Interview, PM Press Blog

The Boy Who Shot a Nazi

By Sasha Lilley
November 9th, 2021

An interview with Joseph Matthews

Eighty-three years ago today, the Nazis unleashed a vicious pogrom known as Kristallnacht, using as their pretext the assassination of a Nazi official in France. The assassin: a 17-year-old German-Polish Jewish boy named Herschel Grynszpan.

On November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year-old German-Polish Jewish boy living as a refugee in France walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot dead a Nazi consular official. The boy, Herschel Grynszpan, had recently learned that his family had been rounded up with thousands of others and deported to the Polish border. Two days later, the Nazis instigated Kristallnacht — the first nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany — which the Nazis claimed was a spontaneous response to Grynszpan’s act.

In his novel Everyone Has Their Reasons, writer Joseph Matthews imagines the years of Grynszpan’s life leading up to, and following, the assassination through the teenager’s refugee existence in late 1930s Paris. In an interview on the California-based progressive radio show Against the Grain, radical journalist Sasha Lilley spoke with Joseph Matthews about his book, the life of Herschel Grynszpan, and what it meant to be a refugee in 1930s France.


What do we know about Herschel Grynszpan? JM

On the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, I saw a newspaper story that mentioned Kristallnacht was set off by the assassination in Paris of a German consular official by a young German-Polish Jewish boy named Herschel Grynszpan. I had never heard his name. When I went to investigate it months later, I went to the UC Berkeley library, the third-largest collection in the nation, and realized there was almost nothing about Herschel Grynszpan. That fascinated me. I kept digging, found some people who had done original research, and then I was hooked.

The story of Herschel’s life starts with a Polish-German Jewish family living in Hanover. Herschel, his brother, and sister were all born in Germany, but the family, including Herschel, were never allowed to have German citizenship. They had Polish citizenship.

As the Nazi net started closing on Jews, the family decided they’d try to get Herschel out of the country in 1935. He had a very difficult time. He tried first to go to Palestine, but the Zionist organizations in Germany replicated in some ways what France and Germany and everyone else did, which was create categories of people who were wanted and not wanted. Herschel didn’t make the grade — it was a kind of Zionist eugenics. SL

Didn’t make the grade because he wasn’t a strapping large man. JM

He was five foot two and one hundred pounds dripping wet. He was a little bit sickly. He had no money, which was one of the ways you could get to Palestine. His family didn’t have a Zionist background. They basically didn’t want him as one of their pioneers.

Herschel couldn’t get a visa for any of the countries in Western Europe. Finally, he got a temporary visa to go to Belgium, where he had a distant aunt and uncle, and then made his way to Paris. SL

Your novel is a broad imagining of Grynszpan’s life in Paris and the events leading up to his assassination of this Nazi diplomat. What do we know about his life in France? JM

We don’t know a lot. It’s a very patchy record, and many of the records themselves disappeared during the war.

We know the basic facts: He had a very poor uncle and aunt living in Paris. He slept on their floor. They helped him with a little bit of money here and there, but mostly he tried to create a life for himself among the other refugees — the many tens of thousands of refugees — who were mostly in East Paris during the late ’30s. They were refugees from Spain, from Italy, from all over Eastern Europe, and from Germany.

The problem was that he needed to regularize himself, to get papers. Even though he qualified under French law as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany as a Jew, had a sponsor in Paris (his aunt and uncle), qualified in every way, and filed for papers when he first arrived in ’36, he never got them. The entire time he spent in Paris, he was unable to work legally and unable to reside anywhere legally. He was a kind of nonperson.The entire time he spent in Paris, he was unable to work legally and unable to reside anywhere legally. He was a kind of nonperson.

In August of ’38, they denied his request for refugee status and gave him four days to get out of France. He was forced underground. The span between the time he arrived in ’36 and the time he desperately walked into the embassy in ’38 and shoots the embassy official is a time and place where we know very little about the details. And that’s why the novel becomes a very apt vehicle for exploring not just this kid’s life but the life of refugees in general in Paris in the late ’30s. One of the things that interested me so much was its analogy to the crisis of refugees today. SL

What were the circumstances leading up to the assassination on November 7, 1938, and then what happened to Grynszpan? JM

In the fall of ’38, the Nazis rounded up everyone with a Polish passport living in Germany and dumped them on the Polish border to get rid of them. Ninety-nine percent of them were Jews — the Nazis were just using the cover of Polish passports.

Herschel’s parents and brother and sister were dumped on the Polish border. He tried to get news and tried to do what he could. He knew nothing except that they were in great misery. He received a postcard from his sister saying, “Help, we’re in desperate straits.”

That was the event that set him off, and three days later he bought a gun, walked into the embassy, and shot the embassy official. He then sat calmly and waited to be arrested. His idea was that the trial the French would give him would allow him to tell the world about what was going on in Germany: people with Polish passports being put in locked trains and sent to the Polish border. He knew the world needed to be hit upside the head about what was going on.

After Herschel shot the embassy official, he was held in a French jail. (He turned out to be the minor held the longest ever in a French jail without a trial.) People in Paris, Jewish organizations, and left organizations all turn their back on Herschel. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with this kid, particularly because everyone at the time, including Herschel, believed that he was cause of Kristallnacht. SL

The Night of Broken Glass. JM

Beating and killing of Jews, arresting and sending to camps thousands of Jews, the burning and looting of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues. It was the first nationwide massive pogrom against Jews in Germany. It got a tremendous amount of attention worldwide, and Herschel and everyone else believed that it was a spontaneous reaction to his crime. The Nazis said it was.

We know now that Kristallnacht had been planned all along by the Nazis, and that they were simply waiting for a pretext. But at the time this added to his enormous burden — the sense that he was the cause of this terrible occurrence in Germany.

He waited for a trial where he could redeem himself, but everyone in France was turning their back on him. Curiously, in the United States, some left political people who were keeping their eye on what was going on in Europe rallied around a woman named Dorothy Thompson, a radio journalist who was very famous at the time. She got a number of Hollywood celebrities and literary people, and they created a defense fund and raised a bunch of money, which was then used to hire one of the great left criminal defense lawyers in Paris.

Negotiating and maneuvering began over when the trial would take place. This was in the context of France and Germany’s own maneuvering: Are they going to make alliances? Are they going to war? The French were not in any hurry to get the trial underway.We know now that Kristallnacht had been planned all along by the Nazis, and that they were simply waiting for a pretext.

By the summer of 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, he still hadn’t gone to trial. He was sitting in his jail cell when the Nazis were heading for Paris, and the French authorities took him and other political and otherwise special prisoners and evacuated them, along with the entire government, from Paris. During this evacuation, Herschel’s convoy was bombed, everyone scattered, and Herschel was in fact on the loose in the French countryside for a number of weeks in the summer of 1940.

He wound up finally, desperately, turning himself in to a prison in the very south of France, because at least the French prisons had protected him. Except now it was Vichy France, and two weeks later, they turned him over to the Gestapo. SL

As you said, Grynszpan had this notion that he would tell the world about the horror of what was happening in Germany. To what degree did that happen? JM

It’s a very interesting and ironic twist to the tale. Herschel was flown to Berlin and held in Gestapo headquarters there. They scripted out a big propaganda trial where they would invite all the international press to show that Herschel’s act was part of a larger Jewish capitalist-communist — incredible, twisted logic — conspiracy to draw France and Germany into a war that Germany did not want. At this point, they were trying to make an ally of France and occupying France, but they envisioned a greater Germany that included France. And they were trying to show the French that in fact they didn’t want to invade and were drawn into it by Jews and Communists and big capitalists.

So they planned this show trial. Herschel was held in German jails, first by the Gestapo, then in different concentration camps and jails. Herschel again still believes, since there’s going to be a trial, that he would have an opportunity to tell the world what was going on. The Nazis had other plans.

This gave me the structure for the novel. Herschel was appointed a lawyer. We don’t know much about him, but the novel takes place in the form of letters from Herschel to this appointed lawyer, telling his story — the story of leaving Germany, the story of his years on the streets in Paris, the story of his time on the roads and in the countryside of France — as a way of “preparing the lawyer and himself for this trial.”

In the spring of ’42, they were about to put on the big trial. Everyone in the international press was invited. But Herschel started to figure out he was not going to be given this opportunity and that they were going to put him on as a puppet.

He wound up bringing the Nazi propaganda ministry to a grinding halt, because they were afraid what Herschel would say. There was a big dispute among the highest levels of the Nazi bureaucracy about whether the trial should go on. Hitler himself finally said, “Let’s postpone this right now. Nothing is to be decided about this trial or this boy unless I give a personal order.”

A “personal protection order” from the führer was placed over Herschel, who already had been kept in relative comfort all of this time while other Jews were being sent to the death camps, because the Nazis were going to put him on a big international show trial. The personal protection order from Hitler continues this relative comfort.

Then the war gets complicated, things get very messy, and he’s essentially forgotten about and remains in this very protected space in German camps until the end of the war. SL

At which time, we no longer know what happens to him. JM

The Nazi recordkeeping was extraordinary, but at the end of the war, it started to break down. We believe what happened is that Herschel probably was shot along with a number of other political prisoners who were held in Brandenburg Prison, or perhaps in a different prison.

We know he was alive at least into 1945 in German custody. One of the many ironies of this story is that this one teenage boy who actually did kill a Nazi official wound up surviving until the end of the war in relative comfort. SL

Usually, Paris in the ’30s is portrayed as full of romance, artists, and bohemians of various kinds. The Paris of Everyone Has Their Reasons and the Paris of Herschel Grynszpan is one of desperate poverty, desperate straits, a population that has turned against people of other nationalities and backgrounds. Can you describe the Paris of the late 1930s? JM

The Paris that I’m describing, to use a shorthand, is Paris East. It’s the part of Paris where most of the refugees were clustered in very dense, very poor, very unsanitary conditions. Refugees from Eastern Europe fleeing the Nazis, refugees from Spain fleeing Franco, and refugees from Italy fleeing Mussolini.It was a desperate time and hardly the Paris of the flaneurs and the artists and the bohemians.

Both the French state and French social organizations made life extraordinarily difficult for people trying to establish their refugee status. Many refugees had been there for a decade or more because after the First World War, the French invited many people, particularly from Eastern Europe, to come and fill the labor void. These people were turned out of work once there were enough French laborers to fill the jobs, and in the ’30s, when the Depression hit, the first to be let go were people who, even if they had papers, were not considered French enough.

It was a desperate time and hardly the Paris of the flaneurs and the artists and the bohemians. SL

What was going on with the larger movements and groupings of the Left at that time? JM

The official left — the Communist left and most of the trade union left — became very factionalized and created hierarchies of workers depending on how French they were: whether they were native-born French, born in France but of immigrant parents, immigrants with working papers, immigrants without working papers, refugees with and without paper — all of these different categories.

There were people on the Left — anarchists, internationalists — who attempted to bring some of the refugee worker population into the world of work in Paris. Herschel attached himself to one of these young people and got a taste of what was possible if you were connected properly. Unfortunately, the way it plays out in the novel, and the way it played out for tens of thousands of people, is that the more nationalistic that the Left and labor became, the worse the job market became, and the worse the situation was for refugees, even second-generation refugees. SL

I wanted to ask you about the world of Jewish Paris that Herschel came into. To what degree can one speak about it in that unified way, and how did he encounter it as you picture it? JM

A lot of the novel has to do with the ways that two particular phenomena, class and identity, played upon the lives of refugees in general, and Herschel in particular. I was mentioning before this whole notion of how French you are and whether you are properly French or not quite French enough. These were kinds of identity questions that the French state, the French working world, and even the French left engaged in.

There were also questions of “Well, if you’re not quite French, what are you? Are you German? Are you Polish? Are you what?” And it wasn’t always easy to tell, just as it’s not always easy to tell nowadays — “Are you Syrian? Are you Kurdish? Are you Iraqi?” The same kinds of issues were being raised. How you answer that question, or how someone else answered it for you, often determined your fate.

With regard to identity as a Jew, there were Jewish organizations in Paris. The Jewish communities — plural — in Paris were very well organized, in terms of the established communities there, but they were very much class-based. There’s a small section of the book where Herschel applies to the Consistoire, the most established, highest bourgeois organization of Jews in Paris, recognized by the state and the old-line Paris Jewish families.

In 1936, the League of Nations, which didn’t have much authority, passed a law stating that anyone who was a German refugee who reached another country by the summer of 1936 could automatically receive refugee status. It was a very little-known law, but one of Herschel’s distant relatives found out about it, and they managed to wrangle an appointment for him at the Consistoire, where the French state gave to this Jewish organization the authority to manage this very small window of opportunity for people who had come from Germany between ’33 and ’36.

Of course, what this rule did was say, “If you came after ’36, you’re out of luck.” SL

How useful is fiction in exploring these types of political issues? JM

Fiction can play an enormously powerful role in exploring and illuminating political questions and cultural questions, because fiction is able to connect the personal with the political, the personal with the cultural, and the personal with the social, in ways that very often neither memoir nor nonfiction, nor classic academic history, can do.

I don’t mean to suggest that literature can do that better, but that it can operate as a parallel universe that allows readers an entrée into the world that they are exploring in ways that affect them more deeply. Literature can get inside an individual head that is having to deal with these issues.

About the Author

Joseph Matthews is a former criminal defense lawyer, public defender, and teacher at the law school at the University of California Berkeley. He is the author of Everyone Has Their Reasons, Shades of Resistance, and other works of fiction.

About the Interviewer

Sasha Lilley is the co-host and co-producer of the radio show Against the Grain, the author of Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult, and co-author of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Everyone Has Their Reasons