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The Children Strike Back

ullstein bild/dpa
Beate Klarsfeld interrupting the West German chancellor in the Bundestag to shout ‘Kiesinger, Nazi, resign!,’ Bonn, April 1968

“My role is not to make people happy,” declares Beate Klarsfeld in Hunting the Truth, the assertive memoirs she has written with her husband, Serge. “It is to tell the truth [about Nazism and the Holocaust] as strongly as possible—bluntly, even savagely, if necessary.” The Klarsfelds have never stopped trying to “kick up a storm.” On November 7, 1968, Beate—a German citizen by birth—slapped West German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi Party member, during a public meeting.

In 1971, the couple located and photographed three former senior SS officers tasked with Jewish deportations from occupied France—Kurt Lischka, Herbert Hagen, and Ernst Heinrichsohn—who were living quietly in West Germany. In March of that year their attempt to kidnap Lischka and take him to France for trial ended with him unconscious on the sidewalk and the Klarsfelds racing for the frontier. Even so, as Serge claims in his account of their effort, “a failed kidnap attempt could still be considered a success as long as it caused a big stir.” Their gamble paid off: the West German judicial authorities eventually acted on the files of incriminating documents prepared by Serge. In 1979 and 1980 the state court of Cologne sentenced Lischka, Hagen, and Heinrichsohn to prison sentences of, respectively, ten, twelve, and six years.

Meanwhile, in 1971 the Klarsfelds learned that the former SS officer Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” was living in South America. After World War II, American occupation authorities in Germany had employed him to root out Communists. In 1950 they had shielded him from French extradition efforts and helped him escape to Bolivia (for which the United States government apologized officially to France in 1983). Under the alias Klaus Altmann, Barbie advised the dictatorial regimes of Hugo Banzer, Luis Garcia Meza Tejada, and others in Bolivia on security matters, and engaged in arms and drug trading.

Beginning in January 1972 one or both Klarsfelds traveled repeatedly to Peru and Bolivia to locate Barbie and to demonstrate publicly against him. Their effort to kidnap him in 1973 failed. Only in 1983, after a democratic regime came to power in Bolivia, was Barbie arrested and turned over to French representatives in French Guiana. After lengthy judicial preliminaries concerning technical matters such as double indemnity and statutes of limitation, he was tried in Lyon in 1987 in the very building where he had tortured his victims. He was given a life sentence and died in prison in 1991.

The Klarsfelds were equally interested in French collaborators who were living and working quietly after light postwar sentences. Using dossiers assembled by the Klarsfelds, French prosecutors in 1979 indicted Jean Leguay, the Paris representative of Vichy police chief René Bousquet, for crimes against humanity. He was the first French citizen ever indicted on this charge. Bousquet’s indictment was delayed until 1991 as a result of administrative foot-dragging, not least by President François Mitterrand. Before either of these cases could reach trial Leguay died of natural causes (in 1989) and Bousquet was assassinated (in 1993).

Still determined to obtain judicial confirmation of Vichy French complicity in the murder of Jews, the Klarsfelds turned their attention to a more subordinate functionary, Maurice Papon, who had been the second-in-command in the prefecture of the Gironde from 1942 to 1944 and responsible for its Department of Jewish Affairs. After the war he escaped a collaboration trial by a lucky break and enjoyed a brilliant government career, serving as chief of police in Paris from 1958 to 1967 and later as a cabinet minister. Documentary evidence implicating Papon directly in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux was published in the Paris satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné as early as 1981. He was indicted in January 1983 and sentenced in the spring of 1998 to ten years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity.

The documentation that the Klarsfelds gathered with exemplary care and accuracy for these trials also served to commemorate the victims. In 1978 Serge Klarsfeld published Mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France, a mammoth register of every Jew deported from France—over 76,000 names, each one with birthplace, age, and nationality, organized by deportation convoy.1 The French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch noted that the Mémorial restored individual identities to people whom the Nazis had tried to reduce to numbers. A companion volume commemorated all the Jewish children deported from France to their deaths and included photographs of a remarkably high percentage of them.2 A further book recounted the arrest and deportation, ordered by Klaus Barbie in April 1944, of forty-four young inmates of an orphanage at Izieu (Ain).3 This was the principal crime for which Barbie was tried in 1987, since he could not be tried again on charges for which he had already been condemned to death in absentia twice by French courts, in 1947 and 1954.

Serge Klarsfeld’s dozen or so publications also include a succession of histories of the murder of the Jews of France, packed with original documents, starting in 1983 with Vichy-Auschwitz4 and culminating in 2001 with a monumental four-volume synthesis, La Shoah en France.5 The joint memoir Hunting the Truth, in which Beate and Serge speak in alternating chapters, helps us understand how these two otherwise ordinary individuals—a nonobservant Jewish Frenchman and a gentile German woman—came to devote themselves with such single-minded daring to the cause of achieving both justice and commemoration for the French victims of the Holocaust.

Serge Klarsfeld was marked forever at the age of eight by an excruciating drama in Nice during the night of September 30–October 1, 1943. Hidden behind a false partition with his mother and sister, he heard his father convince German police officers that there was no one else in the apartment and then be taken away. Serge never saw him again. His burden of grief and guilt intensified when he visited Auschwitz in 1965. There he underwent an experience that the original French text likens to a religious conversion. He decided to devote his life to finding out why his father and the others had died.

Beate, a middle-class German whose father had served in the Wehrmacht in World War II, was “hardened” as a child by the harsh conditions of postwar Germany. She resolved early on not to follow a “straight path.” Working as an au pair in Paris, she met Serge on a subway platform and eventually made his life’s cause her own. She wanted to give voice to “another Germany,” symbolized for her by the martyrdom of the anti-Nazi students Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were executed for resistance activities in 1943. Her fluency in German and his law degree, along with their uncommon capacities for work, theatrics, and risk-taking, made them a formidable team. They were eventually assisted by an organization of French Holocaust orphans, the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France, who were always ready for a demonstration. The Klarsfelds’ son Arno, also a lawyer, was involved as well. But their remarkable accomplishments were mostly their own.

Serge Klarsfeld’s historical studies of the Holocaust in France, whose main themes recur in Hunting the Truth, are marked by their judicial purpose. “Our goal was to compel the legal system to try these criminals,” he writes, and to prevent them from continuing to live normal lives. Rejecting the revolutionary violence of the Baader-Meinhof group in 1970s Germany and the empty vengeance of assassination, the Klarsfelds sought to be “psychologically violent.” They believed that mounting a forbidden demonstration and going to jail for it while war criminals went free called attention to their message.

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld outside the Pailharès cemetery on the day of the funeral of Xavier Vallat, the first Vichy commissioner for Jewish affairs, 1972

Unsurprisingly Serge gives particular attention to those he wishes to see prosecuted. For example, he makes René Bousquet personally responsible for the Vichy government’s agreement on July 2, 1942, to assist German efforts to deport foreign Jews, even from the Unoccupied Zone—a decision of such importance that it is difficult to imagine anyone making it other than Bousquet’s boss, Prime Minister and Interior Minister Pierre Laval.

Another feature of Serge Klarsfeld’s historiography is his reluctance to condemn the French public (upon whose support his strategy has depended). He attributes the survival of 75 percent of the Jewish population of France (a higher proportion than in any other Nazi-occupied country in Europe except Denmark and Italy) to “pressure put on Vichy by the Church and the French people.” The negative reaction of many French people to the deportations of Jews in 1942, especially to the mass arrests and separation of families by French police in the Unoccupied Zone on August 26–28, is well documented. So are the public protests of several (though far from all) bishops. Laval cited these pressures on September 2, 1942, when he asked the German authorities to stop giving him quotas to fill because he could not deliver Jews indefinitely “as in a five-and-dime store.”

But Klarsfeld’s sanguine view of French public opinion overlooks the willingness of many other French people to buy “aryanized” property, to serve in the Milice and the special anti-Jewish police force, to inform the police about Jewish families on the run, and to turn in hidden Jews for cash. He has always focused much more squarely on the Nazi-ordered deportations that began in the spring of 1942, and Vichy’s complicity in them, than on Vichy’s own autonomous anti-Jewish measures between 1940 and 1942. The couple did, however, picket the funeral of Xavier Vallat, the first Vichy commissioner for Jewish affairs in 1941–1942, who personified the regime’s anti-Semitic program.

The Klarsfelds also believe firmly in the “distinction between the guilty Germans and the others.” Serge remembered that even during the war his mother was exceptional in her refusal to judge all Germans, and was upset by the bombing of German cities. In the Cologne trial of Lischka, Hagen, and Heinrichsohn, Serge affirmed that “the Jews of France have never lost confidence in the German judicial system.”

The Klarsfelds’ success has been undeniable. Their shock tactics gained public acceptance and hastened legal action. They put a number of undoubted war criminals behind bars, and they commemorated by name every single Jewish adult and child deported from France. They also played a major part in establishing a national day in France to commemorate the most notorious round-up of Jews in Paris, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycle racetrack, on July 16, 1942. Successive French presidents, starting with Jacques Chirac in 1995, have spoken there on that date, and the Klarsfelds may well have understated their influence on the presidents’ words. It is hard to escape the traces of their work in Paris, where every school bears a plaque commemorating the Jewish children deported from France between 1942 and 1944 (many of them French citizens).

The Klarsfelds’ strategy of creating scandals in order to force the legal system to act might not have been equally effective under different conditions, however. A sufficient proportion of the population had to react with more sympathy than disapproval to their calculated infractions. A sense of limits helped their strategy. Getting several indubitable war criminals incarcerated and commemorating the dead did not threaten most German or French people. The Klarsfelds did not propose property adjustments, as a settlement with Palestinians or American Indians might involve. They accepted support from both East and West without offering political allegiance to either side and while criticizing both. The restitution of artworks did not concern them. And they were satisfied with modest pensions, from both the German and French governments, for the orphans of those killed in the Holocaust.

The Klarsfelds have not limited their militancy to Jewish victims. They have campaigned against other examples of discrimination and violence, defending Roma in Germany, Bosnians, and the “disappeared” of Argentina. They refer only twice, however, to the “Palestinian tragedy” (the term in the original French is the somewhat more ambiguous “drame palestinien”). The Palestinian issue arises when the Klarsfelds encounter some initially sympathetic intellectuals in Damascus, and it opens an “unbridgeable chasm.” In 1974, protesting the refusal of Arab states to recognize the State of Israel at an Arab summit in Rabat, Beate declared that “in the Palestine of the Balfour Declaration, there is a place for the Israeli state and for a Palestinian state.” The Klarsfelds are honorary Israeli citizens and the recipients of Israeli support (they thank Menachem Begin in particular). For Serge, the events of 1942 could not have occurred if an Israeli state had existed.

Serge is convinced that anti-Semitism is growing in France today. There are verifiably more anti-Jewish incidents than a generation ago, and since the notorious parade in Paris of January 26, 2014, with its cries of “Jews, you will not have France,” one can no longer suppose that these are limited to Muslim immigrants. But the Klarsfelds’ assertion that the present resembles the 1930s is debatable—no prominent intellectual or mainstream newspaper now publicly espouses the view that the presence of Jews is in itself harmful to France. Many of them, indeed, criticize the current prime minister and government of Israel, but the Klarsfelds err in equating such criticism of particular policies with the fundamentally different belief that the very presence of Jews is offensive.

The untold story behind this memoir is the evolution of French and German attitudes toward a greater readiness to prosecute wartime perpetrators of atrocities. Over the past generation, contrary to popular American opinion, the French have faced up to their past. Since the 1970s numerous younger historians, mostly French but also German, British, and American, have clearly exposed the aid given by the Vichy state to the German deportation project. The Klarsfelds take little notice of them, mentioning only two by name (including this reviewer), both dismissively.

The Klarsfelds’ memoir has only a handful of trivial errors, like the claim that their son Arno took a United States national bar exam (the English translation notes correctly that he passed bar exams in California and New York) or the mention of a Chicago newspaper supposedly called the Sun Tribune. There have also been substantial editorial cuts: the English translation is only about half as long as the original French text. Along with expendable detail, the English reader loses interesting adventures in Eastern Europe and some explanations of the legal issues that complicated the French and German trials. Hunting the Truth has the flaws of the Klarsfelds’ strengths: their passionate commitment, their certitude of doing justice, and the total self-confidence that allowed them to conduct a nearly superhuman lifelong crusade “against almost everyone.”

  1. 1

    The latest edition, this time in alphabetical order, is Mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France (Paris: Les fils et filles des déportés juifs de France, 2012).  

  2. 2

    French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial (New York University Press, 1996).  

  3. 3

    The Childen of Izieu: A Human Tragedy (Abrams, 1985). 

  4. 4

    Vichy-Auschwitz: le rôle de Vichy dans la solution finale de la question juive en France, two volumes, 1942 and 1943–1944 (Paris: Fayard, 1983 and 1985).  

  5. 5

    La Shoah en France, four volumes (Paris: Fayard, 2001).