As eagerly as I anticipated the publication of Jonathan Kirsch’s The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris this spring, I knew right away that I wouldn’t be able to review the book. That’s because I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Jonathan over the past few years, primarily through my work writing reviews for The Jewish Journal, where Jonathan is Book Editor. My abilities to be “objective,” notwithstanding, the apparent conflict is obvious.
But I knew, too, that I could count on the book being a superb read, one that I’d want to share with others. As soon as I finished it (I was right–it’s excellent), I sent some questions to Jonathan. Those questions, and his answers, can be found below.
First, a bit more about the author: Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 13 books, including the best-sellers The Harlot by the Side of the Road, God Against the Gods, and A History of the End of the World. His biography of King David, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, has been optioned by Sony Pictures for a motion picture now in development. He is a longtime contributor of book reviews to the Los Angeles Times and (as mentioned above) now serves as book editor of The Jewish Journal. He is also a publishing and intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles, and serves on the adjunct faculty of New York University’s Professional Publishing Program.
Erika Dreifus (ED): Jonathan, please introduce briefly the three elements of your book’s subtitle: “a boy avenger,” “a Nazi diplomat,” and “a murder in Paris.”
Jonathan Kirsch (JK): Herschel Grynszpan was a 17-year-old Jewish refugee whose family succeeded in smuggling him out of Nazi Germany and placing him with an uncle in Paris. In 1938, Herschel resolved to carry out an act of resistance to Nazi persecution of the Jews by assassinating a diplomat in the Paris embassy of the Third Reich, a man named Ernst vom Rath. The Grynszpan case immediately became a cause célèbre around the world, especially because the assassination was seized upon as the pretext for the state-sponsored violence of Kristallnacht. When the Nazis invaded France, Grynszpan was at the top of the arrest list, and Hitler himself wanted to mount a show trial in Berlin as a way of justifying his “war against the Jews.” In another and even greater act of courage, Herschel contrived a way to frustrate Hitler’s plans by revealing a scandalous sexual secret to his Gestapo interrogators. Whether the revelation was the ugly truth or a calculating lie is among the enduring mysteries of the Grynszpan case, but we know that Hitler canceled the show trial out of fear that the defendant would say the same thing in open court.
ED: This book is thoroughly researched. Any big surprises you uncovered in the course of that research?
JK: Conspiracy theories abound in the Grynszpan case, and I was able to find my way to the undercurrent of rumor and speculation from which they appeared to grow, including Hannah Arendt’s shocking post-war assertion that Herschel Grynszpan had been an agent provocateur of the Gestapo who murdered vom Rath at their behest. I also believe that I found the circumstantial evidence that provides the likeliest explanation for the fate of young Grynszpan after his trial was postponed, a more convincing account than the ghost stories that were spun during the years after the Second World War. The real explanation, I believe, is tied to the settling of scores that took place in 1944 after the failed attempt of Count [Claus] von Stauffenberg to assassinate Hitler. One fact, above all, seems beyond debate — Herschel was an attention-seeker with an elevated sense of his own place in history, and it seems unlikely that he would have lived out his life in anonymity and secrecy if he had survived the war.
ED: You point out that “perhaps the most vexing aspect of the Grynszpan case is the fact that he has never been embraced as the heroic figure he earnestly sought to be.” Moreover, he has “all but disappeared from the historical record.” Given that background, I’m curious about the reception the book has received thus far. I know that it’s still quite early, but are you seeing reviews –or, equally interesting, receiving comments and questions at your appearances–that might suggest a newer, more lively and widespread attention to your subject?
JK: I am pleased to say that my book has been endorsed and reviewed positively by a number of prominent historians who have acknowledged that Herschel Grynszpan deserves more respect and consideration than he has received so far in Jewish and academic circles. Timothy Snyder, for example, provided a generous blurb. Not every historian is willing to credit Herschel Grynszpan as a heroic figure or even as an example of Jewish armed resistance to Nazism — Yehuda Bauer, for example, told me in an interview for the book that if Herschel Grynszpan’s family in Germany had been spared from their suffering at the hands of Nazis, Herschel would have done nothing at all — but Saul Friedländer, another one of my interviewees, conceded that “[w]hy Herschel Grynszpan has been overlooked, even if his act had unfortunate consequences, is strange and baffling.” As I begin to talk about the Grynszpan case at public appearances, it is clear to me that his story is entirely new for most audiences, and they are puzzled and provoked, as I am, by the fact that he has been so completely eclipsed in the literature and scholarship of the Holocaust. But I should say that the single most common response from my audiences, after they have heard the lurid details of the Grynszpan case, is that it should be a movie!
ED: In the book’s acknowledgments section, you mention your late father, Robert Kirsch, from whom you learned the story of Herschel Grynszpan “at a time when he was planning to write a novel based on Grynszpan’s life story.” Such a poignant note. Would you share with us what you recall of this–of hearing your father tell you about Herschel Grynszpan and his work on the unfinished novel?
JK: My father was a book reviewer, a novelist, and a teacher of writing for more than 30 years before his death in 1980 at the age of 58. Shortly before he fell ill, he was working actively on several book projects — I still have his notes and drafts — and the one for which he showed the greatest ardor was a fictionalized account of Grynszpan’s life story. Eric Ambler was one of my father’s favorite writers, and he understood that the facts of the Grynszpan case are so extraordinary that they seem like the invention of a gifted spy novelist with a taste for conspiracy. I also think that my father, who lost his own mother at a young age, responded deeply to the isolation and loneliness that Herschel experienced when he was separated from his family at the age of 15. Alas, my father did not live long enough to write the book he had in mind, and I returned to the subject only many years after his death, but I have always conceived of my own non-fiction account of the Grynszpan case as a tribute to my beloved father.
ED: Thank you so much, Jonathan.
I encourage readers to visit Jonathan online.