Klarsfeld, Beate and Klarsfeld, Serge. “Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; (Translation edition), 2018.
A Dual Autobiography
For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld and I always hoped that one day I would meet them and tell them so. It never happened. For 50 years the Klarsfelds have devoted their lives to bringing Nazis to justice.
They were born on opposite sides of the Second World War: Beate grew up in the ruins of a defeated Weimar Germany; Serge was a Jewish boy in France, who was hiding in a cupboard when his father was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. They met on the Paris Métro and fell in love. What made them famous was Beate slapping the face of the West German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi.
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld have hunted, confronted, prosecuted, and exposed Nazi war criminals all over the world. They tracked down the notorious torturer Klaus Barbie in Bolivia and attempted kidnapping the former Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka on the streets of Cologne. They have gone to prison for their beliefs and have risked their lives protesting anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain, South America and in the Middle East. “They have been insulted and exalted, assaulted and heralded; they’ve received honors from presidents and letter bombs from neo-Nazis”. Yet they have not stopped fighting relentlessly not only for the memory of all those who died in the Holocaust but also for modern-day victims of genocide and discrimination across the world. They have done it all while raising their children and sustaining their marriage.
Their autobiography “Hunting the Truth” is a major memoir now available in English. It is written in their alternating voices and they tell the thrilling story of a lifetime dedicated to combating evil. The Klarsfelds have maintained a home in Paris and remain to this day devoted to and inspired by each other. Their book is one of historical importance.
Thy were amateurs assuming investigative duties in search of long-overdue justice and they have demonstrated that there’s no moral compromise with history. This is a story of persistence and staying true to beliefs even though the road to justice and hard to navigate and many take a long time. will remind all readers that although it may be slow, justice will triumph. Through their careful research, they provided for the identification and capture of Nazis and others responsible for anti-Semitic crimes. They will be remembered for their emphasis on using the legal system to try the perpetrators of the Holocaust and to prevent their rehabilitation as honored citizens.”
Beate Klarsfeld had been saying for weeks that she would slap the chancellor. Twenty-five years earlier Kurt Georg Kiesinger had been Hitler’s assistant director of foreign propaganda in France and now was Germany’s head of state. In Beate Klarsfeld’s mind this should have been a major scandal. On Nov. 7, 1968, the 29-year-old Klarsfeld rushed across the stage during a meeting of Kiesinger’s Christian Democratic party and slapped the surprised chancellor across the face. It was a slap heard around the world.
With that slap Klarsfeld actually changed the nation’s mind about whether an ex-Nazi should be the head of their government. It did not take long when
Kiesinger’s speeches were being hissed at and there were chants of “Kiesinger Nazi.” In September 1969 his party lost the election to the rival Social Democrats. The new chancellor was Willy Brandt, who had left Germany when Hitler took power. The next year Brandt would fall to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw ghetto fighters heralding a new era in German history; a time when reckoning with the Nazi past was not only permitted but mandatory. Beate Klarsfeld was more responsible than anyone for this change in German public life. She received a four-month suspended sentence for her attack on the chancellor and this was a tacit recognition that her slap carried moral force.
For Beate and her husband, Serge, hitting Kiesinger was the beginning of a career of fifty years as political activists and this is what we read about in their memoir. Beate alternates chapters with Serge so what we really get is a heartfelt dialogue between the two. Not only are the Klarsfelds Nazi hunters, they are also committed to bringing German and French war criminals to justice. They have campaigned against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and have worked to stop massacres elsewhere in the world.
It was Serge who brought Beate into a new existence and Beate suddenly understood “that it was not only difficult but thrilling to be German after Nazism.” Her fight against Kiesinger embodied a new idea, that Germans were responsible for the Nazi past. They thought Nazism was something that had happened to them, but instead, it was something they had done. Beate told Germans that owning the Nazi crimes was not a mere burden but rather an awakening to the truth.
After Kiesinger, Beate rapidly widened her campaign against anti-Semitism to include the Eastern Bloc. Serge quit his job as a lawyer at Credit Lyonnais in 1970 so he could work on the dossiers of Nazi war criminals living in Germany even though French courts had condemned them in absentia. Chief among these men was Kurt Lischka, the head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs Department in France. Lischka had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a French court, but he lived openly in Cologne, a wealthy industrialist whose name was in the phone book. The Klarsfelds began stalking him and filmed him outside his house and gave the footage to television news. They tried, and failed, to abduct him and carry him across the border to France. The Franco-German legal agreement, now known as the Lex Klarsfeld, was finally ratified in February 1975, so that Nazis with the blood of French Jews on their hands could, at last, be put on trial.
Golda Meir announced that “to Israel and the Jewish people Beate Klarsfeld is a ‘Woman of Valor’—a title that has no peer in Jewish tradition.” The Klarsfelds became frequent visitors to Israel, sometimes guests of Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, at kibbutz Dalia.
The Klarsfelds’ most famous victory was the extradition of Klaus Barbie from Bolivia to Germany to stand trial. Barbie was the “butcher of Lyon,” who tortured and killed many prisoners by breaking their bones, setting dogs on them, and other barbaric methods. Barbie also led the raid on the orphanage at Izieu, where in 1944, 44 Jewish children were sent to their deaths. Serge’s research revealed that Barbie was living as Klaus Altmann in La Paz, Bolivia and Barbie’s existence was no secret to the West’s spy networks, which cared nothing about bringing him to justice. The U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps had helped Barbie escape to Bolivia after the war, and he was employed by German intelligence as an agent in the 1960s.
After years of hard work by the Klarsfelds, Barbie was brought to France in 1983, and four years later received life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. The Klarsfelds fought against the French tendency to make excuses for the Vichy regime. Vichy was often thought of as a necessary compromise with Nazism and it had long been known that Pierre Laval, Vichy’s second in command, rounded up Jewish children on his own initiative, rather than being forced by the Nazis. But only recently did a French president, François Hollande, declare that the deportation of Jews to their deaths was “a crime committed in France, by France.”
The Klarsfelds’ argued that Germans should feel guilty for remaining silent about the Nazi past and they provided a clear pathway to reparation: bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. retained their moral compass. Unlike many German leftists, the Klarsfelds were disgusted by the Soviet Union’s plan to eliminate the state of Israel by arming its Arab enemies.
The Klarsfelds have been honored with Israeli citizenship, along with their son, Arno, who has carried on the couples’ work by prosecuting Maurice Papon for helping to round up the Jews of Bordeaux. Beate Klarsfeld has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and for the German presidency.
Together, the Klarsfelds testify that today in Europe there is blind nationalism and anti-Semitism of the left and the right, but also a willingness to learn from the past and to stand for decency. They jut need someone who is willing to give another slap when needed.