along with the United States’ attack on Germany, caused the trial to be postponed indefinitely.
After September 1942, Herschel’s whereabouts remained unknown. Many people claimed that he died in a concentration camp. Some even claimed that he moved to Paris and started a family there. On May 8, 1960, Herschel Grynszpan was declared dead in absentia.