Photo could rewrite history of Nazi ′Broken Glass′ pogrom | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 06.11.2016
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Third Reich

Photo could rewrite history of Nazi 'Broken Glass' pogrom

Seventy-eight years ago, the Nazis used the murder of a diplomat by a Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, to launch anti-Semitic attacks. A newly uncovered photo suggests that he may have surprisingly survived the Holocaust.

The accepted historical wisdom on Herschel Grynszpan is that he was either executed or died of disease while imprisoned in Germany some time between 1942 and 1945. But a photo found in the archive of the Jewish Museum in Vienna, Austria, seems to document that he actually survived World War II.

The image shows a man bearing a resemblance to the few existing photos of Grynszpan amongst a group of Jewish displaced persons protesting against the British decision to seal off Palestine to Jewish immigration in 1946.

The director of the Jewish Museum's archive, Christa Prokisch, recently discovered the photo and contacted German journalist, Achim Fuhrer, the author of several books about Nazi history, including a biography of Grynszpan. He says that "to a very high degree of probability" the photo is indeed of Grynszpan, the man who shot and fatally injured German diplomat Ernst von Rath in November 1938.

'True surprise'

"The photo looks like a snapshot, an arbitrary image made by a reporter or someone there at the time," Fuhrer wrote in the news magazine "Focus."

"It doesn't look as though the photographer recognized Grynszpan, whose image was printed on the covers of magazines worldwide after his deed in 1938. In any case, the image is a true surprise since Grynszpan's fate is uncertain. The question as to whether he survived the war and the Holocaust has always been considered unresolved. Until now," he added.

There is no positive proof that the man in the photo is Grynszpan, but others also see a close resemblance between the image and ones taken soon after the shooting in 1938.

"Indeed, permanent features like the position of the eyes and the set of his eyebrows, his nose, chin and ears all support the idea," concluded the newspaper "Die Welt."

If genuine, the photo would force historians to rewrite their accounts of the man who unwittingly helped the Nazis unleash the most gruesome pogrom in the early history of the Holocaust.

Fotofund Herschel Grynszpan (Jüdisches Museum Wien)

This photo, perhaps of Grynszpan, was found in a Vienna archive

An excuse for mass violence

On 7 November, 1938, the 17-year-old Grynszpan - a Polish Jew living illegally in Paris - shot the junior embassy official Rath twice in the abdomen. Grynszpan, who was born in the German city of Hanover, subsequently said that he was motivated by the deportations of his parents and 12,000 other Jews from Germany to Poland the preceeding August.

Hitler sent two doctors, including his personal physician, to Paris, but Rath died two days later. Fuhrer claims that the doctors likely allowed Rath to die for propaganda purposes: a contentious suggestion. But there is no doubt that high-ranking Nazis immediately began trying to use the attack to further their own aims in Germany.

"On the morning following the fateful shooting, the Nazi press, under [Joseph] Goebbels' orchestration, [was] awash with vicious attacks on the Jews, guaranteed to incite violence," historian Ian Kershaw wrote. "Sure enough, that evening, 8 November, pogroms - involving the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish property, plundering of goods and maltreatment of individual Jews - were instigated in a number of parts of the country."

Hitler promoted Rath to the rank of Legal Consul, First Class, just hours before he succumbed to his injuries at 5:30 p.m. on November 9. Goebbels hastily announced the news of Rath's death to the general public and issued direct orders to coordinate local anti-Semitic violence into a two-day pogrom that is often known in English as the "Night of Broken Glass."

Some 91 people were killed in the violence, more than 1000 synagogues were burned, and more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed. The "Night of Broken Glass" is generally considered a major escalation in the state-organized persecution of Jews in Germany and a prelude to the Holocaust.

Disappearing from view

Deutschland Geschichte Juden in Berlin Pogromnacht Synagoge (picture alliance/akg-images)

The Nazis used the assassination to incite mass anti-Semitic violence

But Grynszpan himself has remained a mysterious figure surrounded by rumor and controversy. He was immediately arrested in Paris, but his case never came to trial, in part because of rising anti-German sentiment in France after the start of the Second World War on 1 September, 1939. On 18 July, 1940, after France had been beaten and was occupied by German forces, he was handed over to Nazi Germany.

Goebbels repeatedly used the young man's shooting of Rath as evidence of a global Jewish conspiracy, but worried that Grynszpan would repeat claims, probably in hopes of saving his skin, that he had a homosexual affair with Rath if he were subject to what would have been a highly public trial. So the Nazis seem to have planned to wait until after the Second World War to put Grynszpan on a show trial and execute him.

In any case, historian Ron Roizen asserts that Grynszpan was accorded special treatment as a politically prominent prisoner. He was confined first in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then in a prison in the city of Magdeburg. What happened next is unclear - the historical record loses track of him in September 1942.

The idea that Grynszpan and Rath were lovers was repeatedly put forward in Germany after the war, although it has been disproven fairly conclusively. But it wasn't the only myth surrounding the shooter.

An unusual lack of documents

Ernst vom Rath (picture-alliance/dpa)

The Nazis tried to depict Ernst von Rath as a martyr

Grynszpan's parents had their son declared legally dead by the West German government in 1960, saying that they had heard nothing from him since the end of the war. Nonetheless, rumors swirled that he had survived and was living in Paris or elsewhere.

The issue was never resolved, but a French doctor named Alain Cuenot, who extensively investigated the Grynszpan case, concluded in 1982 that he mostly likely died in late 1942 or early 1943.

"If Grynszpan had survived the years 1943, 1944 and 1945, it would seem quite unusual that documents would not have been added to those already gathered," wrote Cuenot.

Unanswered questions

On the question of why, if Grynszpan did survive, there has been no confirmed sign of him after 1942, Fuhrer speculates that he might not have wanted to face potential criminal charges for the murder of Rath, or that he could have been afraid of anger from Jews who blamed him for the "Night of Broken Glass."

Though convinced that the man in the photo is Grynszpan, Fuhrer admits that it doesn't tell us what may have become of him.

"The photo opens up more questions than it answers," the journalist wrote.

So the debate about the man who inadvertently played a major role in the "Night of Broken Glass" is likely to continue.


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