The Boy Who Started a War
On November 7, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a young Jewish man living in Paris illegally, walked into the German embassy and shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat. The assassination triggered Kristallnacht, the organized Nazi pogrom against the Jewish community inside the boundaries of the Third Reich, and was the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust. Many historians have speculated that the young Grynszpan had intended to shoot the ambassador, Count Johannes Welczek, but according to author Harlan Greene in his new novel, “The German Officer’s Boy,” the shooting was the accidental result of 17-year-old Grynszpan’s affair with the 29-year-old German officer.
Greene, whose prior works include two historical novels about gay life in Charleston, S.C., and an admirable shelf of nonfiction books on Southern history, said that for years he had noted the speculation of Grynszpan’s homosexuality in the footnotes of books on Kristallnacht.
“Because my parents were Holocaust survivors, I was always reading about the Holocaust,” Greene said in an interview with the Forward. “I first noticed the reference in the mid-1980s in a book by Frank Rector called ‘Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals’ and, to be direct, I didn’t believe it. I thought someone was trying to write gay history into everything. Over time, it seemed something more credible to me.”
Greene, now the project archivist at Charleston’s Avery Institute, decided to novelize the Grynszpan affair instead of pursuing a nonfiction route. In spare, concise prose, Greene details the young man’s family life, his journey through the underbelly of Paris as a “rent boy” and the ill-fated romance between “a boy with dark, brooding eyes and olive skin” and the older, secretive, “tidy blond” German. Greene has the affair begin in the summer of 1938 and continue until that November, when Grynszpan, whose papers were not in order, was about to be deported from France. During the course of researching and writing the novel, Greene discovered many works that openly affirmed Grynszpan’s declaration that he was gay and that he and Vom Rath were in a relationship. However, he feels that many historians try to explain it away, as if labeling Grynszpan as gay insults him and makes him less of an “innocent” victim.
Grynszpan’s fate has become one of the unsolved mysteries of World War II and the Holocaust. The last time anyone reported seeing him alive was in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in September 1942. A number of postwar sources have contended that Grynszpan survived only to resume his Paris residence after the war and to start a family, but one of Grynszpan’s original lawyers reported that he was beheaded by the Germans after his transfer into their hands in 1940.
Greene, who began writing his novelization in the late 1980s, kept close to the historical facts surrounding Grynszpan’s imprisonment but fictionalized his family background and his angst over being separated from his family. “Herschel himself is pretty much as I found him,” Greene writes in the afterword, “puzzling, annoying, contradictory, adolescent, and tragic.”
All of Grynszpan’s family survived the war except for an uncle who was murdered in Auschwitz, and Grynszpan’s sister who died in Russia, where the family took refuge. The Grynszpan family later immigrated to Israel, where they played a part in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Herschel’s father and brother testified that all their previous efforts to find him had failed. In the late 1950s, the family petitioned the German government for a death date in order to give the family closure. Herschel Grynszpan was declared dead June 1, 1960.
Greene’s parents, Sam and Regina, survived the Holocaust in Russian work camps during World War II. They were married in June 1939, shortly before war broke out. After the war, his parents moved to Charleston, where his mother had an aunt and a first cousin. Born in 1953, Greene was raised in Charleston, where he now lives with his partner, Jonathan Ray. Among the projects Greene has worked on locally has been to help collect and archive the experiences of Jews in South Carolina of the past 200 years, forming the basis of the Jewish archive at the College of Charleston.
In 1989, Greene lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his companion at the time, Olin Jolley, was starting his residency in psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. In October of that year, Jolley was diagnosed with AIDS.
“I started working on this novel right when Olin was diagnosed with AIDS,” Greene said. “Ironically, it was on Yom Kippur of 1989 that he basically went into the hospital and almost died. He subsequently lived seven years. I think that’s one thing that launched me onto this novel — and I’m certainly not comparing my experiences with Olin being sick with Holocaust experiences — but what struck me in those first few months when Olin got sick and we weren’t telling his parents was that I was leading something of a double life, pretending everything was fine but there was this devastating experience that I was going through. It struck me that this might be what someone felt who was passing at the time — a Jew pretending not to be Jewish pretending not to be going through a tragedy. Olin’s experience made me read a lot more stuff into Holocaust works and appreciate my parents’ experience much more.”
Jameson Currier is a freelance journalist and author. His most recent book is “Desire, Lust, Passion, Sex” (Green Candy Press, 2004).
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The German Officer’s Boy
By Harlan Greene
University of Wisconsin Press, 216 pages, $26.95.