On 7 November 1938, the 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan walked into the German embassy in Paris. Claiming to have secret papers, he was shown into the office of an embassy secretary, Ernst vom Rath. Drawing a tiny revolver — the price tag still attached from that morning’s purchase — he fired five shots, shouting: ‘You’re a filthy Kraut, and in the name of 12,000 Jews, here is your document.’ Two of the bullets struck Vom Rath, who died two days later.
The previous month, close to 18,000 Polish German Jews had been dumped by train on the Polish border. Among those rounded up in Hanover for the Aktion were Grynszpan’s family: his parents Sendel and Rivka, his brother Mordecai and his sister Berta. Herschel himself had been sent to Paris two years earlier by his parents for his own safety, and lived there with his aunt and uncle, in Casablanca-esque limbo, along with some other 50,000 refugees from Nazi persecution.
Both Goebbels and Hitler saw Vom Rath’s murder at the hands of an exiled German-Polish Jew as an excellent propaganda opportunity. The news had reached them on the afternoon of 9 November, while they were presiding over the squalid pomp of Nazi rallies in Munich, commemorating several inauspicious anniversaries: the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918; the Munich Putsch of 1923; and the ersatz Nazi birthday, the ‘Movement Day Banquet’. Hitler slipped away from the celebrations, leaving Goebbels to whip up the mob, using the news of Vom Rath’s death as proof of a Jewish conspiracy against the Reich. It was the spark that ignited the evil spree of the next few days: Kristallnacht.
Incarcerated in Paris, facing a murder trial and the guillotine, Grynszpan was appalled by the evil that flowed from his rash act of revenge: ‘God, oh my God!’, he wrote from prison, ‘I did not want that.