Assassinations in Davos and Paris

January 28 2011

Davos was the headquarters of the Swiss branch of the Nazi party.


“It is January 31, 1936 […]. David Frankfurter, a struggling 25 year old [actually 26 year-old] Jewish medical student studying in Switzerland, is leaving Bern by train carrying only a briefcase.

“His destination is Davos – a 270 kilometre (170 mile) train trip via Zurich. The purpose of his journey has nothing to do with his studies. His mission is to assassinate Wilhelm Gustloff, leader (or Landesgruppenleiter) of the NSDAP (Nazi party) in Switzerland.

“Frankfurter checks himself into the Hotel Metropol-Löwen [no longer there] in Davos and will wait until the 4th of February to attempt his daunting task. […] the 4th falls on a Tuesday, considered a Jewish day of good luck (Ki Tov). […]

“In the meantime, he anonymously explores the picturesque winter-resort town, known for its towering peaks and clean dry air. In his room, the revolver he purchased for only 10 francs in Bern remains discreetly tucked away in his briefcase.

“Historical hindsight being as it is, it is easy to understand why Frankfurter viewed the Nazis as a threat. His own direct personal experiences with growing anti-Semitism in Germany had influenced his retreat into ‘neutral’ Switzerland – ultimately providing a ‘safer haven’ for his decision to take action against the Nazi menace. Steadily, his studies become compromised by overwhelming fixation with the anti-Semitic charged political environment. Periodicals such as Der Stürmer and the Nuremburg Laws passed in Germany during 1935 only fuel his resolve and conviction. By the time Frankfurter purchases his short-barrel Browning revolver, he claims to feel like ‘an insignificant weapon in the hand of God’.

“Tuesday the 4th arrives. Snow crunching under his feet, Frankfurter walks up to the front door of the Gustloff residence. After ringing the doorbell, Gustloff’s wife, Hedwig, calls down from upstairs. ‘Is Herr Gustloff at home and can I speak with him?’ he calls back. She is used to her husband having many visitors, so without a second thought she leads Frankfurter through the house to Gustloff’s study. He promptly takes a seat. For five minutes [apparently Gustloff was on the telephone] his eyes peruse Nazi regalia including a picture of Hitler signed for Gustloff. Thoughts roll around in his head like a storm. He clutches the revolver hidden in his coat pocket and at the ready.

“Gustloff strides in the room and greets his guest with ‘Here I am!’ Without any response, David Frankfurter fires his revolver. Four (4) shots hit their mark in Gustloff’s head and upper body. Frau Hedwig enters the room just after the final shot and sees her husband lying crumpled, bleeding and dying on the floor of the study. In haste, Frankfurter passes her without saying a word and leaves through the front door as the sounds of her cries ring in his ears.

“Frankfurter has no intention of running from his premeditated deed, but he leaves the scene dazed, unstable, and contemplating suicide. He remains of the conviction that his act is not a crime – it is a strike at the Nazi menace and revenge for the ‘spilled blood of Israel’. He even returns to the scene of the crime to telephone the police from elderly neighbors. Regardless, he eventually walks to the nearest police station and turns himself in.

“After some initial disbelief on the part of an officer on duty, Frankfurter does not leave any doubt as to his culpability. He makes a confession to the officer – explaining that he fired the shots not for personal reasons, but because he is a Jew. He further explains that he is fully aware of his actions and is without regret. Later, he will repeat similar statements in a Swiss court – robbing the trial of any suspense.

“The Nazis are anxious to use this opportunity to exploit the assassination of Gustloff to further the causes of an anti-Semitic agenda. Only the Olympic games and the Führer’s deliberate patience for retaliation subdue an outright attack on the Jewish community. It is unlikely that many in the world (including perhaps many in Germany itself) had heard of Gustloff. However, being the first Nazi leader to be assassinated by a Jew, the Nazis are determined to make him a martyr. A garish state funeral on February 12th ensues in his birthplace of Schwerin, only after his casket takes a long journey of ‘martyrdom’ from Davos through many towns on the way to his final resting place.

“It is during this memorial service for the Swiss Nazi leader that the superstitious Führer exploits an opportunity to rename a groundbreaking ship originally destined to bear his name – a project just recently commissioned to be built for the KdF by Blohm & Voss shipyards. When the ship is launched next spring, it will be re-named the Wilhelm Gustloff.”


Gustloff had been born in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin on January 30 1895. He worked as a Swiss government meteorologist and joined the Nazi party in 1929. In 1932 he founded the Swiss branch at Davos.

His coffin was transported to Schwerin by train, with stops in Stuttgart, Würzburg, Erfurt, Halle, Magdeburg and Wittenberg. Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Bormann and Ribbentrop attended his funeral. His widow, mother and brother were present.

The Nazis had plans in 1940 for the invasion of Switzerland which were never put into effect: Operation Tannenbaum.


Frankfurter (July 9 1909-July 19 1982) had been born in Croatia when it was part of Austria-Hungary. He studied medicine in Vienna, Leipzig and Frankfurt. The rise of the Nazis forced him to continue them in Switzerland. He settled in Bern in 1934.

At his trial at Chur, the capital of Graubünden, he was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. On February 27 1945, he applied for a pardon, which was granted on June 1 on the condition that he left Switzerland and paid restitution and court costs. He travelled to the British Mandate of Palestine and lived in Tel Aviv. He became a clerk in the Israeli Minister of Defence.

The cantonal government rescinded its no-entry order against him in September 1969.

Frankfurter is an obscure figure. This is the best image of him online.


Most of is about the ship.

She was built as a cruise liner for the Deutsche Arbeitsfront and used by its subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) to provide recreation for German officials and workers.

During the summer of 1939, she brought the Condor Legion home from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist forces under Franco.

On September 1 1939 she was requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine. She served as a hospital ship during 1939 and 1940.

Beginning on November 20 1940, she was stripped of medical equipment and repainted from hospital ship colours (white with a green stripe) to standard naval grey and assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel at the Baltic port of Gdynia (Gotenhafen), near Gdansk (Danzig).

The final voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff was during Operation Hannibal, the evacuation by sea from mid-January to May 1945 of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia and the Polish Corridor, as the Red Army advanced. She was hit by three torpedoes from a Russian submarine in the Baltic on the night of January 30 1945 and sank in less than forty-five minutes. 9,400 people may have been killed. This would have been the largest loss of life in a single event in maritime history.

German soldiers wounded at Narvik being transported back to Germany on the Wilhelm Gustloff, July 1940; Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons


If Gustloff was “the first Nazi leader to be assassinated by a Jew”, then the diplomat Ernst vom Rath was presumably the second.

A seventeen-year old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, shot him in the German embassy in Paris on November 7 1938. Vom Rath died two days later.

Vom Rath had been born in Frankfurt on June 3 1909. He joined the Nazi party in 1932, when he began his short career. Was it necessary to join in order to get on as a diplomat? Surely not in 1932. In April 1933 he had become a member of the Sturmabteilung, the party paramilitary. He was posted to Paris in 1935, after a posting in Bucharest.

Grynszpan had been born in Hanover in 1921, to parents who had left Poland in 1911. They became Polish citizens after the First World War, but remained in Germany.

When he left school, he was sent to a yeshiva in Frankfurt. After eleven months he left and returned to Hanover. He applied to emigrate to British Palestine, but the local Palestine office told him that he was too young.

He was sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Paris. There, he lived in a small Yiddish-speaking enclave of Polish Orthodox Jews and met few people outside it, learning only a few words of French. He spent his time trying, unsuccessfully, to get legal residency in France. His re-entry permit for Germany expired in April 1937 and his Polish passport expired in January 1938, leaving him without papers.

In July 1938, the Prefecture of Police ruled that Grynszpan had no basis for his request to stay in France, and in August he was ordered to leave. He had no permit for Germany and no desire to go there. In March, Poland had passed a law depriving Polish citizens who had lived continuously abroad for more than five years of their citizenship: this was intended to prevent the 70,000 Polish Jews living in Germany and Austria from returning to Poland, so that path was also closed. He continued to live in Paris illegally. He was a member of the Bundist youth movement Tsukunft.

In October, the Gestapo was ordered to arrest and deport all Polish Jews in Germany. Grynszpan’s parents were placed on a train heading for Poland. At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Sendel Grynszpan, his father, recounted the events of the night of October 27: “They took us in police trucks, in prisoners’ lorries, about twenty men in each truck, and they took us to the railway station. The streets were full of people shouting: ‘Juden raus! Aus nach Palästina!’”

The Grynszpans and thousands of other Polish-Jewish deportees were left at the border and fed intermittently by the Polish Red Cross and Jewish welfare organizations. Berta sent a postcard to her brother Herschel in Paris, telling him what had happened and pleading with him to rescue them and arrange for them to emigrate to America – something totally beyond his powers.

Grynszpan made no attempt to resist or escape after shooting vom Rath, and identified himself correctly to the French police. He said that his motive had been to avenge the persecuted German Jews.

The Nazi reprisal on November 9-10 was Kristallnacht, the unprecedentedly violent series of pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. Grynszpan’s parents were not affected at the Polish border. In 1939 they escaped to the Soviet Union. After the war they emigrated to Israel.

On November 17, vom Rath was given a state funeral in Düsseldorf, attended by Hitler and Ribbentrop.

From November 1938 to June 1940 Grynszpan was kept in the Fresnes prison in Paris. He was still awaiting trial when the German army approached. The French authorities evacuated the inhabitants of the Paris prisons to the south. On July 18 the Germans captured him in Toulouse, drove him back to Paris, flew him to Berlin and locked him up in the Gestapo headquarters in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. He spent the remainder of his documented life in German custody, being shuttled between Moabit Prison in Berlin and the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg.

His trial was postponed indefinitely. His fate after September 1942 is unclear. He was still alive in late 1943 or early 1944, when he was interrogated by Adolf Eichmann at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. He may have been alive in Magdeburg prison in January 1945. He was declared legally dead by the West German government in 1960.

Was Grynszpan imitating Frankfurter? His motives may have been less simple than Frankfurter’s, as he may have had a sexual relationship with vom Rath.

Grynszpan’s story was the inspiration for Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, composed between 1939 and ’41, with a libretto by Tippett, and performed in London in 1944. The title was taken from an antifascist novel by Ödön von Horváth. Sendel Grynszpan was present at the Israel premiere in 1952. It has often been performed in Germany. A German aunt of mine heard it in Stuttgart in her eighties and was moved by it. It recently had its premiere in Thailand.

Horváth had moved from Vienna to Paris after the Anschluss, but died on June 1 in the same year after being hit by a falling branch during a thunderstorm on the Champs-Élysées, opposite the Théâtre Marigny. His novel was also published in that year: was it posthumous? It had nothing to do with Grynszpan, of whom he had presumably not heard.

A documentary about A Child of Our Time starts here on YouTube.

Steal Away, a spiritual used in it, performed in Leicester in 1976 by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Willi Gohl; the chorus includes singers from Germany and Israel

Grynszpan on November 8 1938; Bundesarchiv, Wikimedia Commons

Vom Rath; Spiegel archive

Vom Rath; Wikimedia Commons

5 Responses to “Assassinations in Davos and Paris”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Vom Rath looks gay, Grynszpan like a man guilty or violated.

    Wikipedia, without the links:

    “This [the homosexual theory] seems to have been the origin of the theory that Grynszpan was acquainted with vom Rath prior to the shooting, and that vom Rath was his intended victim. According to this version of events, vom Rath was a homosexual, and met Grynszpan in a Paris bar, Le boeuf sur le toit. It is not clear whether Grynszpan was himself alleged to be homosexual, or whether he was said to be using his youth and appearance to win an influential friend. According to this theory, vom Rath had promised to use his influence to get Grynszpan’s position in France regularized. When vom Rath reneged on this promise, Grynszpan went to the Embassy and shot him.

    “In support of the theory, Hans-Jürgen Döscher, a leading German authority on the period and author of Reichskristallnacht, published documents in 2001 which he said showed that Grynszpan and vom Rath had had a sexual relationship. Döscher quoted extracts from the diary of French author André Gide, himself homosexual and well-informed regarding Parisian gay gossip. Vom Rath, Gide wrote, ‘had an exceptionally intimate relationship with the little Jew, his murderer’. Later Gide said: ‘The idea that such a highly thought-of representative of the Third Reich sinned twice according to the laws of his country is rather amusing.’

    “There are arguments against the theory that vom Rath had a sexual relationship with Grynszpan. There is no evidence that they had ever met other than second-hand gossip of the type recorded by Gide. The officials at the German Embassy were clear that Grynszpan had not asked to see vom Rath by name, and that he saw vom Rath only because he happened to be on duty at the time Grynszpan visited the Embassy, and because the desk clerk asked vom Rath to see Grynszpan. While interned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941, Grynszpan told fellow inmates that although he was intending to claim at his trial that he had had homosexual relations with vom Rath, this was not true.

    “Most postwar writers, including Ron Roizen, the French historian Dr Alain Cuenot, and the American investigator Gerald Schwab, maintain that Moro-Giafferi fabricated the story about a homosexual relationship with vom Rath after the murder, in order to assist in Grynszpan’s defence. Michael Marrus wrote:

    ‘The origin of the story of homosexuality was the defendant’s French attorney, Maitre Moro-Giafferi. He claimed in 1947 that he simply invented the story as a possible line of defense, one that would put the affair in an entirely new light. In fact, however, rumors about vom Rath’s homosexuality were in the air in Paris immediately after the assassination. Whatever the origins of the story, its utility was obvious: the murder could be presented not as a political act but as a cause passionelle – a lover’s quarrel, in which the German diplomat could be judged incidentally as having seduced a minor. Moro-Giafferi shared the fears of the Grynszpan committee at the time of Kristallnacht that a political trial would be a catastrophe for the Jews of Germany and elsewhere. By adopting this legal strategy, they hope to defuse the affair and also reduce the penalty drastically, possible even prompting a suspended sentence.’

    “Further evidence is presented by Gerald Schwab in the form of a letter, sent to Ernst vom Rath’s brother in 1964 by Erich Wollenburg, a communist exile from Nazi Germany who claimed to be an associate of Moro-Giafferi:

    ‘One day, and unless I am mistaken it was in the spring of 1939, I met Moro-Giafferi on Boulevard St Michel, and I asked him for news of Grunspahn (sic) for whom he was the defence lawyer. He had just come from visiting him in his cell, and was revolted by the attitude of his client. “That young man is a fool, infatuated with himself,” he said. “He refuses to give a non-political character to his act by saying for example that he assassinated vom Rath because he had had money quarrels with him following homosexual relations. Yet, such an attitude in regard to the murder of vom Rath is necessary, in order to save the Jews of the Third Reich, whose lives are becoming more and more precarious in regard to the prosperity, their health, their futures, etc. If only … he would deny the political motives of his crime, and assert that he had only personal vengeance in mind, vengeance as a victim of homosexuality, the Nazis would lose their best pretext for exercising their reprisals against the German Jews who are victims of his fit of madness and now, of his obstinacy.” I asked him if Grunspahn really had had relations with vom Rath. He replied, “Absolutely not!” I said to him then, “But as a defender of Gruhnspahn shouldn’t you protect not only the interests of your client, but his honour as well?” It was at that moment that Moro-Giafferi exclaimed, “Honour! Honour! What is the honour of that absurd little Jew in the face of the criminal action of Hitler? What does the honour of Grunspahn weigh in the face of the destiny of thousands of Jews?”’”

  2. […] Assassinations in Davos and Paris […]

  3. […] Assassinations in Davos and Paris (old post). […]

  4. […] of the British great and good in 1964. A few of them are still with us. Toynbee is there, next to Michael Tippett (post here). Aldous Huxley is there although he had died several weeks previously. Vicky is the […]

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