Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan Claimed Homosexuality To Avoid Trial For Assassination

His assassination of a German diplomat in Paris gave the Nazis the pretext for sanctioning Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom against Jews on 9 November 1938.

Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew considered a controversial figure to this day, was widely believed to have perished in a concentration camp during the 1940s.

But a photograph discovered in the archives of Vienna’s Jewish Museum now appears to show that Grynszpan survived the war. The snapshot, taken in Germany in 1946, shows the then 24-year-old in a gathering of displaced persons. Its discovery effectively clears up one of the most enduring mysteries of the Nazi era.

“There is little doubt this is Herschel Grynszpan,” said Armin Fuhrer, a German historian and journalist who discovered the photograph along with Christa Prokisch, an Austrian archivist.

“The photo is just a snapshot, a picture taken purely by chance. But it is so significant, because Grynszpan’s fate has remained a mystery, and the question as to whether he survived the war and Holocaust has remained unsolved for over 70 years.”

Grynszpan maintained he had marched into the German embassy on 7 November, 1938 and shot Ernst vom Rath five times in revenge for the thousands of Jewish refugees, including members of his own family, who had been expelled from Germany and were trapped in horrible conditions at the Polish border.

The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, seized on Vom Rath’s murder as a long-awaited opportunity to unleash brutal violence against Jewish shops, businesses and synagogues, citing the Paris killing as proof of the deadly danger Jews supposedly posed.

Grynszpan’s act made him a hero for some and a traitor for others – a deep divide in opinion which still holds today.

About 100 Jews died during Kristallnacht, and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. The pogrom is widely viewed by historians as the start of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were slaughtered.

Then aged 17, Grynszpan was arrested immediately after Vom Rath’s shooting and transferred to Germany after the invasion of France for questioning by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret state police.

From a Berlin detention centre he was transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin and the last official confirmation of his existence is from September 1942, which many historians have held to be the time he was likely to have been murdered by the Nazis.

After that, the trail was cold. Apart from some eyewitness accounts claiming to have seen him alive in the last weeks of the war and rumours from the late 1950s onwards that he might be living in Paris, Hamburg or Israel, there has never, until now, been any evidence that Grynszpan even survived the war. The common assumption was that he had perished when being held by the Nazis.

But Fuhrer and Prokisch, the head archivist at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, are convinced the newly-discovered photograph shows Grynszpan. A face recognition test on the photograph, taken on 3 July, 1946 in a camp for displaced persons (DPs) in Bamberg, southern Germany, returned a 95% likelihood – considered the highest possible match.

In the picture Grynszpan appears to be taking part in a demonstration of Holocaust survivors protesting British authorities’ refusal to let them emigrate to Palestine. The demonstrators are being guarded by armed US army military police standing on a lorry.

Prokisch said the photograph had been part of a set of 27 images mostly taken at DP camps which were collected by and donated to the museum by Eliezer Breuer, an emissary of Poale Agudat Israel, an organisation that prepared Jewish refugees for emigration to Palestine.

“When I first came across it I recognised him immediately. But I thought it must have been taken before the end of the war as I knew he hadn’t survived it,” Prokisch said. “People I mentioned it to thought it was an absurd idea it might be him, until I showed it to Armin Fuhrer.”

Fuhrer is one of the world’s leading authorities on Grynszpan, having spent the last five years tracing his life including trawling through thousands of archive entries that have never been viewed before. His book, Herschel, details the assassination and its shocking aftermath.

“It certainly raises more questions than it answers,” Fuhrer said of the photograph. “Not least what did he do with the rest of his life, and perhaps more importantly, how did he manage to survive the Nazis – was he protected and if so, by whom?”

Roger Moorehouse, the second world war and Third Reich historian, and author of The Devils’ Alliance and Berlin at War, said: “If the man in the photograph is indeed Herschel Grynszpan, it would solve one of the most enduring mysteries of the Third Reich. Grynszpan disappeared from the historical record in 1942 and is conventionally assumed not to have survived the war. This picture would appear to revise that assumption.”

But, sounding a note of caution, Moorehouse said: “The Nazis did not tend to permit those of their prominent prisoners who had outlived their usefulness to escape unscathed. Given Grynszpan’s notoriety, I find it a little hard to believe that they would have easily allowed him to survive.” He added, if he did survive, “it prompts a host of new questions about the circumstances of his survival and his ultimate fate”.

Grynszpan never faced a courtroom over the killing. Joseph Goebbels had wanted a huge show trial at which he could be prosecuted on behalf of all Jews against whom the Nazi regime had declared war.

But, after Grynszpan switched his confession to claim the shooting had been a so-called crime of passion resulting from a relationship between him and Vom Rath, Hitler cancelled the proceedings.

Fellow prisoners of Grynszpan’s at Sachsenhausen, where it is believed he spent several years, said he had confided in them that his claims the murder had a sexual motive were untrue. He had realised the embarrassment such a defence could cause the Nazis.

Over the years, various claims have been made by people insisting they knew of Grynszpan’s whereabouts – that he had changed his name and started a family, that he ran a petrol station outside Paris, or that he worked in the import-export business.

But there has never been any proof. A German journalist told a court at the start of the 1960s that Grynszpan was prepared to return to Germany and tell the truth of what had happened as long as he could be guaranteed immunity from prosecution. But prosecutors ruled out such a chance, as Grynszpan was a murder suspect and would have to be tried accordingly.

His parents, Sendel and Ryfka, who survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel in 1948, had him pronounced dead in 1960, which enabled them to draw a pension from the German state.

Giving evidence at the 1961 trial of the leading Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Sendel Grynszpan told the court in what many considered to be an enigmatic statement: “I have found no proof that he survived.”

Prokisch said she hoped the publication of the photograph might trigger people to come forward with new information. “But we have to be prepared that we might not like the answers we get,” she said.

“It was so unusual for someone of his prominence to have survived, as very few others did, the suspicion has to be that he collaborated with the Nazis in some way.”

Fuhrer has even toyed with the possibility that Grynszpan, who remains a controversial figure amongst Holocaust survivors, some of whom hold him responsible for stoking the Nazis’ wrath, might still be alive. “It’s not out of the question. He would be 95. He could be living under an assumed name in Israel, or the United States.”