It was supposedly a spontaneous response to the assassination of a German official by a Jewish teen. But the violence that broke out on the night of November 9, 1938, which became known as Kristallnacht, was actually planned and approved by top Nazi leaders—and a harrowing hint of what was still to come.
A Cry in the Dark
“Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal.”
Hershel (Hermann) Grynszpan, an Oustjude (Eastern Jew) living in France, was only 17 years old when he said those words. The French police had just arrested him for shooting Ernst vom Rath, the Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris. The assassination attempt took place on November 7, 1938 and vom Rath died of his wounds two days later, on November 9.
The assassination of a German official was a desperate act, and Grynszpan was admittedly desperate. Although he was born in Hanover, Germany, he was ineligible for German citizenship because of a principle of nationality law called jus sanguinis, where nationality isn’t determined by place of birth but by having at least one parent who is a citizen of the state. Since both of Grynszpan’s parents had been born in Poland, the German government considered the family Polish.
By 1935, Grynszpan’s parents had decided there was no future in Germany for Hershel and tried to get him papers for immigration to British-ruled Palestine. When that failed, they sent the teenager to live with an aunt and uncle in Paris. But Grynszpan’s attempts to obtain the residence permit that would enable him to live and work legally in France met with failure. In April 1937, his permit for re-entry to Germany expired. In January 1938, his Polish passport expired. He was thus a stateless person, unable to work and constantly on the run from the French officials seeking to deport him.
In March 1938, things got even worse. The Polish government passed a law stating that Polish citizens who had lived abroad continuously for the past five years would be deprived of their Polish citizenship. In August 1938, Germany responded by cancelling all residence permits for foreigners. Two months later, on October 26, the Gestapo rounded up 12,000 Polish Jews living in Germany, stripped them of their property, herded them onto trains, and transported them to the Polish border, near a town called Zbaszyn. The Polish officials refused to admit the Jews, which included Hershel Grynszpan’s parents and siblings.
Conditions in the makeshift refugee camp set up for the now stateless Jews were horrendous. On November 3, Herschel received a postcard from his sister Berta, in which she told him what had happened to their family. In a line that had been crossed out by the censors, it seemed Berta was begging her brother for help.
Hershel, who had always been an emotional child and who had an especially warm relationship with his family, took the implied plea seriously. He asked his French uncle for financial assistance, but the uncle was poverty-stricken himself. Having supported Hershel for several years—and taken a legal risk by harboring the fugitive—he told Hershel that he couldn’t help.
On the morning of November 7, Hershel wrote a farewell postcard to his parents. He then entered a gun shop and purchased a revolver and a box of 25 bullets for 235 francs, which was almost all the money he had left in the world. He gained entrance to the German embassy by saying he was a German citizen and a spy who had an important document for the German ambassador. Ironically, Hershel had passed the ambassador at the embassy’s door, but hadn’t recognized the man who was leaving the building. Hershel was directed, instead, to the office of Ernst vom Rath, a junior embassy official. When vom Rath asked to see the document, Hershel pulled out his revolver and began to shoot.