Sex and the Single Assassin

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A112 sexWithAssassin

Written by S.L. Wisenberg. “Sex and the Single Assassin” is an excerpt from the novel manuscript “Brilliant Failures:The Notebooks of Mandy Silverman” (seeking a publisher). Wisenberg is the author of a book of stories, “The Sweetheart is In”; an essay collection: “Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions”; and a nonfiction chronicle “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch”–all published by university presses. Wisenberg usually lives in Chicago but is spending the spring 2013 semester as the Coal Royalty Chair in creating writing at the University of Alabama.

Rated RThe story up till now: These are the edited notebooks of Mandy Silverman, an American performance artist who died in East Berlin in 1988, and whose death was credited with hastening the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the sections before this, the reader learns about the death of Mandy’s father, who during his life gave wildly varying accounts of his life. After his death, she finds out that he had recently claimed to be Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German Jew in Paris in 1938 who shot a German diplomat there after he learned that his family in Hannover had been deported. The assassination became the Nazi excuse for Kristallnacht.

My father’s short fingers. Did they pull a trigger, shoot a man in the spleen, cause bullet holes in the walls of the German embassy in Paris in autumn 1938? Did he ignite a war of broken glass against the Jews? Did my father cause all that trouble? No wonder he loved The Cat in the Hat. He read it to us as children then delighted in it and the sequel, the cat who cleans everything up, spit-spot, like that. The cat who undoes history. Who eats it, swallows it back. Winds back the film, covers his tracks.

Herschel was arrested without struggle right after he shot Ernst vom Rath. When the man died, Herschel was charged with murder. The assassination took place on French soil; Herschel stayed in France. In 1940, in the confusion of the capitulation to Germany, he was transferred with other prisoners, inadvertently set free, and eventually wandered into Toulouse, alone. But after two weeks on his own, he was afraid. The way it plays out, it’s a farce, his aunt and uncle from Paris in Toulouse at the same time, but he and they were unaware of this. He turned himself into the prison there. The Vichy government sent Grynzspan to Nazi Germany and held him in Sachsenhausen outside Berlin. His trial was set for 1942. Gears were set in motion for a legal show trial—and then came Herschel’s surprise: He claimed to have had homosexual relations with Rath—that, he claimed, was his motivation for the killing.

A shameless fabrication, Goebbels wrote in his journal but knew that a trial would be a propaganda nightmare. The trial was canceled.

Could they have been lovers? At 17, how would Herschel know the embassy counsellor?

What if… he ventured into the embassy one day, say, one fine day in August, before the invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia, after the Anschluss, after Munich, when Germany believed its expansionist aims were still hidden, to inquire about obtaining a work permit? He is a young, let’s say, slight man, dark-haired. He arrives, probably cowed by the great… white? building, is ushered into the office of the young diplomat. The staff knows vom Rath likes to be apprized of the presence of young men who enter the embassy. Herschel is bid to step into his office.

Oriental carpets, say. Plum appointment, Paris, and a peach of an office–heavy curtains, heavy wood. The office of a colonial power, though in reality of a country still licking its wounds inflicted by World War I and Versailles. A brass bowl, perhaps, filled with pistachios. Or anise seeds, which vom Rath grew to love at his last post, India; so good for the digestion. He has time to see this young stranger. Vom Rath is of the rapidly-vanishing nobility, the late 1930s being a perilous time for voms. Vom Rath is suave. Young man, he asks, were you treated well at the front desk? Did you receive the permit you requested?

How can I continue this scenario, father or no father? It seems quite unlikely that a German diplomat would proposition an enemy of the state, a Jew, in his own office. Though my father always said, It’s only the impossible that can be true. What I know of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1920s and ’30s. Paris is not Berlin, London was not Berlin, which is why Isherwood went there – but each city must have had its gay district. Perhaps, it’s not impossible, that If Herschel needed money, as an immigrant who did or did not know the language, he would be like other working-class boys that Isherwood described, boys who were straight but desperate, in desperate straits–and frequented the bars where men of high estates–diplomats, even–went looking for–a lay. A boy from Germany and a diplomat from Germany might end up in the same boite in Paris. After all, he was from Hannover, a port city, where many things happen. Oh, I’m thinking of Hamburg.

A German nightclub in Paris. Where all are there for one thing–gratification. Sexual, monetary. You have what I want, you have what I want. Transactions.

Oh hello, are you alone, where are you from? A cross between Cabaret and college freshman orientation. It was probably neither; More noisy, more codified. Oh do you have a light? Would you like a drink? What are you drinking? Vom Rath buys Herschel a drink. He asks what he thinks of the music. He asks him about–movies? Politics? Nein. Ich heisse—. Mein Name ist… Vom Rath, in his sensitive job, would probably have an alias. Ah, where are you from, let me guess from your accent–not a Berliner, am I right? But you have been there? Do you know that little place–? Are you busy now, would you like to go to the rooms in back, where it’s quieter?

Slam bam thank you sir–


The primal scene, says Freud, is seeing your parents in coitus; what would he say about imagining your father with the enemy of your people?

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