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The Singular Life Of The Klarsfelds, Husband-And-Wife Nazi Hunters

The French son of an Auschwitz victim and German daughter of a Hitler supporter spent their lives confronting Nazi crimes, from capturing Klaus Barbie to a symbolic slap of a German Chancellor.

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld in 1975
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld in 1975
Aude Lancelin

PARIS — Beate and Serge Klarsfeld are people of principle. Despite leading lives that seem to be drawn from the pages of a novel, hunting down Nazis from Cologne to La Paz, they didn't want their experiences turned into an epic tale. Publishers had been asking them to write their memoirs for years. But until recently they had always refused, preferring deeds to words.

The couple's book, titled simply Mémoires, was published last month in French. A perfect mixture of German rigor and of the close ties that bind Jewish families touched by the Holocaust, they devoted their lives to activism and to their two children. Their son Arno Klarsfeld, a member of France's Council of State, called them twice during the interview, even though he lives just upstairs.

The inseparable couple first met on the Paris Metro on May 11, 1960, the day former Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires. Serge was a young French Jew whose deported father died in Auschwitz. Beate was the daughter of German parents, who, like many others, showed no remorse for having voted for Hitler before the war. "My parents gave no thought to the victims," she says.

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Four years older than his wife-to-be, Serge, then a student, encouraged Beate, an au pair, to "poetize her life," to find her way. The girl chose to become a woman of action. She did so not to fight "against" her own country, as she's sometimes been accused, but actually "for it," so that a dignified Germany could emerge, one with the courage to truly face its past.

In the 1960s, this was still far from being the case. Prosperity and silence were covering up the Nazi crimes. "We lost a war. Now we need to work." Such was the frame of mind in Germany, as Beate describes it.

Contrary to Hollywood's portrayals, most of the former Nazis at the time weren't hiding in faraway Patagonia, jumping with a start every time their doors creaked open. Most office criminals who had been posted in France during the occupation were leading peaceful careers in the German administration and were in the phone book.

Such was the case with Heinz Röthke, head of Jewish affairs for the Gestapo, who died in 1968 without spending a single hour in prison. The same was true for Kurt Kischka, who signed the executive order for the Vel d’Hiv Roundup in Paris that saw nearly 14,000 Jews arrested, yet lived for a long time under his real name in Cologne — until the Klarsfelds managed to bring him to justice.

Beate drew inspiration from the White Rose resistance group, whose young members were beheaded in Munich in 1943 for having distributed anti-Nazi leaflets. The last text written by Sophie and Hans Scholl, siblings who founded the student group, became Beate's unequivocal mantra.

"Once the war is over, we will need out of concern for the future to heavily punish those responsible, to put anybody off doing the same ever again," the Scholls wrote. "Let's also not forget this regime's little bastards, remember their names, so that not one of them escapes!"

"Hunter of Jewish souls"

Germany's policy of forgetting was particularly apparent when, in 1966, it chose former Nazi Kurt Georg Kiesinger as chancellor. Two years later, Beate famously slapped him in the face, an "attack," as he called it, that happened in public for the entire world to see. It was the first of many bold actions the Klarsfelds would take.

The pair's priority targets soon became the Germans who led the French police forces during the occupation. Their stunts were often successful. A shining example was the arrest in Bolivia of Klaus Barbie, the so-called "Butcher of Lyon." Sometimes their actions bordered on the burlesque, as with the failed kidnapping of former SS Kurt Lischka.

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Beate Klarsfeld à la Bebelplatz de Berlin Photo: indeedous

These public endeavors were complemented by Serge Klarsfeld’s historical work to bring back to life the memory of the 80,000 French Jews killed during the war. Even more than "Nazi hunter," he now prefers to define himself as a "hunter of Jewish souls that disappeared in the Holocaust."

Serge's exhaustive research led him to write the impressive Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, which was published in 1978. "We knew, and yet we didn't know anything," philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur after reading the seminal work.

In the 1980s, after they had targeted the German silent partners, the Klarsfelds set about tracking down the French collaborators and ruining their calm retirement by the fireplace. That's how Jean Leguay, former deputy head of the Vichy police, became the first French person sentenced for crimes against humanity. Others followed, including Maurice Papon in 1998. Papon was found guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity. The trial featured an appearance by Serge and Beate’s son, Arno, who sent the courtroom and gossip columnists into a tizzy by arriving in Rollerblades.

In their book, Beate shares what may have been the secret of their success: They never fought just to "make themselves feel better, but always to win," she writes.

The Klarsfelds' journey, like the works of filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, marks a decisive step in the history of Jewish heroism. The couple refused to live as slaves. They looked their adversaries in the eye, forcing the torturers to face what they'd done.

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