Hunt­ing the Truth: Mem­oirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld

Beate Klars­feld, Serge Klars­feld; Sam Tay­lor, trans.
  • Review
By – April 18, 2018

Anti-semi­tism,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, is not an opin­ion. It is a crime.” Such a res­olute view, quot­ed by Beate and Serge Klars­feld, has spurred their fear­less pur­suit of Nazi war crim­i­nals for more than fifty years. Recent­ly trans­lat­ed from the French by Sam Tay­lor, Hunt­ing the Truth presents a riv­et­ing record of their ded­i­cat­ed research and action since the 1960s. Now grand­par­ents at 79 and 82, Beate and Serge have con­tin­u­al­ly sac­ri­ficed their own com­fort and secu­ri­ty to make sure that for­mer Nazis real­ize that they [are] not safe any­more.” The Klars­felds admit to reser­va­tions about com­plet­ing this exten­sive auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal project. Indeed, in 2012 they asked their edi­tor to be released from the con­tract; they felt reluc­tant to revis­it their past with­out pos­sess­ing greater tal­ent for sto­ry­telling.” How­ev­er, with the mem­oir accom­plished, they have no regrets. Pre­sent­ed as alter­nat­ing first per­son accounts, the result­ing vol­ume could ben­e­fit from fur­ther shap­ing and edit­ing. How­ev­er, it will sure­ly allow their descen­dants and read­ers to know if not who [the Klars­felds] were, at least what [they] did.”

In fact, we do learn about the per­son­al back­ground of the Klars­felds. Beate, raised in Berlin as an Evan­gel­i­cal Luther­an, had lost her faith in God by the time she emi­grat­ed to France in 1960 at the age of 21. Serge, whose father per­ished in Auschwitz in 1943, did not inher­it a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty through reli­gion or cul­ture. In truth, he is not a believ­er,” but his is a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty defined by the Holo­caust and an unswerv­ing attach­ment to the Jew­ish state of Israel.” He says, I do not want to pass on my Judaism, since I mar­ried a non-Jew.” As both look back on ear­ly for­ma­tive influ­ences, they give spe­cial men­tion to the White Rose move­ment led by the Catholic sib­lings Hans and Sophie Scholl. Arrest­ed for dis­trib­ut­ing anti-Nazi leaflets at their uni­ver­si­ty in Munich, they and their asso­ciates were giv­en show tri­als and then exe­cut­ed in 1943. As Beate says, the Scholls were dri­ven to act, to give their lives,” [and] I saw myself in them.” For his part, Serge sees the Scholls’ pub­lic dis­sent as doomed to fail­ure, but it proved to be a fer­tile fail­ure,” which forged the exis­tence of anoth­er Ger­many.” To emu­late the Scholls’ hero­ic exam­ple, Beate adds, one must rec­og­nize before act­ing that suc­cess is not a cer­tain­ty.” Instead, the essen­tial point is to try coura­geous­ly to fol­low your con­science, with your eyes wide open.”

The Klars­felds met on the Paris Metro on May 11, 1960, the very day that the Israelis kid­napped Adolph Eich­mann in far­away Buenos Aires. The epit­o­me of the Nazi crim­i­nal,” Beate writes, is the one who fled to the ends of the earth to avoid cap­ture.” How­ev­er, their even­tu­al focus would main­ly be on those Nazi crim­i­nals who had remained in Europe, espe­cial­ly those who had sly­ly reen­tered Ger­man civ­il soci­ety after serv­ing the Nazi cause in France. The Klars­felds’ relent­less pur­suit of the Butch­er of Lyon,” Klaus Bar­bie, in remote Bolivia, was dis­tinc­tive but atyp­i­cal. Their usu­al tar­gets were those for­mer desk killers”: ex-Nazi bureau­crats in occu­pied France, who had been liv­ing nor­mal” Ger­man lives since the war’s con­clu­sion. Decades of method­i­cal inquiry and pur­suit emp­tied out a ver­i­ta­ble bar­rel of hid­ing snakes, from Kurt Kiesinger to Her­bert Hagen and Josef Schwamm­berg­er. In lat­er years, they helped to unmask the Nazi past of for­mer UN Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al and Aus­tri­an pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Kurt Wald­heim. The couple’s way of act­ing scan­dalous­ly to make peo­ple see the real scan­dal” was vivid­ly dis­played in Beate’s pub­lic sham­ing of super-assim­i­lat­ed ex-Nazi and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Kurt Kiesinger in 1968. Just min­utes after this dra­mat­ic slap,” Serge was already fir­ing off a press release “ that clear­ly con­tex­tu­al­ized the act.” Added to their bold actions and pub­lic­i­ty skills, the mem­oir reflects the couple’s tire­less ded­i­ca­tion to detailed inves­ti­ga­tion and research. Serge, and lat­er their son, Arno, both used their legal train­ing in this phase of the Klars­felds’ work. Well before the advent of dig­i­tal media, the Klars­felds were por­ing over the micro­fiche every night,” and com­pil­ing pre­cise dossiers” to doc­u­ment the crimes of their Nazi targets.

The cre­ation of the FFD­JF, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Sons and Daugh­ters of Jews Deport­ed from France, has been the foun­da­tion for the Klars­felds’ life work. For Serge, the 1978 pub­li­ca­tion of their 656-page book, Memo­r­i­al to the Jews Deport­ed from France,” is per­haps their most impor­tant act. Cit­ing their rig­or in doc­u­ment­ing the iden­ti­ties of the 80,000 Jews deport­ed from France, one French com­men­ta­tor hon­ored the Klars­felds as the knights of benign mem­o­ry.” This book also helped them secure a life­time annu­ity for the orphans of the Jew­ish-French depor­tees. Their lat­er work aid­ed in the con­vic­tion of the Holo­caust denier Robert Fau­ris­son, and the recent defeat of the far-right pres­i­den­tial con­tender and Nation­al Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In appre­ci­a­tion of their effec­tive sup­port, French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron respond­ed with a per­son­al let­ter of grat­i­tude. Anti-semit­ic hatred, in Sartre’s for­mu­la­tion, is first of all a pas­sion.” By pre­sent­ing their many years of strug­gle for a great, just cause,” the Klars­felds’ mem­oir affirms a far high­er and more endur­ing passion.

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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