Jean-Paul had no classes to teach on Thursdays. On those days he had coffee in the late morning at one or another of the cafés he frequented. He’d then read and write all afternoon, meeting with Simone and others in the evening for dinner. On that one November Thursday morning, the eighth, the café on Rue de Bretagne, as did all of Paris, had a thickened, ominous, atmosphere of imminent war. It was empty. Save for himself and the proprietor.It had been raining since Monday. Paris’ streets were grey with a slurry of footprints and sodden cigarette butts.
Sartre brought his coffee and a sweet pastry to a table in the rear. He draped his coat over the chair beside him. Favoring his privacy, he avoided conversation with those he didn’t know. He sat with his back to the entrance. Unfolded his newspaper.
The picture of a young man was on the front page. A boy with dark, thick eyebrows. The first thing he noticed about him. A sallow furtiveness in his face. Lidded eyes; a foreign sharp line to his features. Hands in the pockets of a light overcoat, a tie and a three-piece grey suit. A Jew. Seventeen. Hershel Grynszpan.
Grynszpan had been arrested by the French authorities for shooting Ernst vom Rath, a mid-level functionary in the German embassy on the day before. Surrounding him in the photo were several men, all much taller than he, guiding him, it seemed, as he passed through a narrow open doorway.
Sartre knew that the boy would be subjected to the harshest of punishment. He knew the Germans well. An example, no doubt, would be made of him. The Reich, he thought, would not let this pass.
The boy and his situation intrigued him. A boy of seventeen? Moved, at the risk of almost assured death, to shoot this one man? A man he did not know. Why had he not spent the day walking by the river and eating fruit and candies?
The authorities had found a note in the boy’s pocket, a postcard, addressed to his parents. “With God’s help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me.”
Sartre picked up the paper and left the café. He could not clear his consciousness of what he had read. As he walked home, he imagined it was he who had shot the man. That it was he who had bought the revolver; he himself who had pulled the trigger, feeling its jarring recoil each of the five times it was fired. Smelling the cordite. Seeing the blood spurt from the other man’s abdomen. Feeling the oily residue on his fingers.
He searched the papers each morning to learn more about this young man. Herschel.
On the following night, November 9, Goebbels, in Munich, called for reprisals, enflaming German youth to run through the streets to hunt down Jews; rioting, beating them. Smashing the windows of their shops, looting, raping women in their homes.
Broken glass littered the streets.
Thousands of synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were set afire by the SA, the paramilitary Sturmabteilung. Twenty thousand Jews were arrested. Sent to Dachau and Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Hundreds were killed where they stood.
Sartre knew Rath’s death had been only a pretext for the pogroms. The premeditated rampaging violence unleashed in the immediate aftermath of a waited-for precipitating event.
Herschel, Sartre wrote in his notebook later, could not have known what the aftermath would be. No doubt, Sartre thought, the boy must have been prepared to die. He had acted alone. With no thought of an outcome or consequence. No thought beyond the single act. No greater plan than to act.
The boy had been sent to Paris by his parents to live with his uncle. Already, in 1938, there was no hope that any Polish Jew, stripped of Polish citizenship and deported to Germany without any papers would survive. In Paris though, he had not found freedom. With no papers, he could get no job. He wandered the streets, reciting poetry. He slept in hiding.
And then, on the morning of November 7, with a little over 200 francs he took from his uncle, Herschel bought a 6.35 mm revolver on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin and walked to the German embassy at 78 Rue de Lille. Along the Seine. Asking to see the German Ambassador. Seeing instead an assistant.
After the shooting, Herschel gave his name to the authorities. He had neither resisted nor tried to escape.
The look on Herschel’s face, what he had done, his fate, haunted Sartre.
He wrote of the boy in his diaries throughout the occupation, then during his time in the French army, and after was captured and in the time he spent in a German prisoner of war camp.
When he had time to think and write, he thought of the boy. Of the boy’s ‘situation’ as he called it, and of the boy’s singular act of what he would later call ‘contingency violence.’ A willful act. An act of being.
What is it is to be free, he thought?
France was not free. The boy was not free. He was not free. All there was, all there ever was, was the ability to act on one’s behalf, and in that there was the hope of freedom.
The meaning of being, Sartre wrote, was being-for-oneself. To act in one’s own situation is the act of being. Of being free.
To not act for-oneself, to be complacent, and to accept that complacency as all there was left to you, as a situation to be endured in a sense of powerlessness, even with fear and anger, is nothingness.