A Message in Fire

The following is a modified excerpt from Is it Good for the Jews: The Crisis of America's Israel Lobby, published by Random House, Inc. It has been adapted for Jewcy by author Stephen Suleyman Schwartz. He was seventeen, sensitive, with … Read More

By / April 12, 2007

The following is a modified excerpt from Is it Good for the Jews: The Crisis of America's Israel Lobby, published by Random House, Inc. It has been adapted for Jewcy by author Stephen Suleyman Schwartz.

He was seventeen, sensitive, with brooding eyes, and wept easily; little more than five feet tall, slender and dark, but handsome. He felt alone, angry, and confused, and outrage overwhelmed him.

He was a Jew. And he had a gun.

Herschel Feibel Grynszpan was born in Hannover, Germany, but held Polish nationality. By 1938, he had lived through three years of chaos. The Nazis were in power, and he was not allowed to become an apprentice nor otherwise gain employment. He wanted to go to Palestine but found no way to get there. Finally, he went to Belgium, then crossed the border to France without authorization.

He was a refugee, an illegal immigrant, non-Christian, unemployed, a troubled youth.

In Paris, the agitated Herschel argued with his aunt and uncle, with whom he stayed. He had received a note from the German-Polish frontier describing the conditions his family suffered. He had fantasies of joining the French Foreign Legion, but had probably been refused a visa to Palestine because of bad health, and it was unlikely he would succeed as a soldier of France. He threatened suicide, then slammed the door of his uncle’s house and was not seen for a night and a day.

On November 7, 1938, Grynszpan went to the German embassy on the Rue de Lille and asked to see the ambassador. An undersecretary, Ernst Vom Rath, was sent to the anteroom to find out what the visitor wanted. Grynszpan pulled a gun and shot at Vom Rath repeatedly, killing him.

“Being a Jew is not a crime,” Grynszpan told the press after his arrest. “I am not a dog. I have a right to live, and the Jewish people have the right to live on this earth. Wherever I have gone, I have been hunted like a beast.”

By a terrible coincidence, the shooting came on the twentieth anniversary of imperial Germany’s capitulation to the allies—which the Nazis and other German antisemites blamed on the Jews, who had allegedly stabbed the nation in the back. On the night of November 9, the Nazis used Grynszpan’s reckless protest as a pretext for retaliation. The date would forever be known as Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass. The New York Times described “a wave of destruction, looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany” since the seventeenth century.

The specter of Grynszpan briefly haunted the world; like a blazing silhouette, he had in an instant illuminated the deepest contradictions and challenges facing his people and all of oppressed humanity. The Jews had dedicated themselves to the common welfare of themselves and their Gentile neighbors for many centuries. Was it good for them to struggle for universal justice, even if they remained crushed by their fate as outsiders? Or should they declare that they, like the multitude of Gentile nations, had a particular interest to guard and nurture? Could Jews defend themselves? Could they take up the sword when threatened?

Only in America would this question never need to be directly posed. Only in America would Jews experience, miraculously, a permanent liberty and security. “Only in America” became a Jewish meme, employed to describe the almost dreamlike quality of life here.

Yet if American Jews were never threatened with such an outburst of medieval horrors, neither were they able to feel perfectly at ease. Though it is largely forgotten today, the Great Depression produced homegrown fascist movements that targeted Jews as the cause of American social and economic ills.

There were no American Jewish or Zionist lobbies with such power as exist today. American Jews were gaining political influence but still weak in social weight, with a leadership grossly hesitant to appear too assertive, as the Grynszpan case showed.

The New York Times, Jewish-owned but sunken in a cowardly attitude of constraint about asserting any Jewish interest, treated Grynszpan with barely concealed contempt. The Times referred to his having studied Hebrew but with “no intention of becoming a rabbi,” and later headlined the young man’s description of the shooting as “carried out in a trance.”

The leading American Jewish communal organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL), produced no press releases or other emergency statements defending Grynszpan.

The American Communist party, anxious to draw attention away from its significant Jewish membership, treated the events in Germany ambiguously. The Communist paper referred to Grynszpan as “grief-crazed” and referred to Goebbels as a member of “the extreme antisemitic wing of Nazism”—as if such distinctions meant anything.

As the years went by, the Stalinists who described Grynszpan as insane were echoed by others. No less a
figure than Hannah Arendt described Grynszpan as “a psychopath, unable to finish school, who for years had knocked about Paris and Brussels, being expelled from both places.”

Today, Jews remain ambivalent about Grynszpan; he is seen by most as a warped and tormented figure whose only significance is that he helped bring about the tragedy of European Jewry—as if the Holocaust would not have occurred if Grynszpan had not murdered Vom Rath.

The treatment of Grynszpan by history, including by Jewish chroniclers, raises the issue of the morality to which Jewish self-defense must be held. Jews employed violence to protect their communities in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. They would do so again after the foundation of the state of Israel, but more regularly and with greater effectiveness.

Yet such behavior has almost always been greeted with disquiet by Jews and non-Jews alike. Under what circumstances is it permissible for Jews to commit acts of assassination, terror, and military conquest in the name of self-defense? This would become the great question of the twentieth century for the Jews, and a major challenge for the world—and so it persists.

And what of the desperate youth himself? His ultimate fate is unknown today. Grynszpan never saw trial. He was held in the French prison of Fresnes until June 1940 when he was sent south by the Parisian authorities, to a jail in Bourges. On the way he experienced a brief period of freedom when the train he was riding was attacked by German aircraft. In Bourges, he was kidnapped by the Nazis and transferred to Germany, where he disappeared in the night and fog of the Holocaust. He vanished without a trace, although rumors later proliferated describing his survival somewhere in France.

Still, the lessons of Grynszpan grow in relevance with every passing day. The situation today cannot be compared with that of the 1930s, of course. Even the undeniably great threat posed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not bring us back to the 1930s. Israel and the Western powers are determined to confront and curb the hallucinated Iranian, and Israel will maintain its security.

My concern, however, has been for the future of American Jews in a society where the mainstreaming of anti-Jewish prejudice currently advances, and the Jewish establishment has been weak in its response. Once again, Jewish leaders appear too frightened to assert themselves.

Why was the campaign to identify the atrocities of September 11, 2001, with an Israeli conspiracy ignored by American Jewish leaders as beneath notice? The agitators responsible for that libel should be named and shamed.

Why was Michael Lerner met with indifference when he announced his belief that the U.S. government might be complicit in 9/11—declaring himself “agnostic” on the question? Lerner describes such arguments about Israeli involvement as “baloney”—hardly an appropriate response to such an attack. Would it be appropriate to merely dismiss the blood libel as “baloney?”

Why was the pamphlet against the Jewish lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which resembled nothing so much as a nineteenth-century German academic outburst of “anti-Semitismus,” met with so feeble a public response? Jewish and other students should have gathered at the offices of Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Walt at the Harvard Kennedy School, and disrupted their work nonviolently, with signs and shouts. Further, the historic Jewish-associated publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has contracted to put their pseudo-academic propaganda in a nice binding and dust jacket. Why does Tom Friedman or any other Jewish writer not break relations with the house? Why has no boycott been organized against FS&G? The freedom of speech and the right to publish do not include the right to be insulated from criticism.

The Jewish historian and essayist Tony Judt complained that free speech had disappeared from America, because a Polish diplomatic facility in New York—which is, after all, the property of the Polish authorities—refused to sponsor his speech. Judt alleged the Poles had been pressured by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, but why did Judt not address his reproach to the Polish government? Perhaps because he knows the Poles have no interest in acquiring a reputation for coddling Israel-baiters.

We’re told that critics of Israel and the American Jewish community have their views suppressed. And yet Noam Chomsky, a ferocious critic of Israel and the American Jewish leadership, is the most adulated figure in American academic life. If this is “suppression,” the word has no meaning. A community hesitant to speak out in its own defense cannot even discourage insults, much less silence them.

The German intellectual Theodor W. Adorno declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Perhaps he was right; the great Jewish poet Paul Celan, who challenged that view, finally committed suicide, as did other survivor-authors. But some Jewish poets who died in the Holocaust left messages of fire, like the deed and words of Herschel Feibel Grynszpan, for those who would come after. The Hungarian Jew Radnoti Miklos, executed on a forced labor march, wrote during his ordeal:

“I knew there was an angel, sword in hand, behind me—there in my time of trouble to guard and defend me… Where the angel with his sword was standing once/There may be nobody.”

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