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The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris

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Overview

"Reading this excellent, thought-provoking biography, one is all too easily reminded of Camus’s 1942 novel, The Stranger."—Philip Kerr, Wall Street Journal
On the morning of November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a desperate seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee, walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat. Two days later vom Rath lay dead, and the Third Reich exploited the murder to unleash Kristallnacht in a bizarre concatenation of events that would rapidly involve Ribbentrop, ...

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The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris

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Overview

"Reading this excellent, thought-provoking biography, one is all too easily reminded of Camus’s 1942 novel, The Stranger."—Philip Kerr, Wall Street Journal
On the morning of November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a desperate seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee, walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat. Two days later vom Rath lay dead, and the Third Reich exploited the murder to unleash Kristallnacht in a bizarre concatenation of events that would rapidly involve Ribbentrop, Goebbels, and Hitler himself. But was Grynszpan a crazed lone gunman or agent provocateur of the Gestapo? Was he motivated by a desire to avenge Jewish people, or did his act of violence speak to an intimate connection between the assassin and his target, as Grynszpan later claimed? Part page-turning historical thriller and part Kafkaesque legal drama, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan brings to life the historical details and moral dimensions of one of the most enigmatic cases of World War II. This compelling biography presents a story with twists and turns that “no novelist could invent” (Alice Kaplan).

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Editorial Reviews

David Clay Large - Los Angeles Times
“In his well-crafted study…Jonathan Kirsch manages to put some meat on the skinny frame of his protagonist and also to put a human face on his victim. In so doing, Kirsch has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of Kristallnacht.”
Scott Martelle - Washington Post
“On Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled Jewish teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, got in to see a low-level Nazi attache and shot him dead—a killing that gave Hitler a pretext for the savage, anti-Semitic orgy of Kristallnacht.”
Scott Martelle - The Washington Post
“On Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled Jewish teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, got in to see a low-level Nazi attache and shot him dead—a killing that gave Hitler a pretext for the savage, anti-Semitic orgy of Kristallnacht.”
Timothy Snyder - New York Review of Books
“[Herschel Grynszpan] faced what his biographer Jonathan Kirsch perceptively calls the 'existential threat of statelessness.' …Kirsch has a dramatic story, and he tells it well.”
Publishers Weekly
In November 1938, a 17-year-old Polish Jew walked into the German embassy in Paris and assassinated diplomat Ernst vom Rath in reprisal for the deportation of his family and 12,000 other Jews. Grynszpan couldn’t have foreseen the consequences of his vigilante justice—just two days later, the Nazis would use the assassination as a pretext for Kristallnacht. In telling Grynszpan’s story, Kirsch (The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual) is particularly strong in his treatment of the killing’s strung-out aftermath. Framing the murder as part of an international Jewish conspiracy, the Germans made elaborate plans for a lengthy scripted show trial. But Grynszpan derailed attempts to try him by claiming that he and vom Rath had been engaged in a homosexual relationship. The scandalous assertion embarrassed German leaders, and Kirsch questionably calls it “his greatest act of courage.” Ultimately, “the sheer scale of German mass murder” overshadowed the Grynszpan case. While Kirsch undertook little original research (he did interview half a dozen historians of the Holocaust), he’s done an excellent job of combing through the secondary literature on the Grynszpan case. Though unnecessary details distract from the narrative, this is still a lively and suspenseful tale. 8 pages of photos. Agent: Laurie Fox, Linda Chester and Associates Literary Agency. (May)
Thane Rosenbaum
“With a storyteller’s touch and a lawyer’s insight, Kirsch elevates this tragic tale and makes it read like a legal and moral thriller.”
Ronald C. Rosbottom
“Herschel Grynszpan wanted nothing more than to be remembered for his rash, heroic actions. In Kirsch, he has finally found an objective, yet passionate, chronicler.”
Alice Kaplan
“No novelist could invent a story with as many twists of history and character as the one Jonathan Kirsch tells about Herschel Grynszpan…The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan illuminates the countless short and tragic lives of eastern European Jews running for shelter in the terrible days leading up to World War II.”
Timothy Snyder
“Kirsch's investigation of its international history invites us to chart the troubling boundaries of responsibility for atrocity.”
Philip Kerr - The Wall Street Journal
“[An] excellent account…Reading this excellent, thought-provoking biography, one is all too easily reminded of Camus's 1942 novel, The Stranger.”
Kirkus Reviews
Biblical scholar and Los Angeles Times columnist Kirsch (The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, 2008, etc.) examines a forgotten young Jewish assassin, eliciting new queries about Jewish armed resistance during World War II. The name of Herschel Grynszpan may have "ended up in the dustbin of history," but his deed--the shooting of German official Ernst vom Rath, which so enraged the Nazis that they unleashed Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938--did not. Kirsch believes it is time to take another look at the life of this troubled Hanover-born Jewish teenager, who was sent to Paris in 1936 in a last-ditch attempt by his desperate family to find some opportunity for advancement or even survival. By 1933, the Grynszpan parents had already survived pogroms in Poland and three decades of poverty in Hanover; once the Nazi vise tightened, the youngest son was sent to Paris to stay with uncles and aunts. Herschel was at his wit's end when money ran out and employment was closed to him, and the French and Germans both rejected his request for visas. Trapped in Paris, he subsequently learned that his parents and sister had been rounded up and dumped on the Polish border. Under financial and familial pressure, in hiding and subject to anti-Jewish reprisals, Grynszpan bought a gun, proceeded to the German embassy and shot vom Rath in a desperate act of vengeance not unlike what moved the young medical student David Frankfurter to shoot Swiss Nazi functionary Wilhelm Gustloff in 1936. Grynszpan's deed gave the Nazis a "convenient pretext" for the unleashed barbarity against Jews, while Jewish reaction was divided. Journalist Dorothy Thompson offered an impassioned radio address in his defense. Suspicions of conspiracy and homosexuality abounded, and Kirsch expertly picks through the murky details to shed new light on the historical significance. A compelling study of "a spectral figure whose real nature remains a mystery and whose historical significance is profoundly enigmatic."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871407405
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 2/10/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 814,542
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of the best-selling The Harlot by the Side of the Road and A History of the End of the World, the book editor of the Jewish Journal, and a longtime contributor of book reviews to the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 9, 2014

    A long-overdue primer on the day-to-day realities of the Holocaust

    The subject of this entertaining biography and Holocaust history emerges from his repute as a tantalizing cipher to a flesh-and-blood figure, riven by conflicting emotions and shifting, often competing goals. Even the author doesn't pretend to understand what was going on in his head when he shot and killed an obscure Nazi diplomat in Paris. The very telling of the tale, however, sheds much badly-needed light on the unending horrors visited upon Europe's Jews as Germany's sociopathic leaders sought to purge themselves of the innocent and often intensely patriotic peoples who lived within their borders. The failure of Western nations, most notably the United States, to open their borders to Jews facing nor merely persecution but imminent murder remains a black mark on this nation's history. All told, a masterfully presented tale.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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