On the evening of Oct. 27, 1938 the Grynszpan family along with 12,000 other Polish Jews were herded like cattle onto train cars headed for the Polish-German border. When they arrived, they found themselves stuck between armed Polish soldiers on one side and armed German soldiers on the other. Every single one of them had been stripped of their Polish citizenship and German residence visas. If they tried to escape, they were executed.
The story of the border standoff made headlines in France where the youngest member of the Grynszpan family, Herschel Grynszpan, lived illegally. He had escaped Germany with the help of his uncles outside the country and intended to get to Palestine, but ended up in Paris.
Eleven days later, on Nov. 7, Herschel Grynszpan bought a revolver and took the train to the German Embassy in France. He told the reception desk he had important papers to deliver to the ambassador. Instead, junior embassy official Ernst Vom Rath entered to receive the papers. Grynszpan shot Vom Rath five times in the abdomen.
Vom Rath held on for two days. In the early evening of Nov. 9, Vom Rath died. Within hours Nazi Germany launched the pogrom against the Jewish in what is known today as Kristallnacht.
This was the story Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris,” told an audience of 100 in the Campus Center Ballroom Nov. 13. The 6th annual Kristallnacht Remembrance Lecture recalling the tragic event that happened 78 years ago was attended by students, alumni, the Jewish community and members of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
Before Kirsch’s lecture, President Devorah Lieberman discussed the meaning of the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” which is generally translated to mean “repairing of the world.”
“To truly live tikkun olam we need to know that our sole purpose in our personal and professional lives is to not just repair the world, not just heal the world, but to do whatever we can individually and collectively to make this world better for everybody,” Lieberman said. “If particular groups only focus on their ethnicity, their religion, their group and only advocate for themselves we will not be advocating for everybody.”
Lieberman also described her family’s history in Czechoslovakia and Russia.
“For my family, it was remembering something like this 365 days a year,” Lieberman said. “I ask you tonight, in coming together for Kristallnacht, to remember to advocate for one another whether it’s locally, nationally, or internationally. It is our responsibility, it’s our obligation.”
Lieberman then introduced Marcia Alper, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. Alper led the audience in a moment of silence before introducing Kirsch.
Kirsch expanded on the story of Grynszpan and why he believes Grynszpan is a little known historical figure.
“What was the meaning and weight of the decision of this panic-stricken teenager?” Kirsch said.
Through his research, Kirsch found that the opinion many had of Grynszpan was that he instigated what was believed to be the event that started the Holocaust.
“They saved all decorations and honors for SS soldiers for that night,” Kirsch said. “They even telegraphed an approved list of graffiti including ‘Revenge for Von Rath.’”
Jewish property and businesses were destroyed. More than 3,000 Jews were killed, 2,000 synagogues were burned and 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned.
Grynszpan’s trial in Paris captured the attention of the world, an international legal fees fund was started and famous lawyer Isidore Franckel joined the defense.
According to Kirsch, Franckel suggested that Grynszpan say, “Von Rath was a sexual predator who stalked me on the streets of Paris. He ruined me and discarded me.”
Kirsch told the crowd Gryszpan refused to use the to use the defense as suggesting a gay relationship would shame his family.
Grynszpan was extradited to Germany to stand in a public trial. Hitler invited foreign press to prove Jews started the war.
“The venue was picked. The foreign press was picked. The judge was picked. The verdict was picked,” Kirsch said.
Grynszpan was held in a solitary room until a Nazi investigator came to interview him. Grynszpan told the investigator if he were to testify, he would say, “Von Rath was a sexual predator who stalked me on the streets of Paris. He ruined me and discarded me.”
The testimony, as it would paint Von Rath as a gay child molester, halted the trial.
The audience laughed as Kirsch discussed the hypocrisy that Grynszpan originally refused to use later saving him from trial.
After Kirsch finished his lecture, University Chaplain Zandra Wagoner led the question and answer portion of the night.
Kirsch was asked how he felt about current Holocaust education in the United States. He explained that the education was lacking. He talked about a day when he was to speak at a high school. He described the students as unenthusiastic and bored as they were forced to give up their lunch time to attend the lecture.
Kirsch said he believed the best way to get people to care is to let them know how the group they identify with was also affected.
“The Holocaust was not confined to Jewish victims,” Kirsch said.
For this reason, he began his lecture by mentioning that gays, lesbians, racial minorities, Muslims and the disabled were also among victims of Nazi Germany.
He said the film “Schindler’s List” is revered as the best film about the Holocaust, but is wildly inaccurate, citing scenes that showed water coming out of shower heads when showers were not provided.
“It was, to me, a film that even Holocaust deniers could love,” Kirsch said. “It’s a sacrilege.”
Kirsch then said he praises the film “Defiance” instead for its accuracy and truth.
When given the microphone, La Verne resident Robert Richter continued the topic of Holocaust education and learning from history.
“We have to teach people the events that provided Hitler the means to come to power,” said Richter, who was an 8-year-old in Hanover, Germany, during Kristallnacht.
The event ended after the question and answer period. The audience was free to enjoy light refreshments.
In the back, the Jewish Federation had nine books written by Jewish authors featured at the 18th Annual Jewish Book Festival, continuing through Dec. 4.
Natasha Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.