Serge and Beate Klarsfeld have spent their lives hunting former Nazis, war criminals, and high-ranking officials of the Vichy regime. France-Amérique met with these “militants of memory,” 82 and 79 respectively, while they were promoting the English publication of their autobiography, Hunting the Truth.
“He was over 6 ft. 5 and had a revolver in his pocket. I was also armed. I could have killed him, but I decided to knock him out instead.” Speaking before an enraptured audience at the Consulate of France in New York, Serge Klarsfeld told the tale of how he tried to capture former Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka in Cologne, Germany, on March 22, 1971. The mission was a failure, but his daring founded the couple’s reputation. The world now knew the Klarsfelds would stop at nothing to capture fugitive Nazis. Some 15 years later, the pair located Klaus Barbie in Bolivia and brought him back to France to be judged for crimes against humanity.
The Klarsfelds’ battle against obscurantism is now continuing in the political sphere. The couple pledged their support to Emmanuel Macron during the last French presidential elections and is calling on Europe’s youth to make a stand against nationalism and xenophobia.
France-Amérique: You met in Paris on May 11, 1960 – the day Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents. Did this event inspire your shared lifework?
Serge Klarsfeld: We were impressed when he was captured, but we only joined the fight several years later. In 1965, I traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau where my father died. It was there I understood that I belonged to an exceptional generation. I had witnessed the Holocaust and the birth of a Jewish state.
Beate Klarsfeld: I spent 1966 and 1967 protesting the election of Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had been the head of Nazi propaganda during the war. My reaction was inspired by a pamphlet written by members of the German resistance, Hans and Sophie Scholl. It read “Once the war is over, the guilty must be severely punished in the interests of the future, so that no one will ever want to do something like this again.” It was not guilt for being German that drove me, but a moral and historical responsibility.
As part of your efforts, you did not hesitate to use disguise, to chain yourselves up, or even to slap a politician on one occasion. What led you to adopt this theatrical, irreverential form of activism?
Beate Klarsfeld: These spectacular actions enabled us to succeed where pamphlets and protests had failed. By insulting and slapping Kiesinger in the middle of a parliamentary session, I forced the Germans and the media to look into the affair and react. Getting arrested by the police also helped me connect with public opinion. The authorities couldn’t keep me in prison while war criminals were still running free.
Has your fight received support from any governments?
Serge Klarsfeld: We were alone at the time. We clashed with French president François Mitterrand on the topic of collaborators Maurice Papon and François Bousquet, but the subsequent presidents joined our cause. Jacques Chirac was the first to condemn the fantasy that France was united against the German occupation. “On that day, France committed the irreparable,” he said at the ceremony to commemorate the Vel d’Hiv Roundup on July 16, 1995.
This subject still appears to be divisive. During her last campaign, Marine Le Pen stated that France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv Roundup…
Serge Klarsfeld: We spent many of our trips to Europe discussing how dangerous it would be if Marine Le Pen won the French presidential elections. We also took out advertising pages in newspapers to encourage French people to vote for Emmanuel Macron. Most of the Nazi criminals are dead, but our fight is now focused on negationists, revisionists, and extremists. Our efforts are continuing in the political sphere.
You are still quick to say that the current situation is worse for Jews than it was during the Occupation.
Serge Klarsfeld: Different forms of antisemitism exist everywhere. The world has changed, but Europe is still threatened by xenophobia and the fear of mass immigration. The door has been flung wide open for demagogues looking to unite everyone with an axe to grind. European leaders must join forces to combat this new crisis. If they don’t, we may return to a time when Europe was divided by borders. The hatred between the Serbians and the Croats and between the Germans and the Polish is still there. We live in a very fragile harmony.
Hunting the Truth by Serge and Beatle Klarsfeld, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018. 464 pages. 30 dollars.