the boy behind kristallnacht


But just who was Herschel Grynszpan, the young man whose “short, strange life” Kirsch sets out to unlock with his handy tool kit of talents? In the author’s telling, he emerges as a contradictory character: small in stature, sickly, a mediocre student, yet at the same time a tough and cunning scrapper who, seeing all the abuses visited upon his people by the Nazis, began while still quite young to dream of exacting revenge upon the Germans. He did much of this dreaming not in Germany, where he was born into a family of poor Jewish émigrés from Poland, but in France, where his parents sent him at age 15 to escape the growing persecution at home. Of course, France itself was hardly free of anti-Semitism, especially in the year of Grynszpan’s arrival, 1936, when local racists were protesting the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister. The phrase “Better Hitler Than Blum” echoed through the streets of Paris. What prompted Grynszpan to strike out against the Germans, however, was not what he was witnessing in France, but a brutal action by Hitler’s government: the deportation of 12,000 Ostjuden (Eastern Jews), including Grynszpan’s parents, to a no-man’s land on the German-Polish border.

more from David Clay Large at the LA Times here.