Friday, 14 August 2015
The last Nazi Hunters: An interview with France’s heroes
By Michael Freedland, JC
Tireless workers: Serge and Beate Klarsfeld with their son, Arno, in Paris, 1994 (Picture: Getty)
It seemed not long ago that the shutters were about to come down on what was probably the world's strangest family business. A firm that could have been listed in trade directories as "Nazi hunters". But the doors are still open. In Paris today the Klarsfeld family, mother, father and son, are as active as ever.
They concede that their hunting days are over. Yet as visitors to their virtually never-closed office have discovered, their task now is documenting the Holocaust in France.
"We are always working and always together," says 79-year-old Serge Klarsfeld, who can claim to have brought at least 10 war criminals and French collaborators to justice. As his wife, Beate, four years his junior, puts it: "We sit together. We work together, we play together." To which the usually taciturn Serge added: "And we sleep together. Yes, we are a family business."
A family business that over the years has involved them hiding under assumed names, having their car blown up, serving prison sentences and, above all, seeing Nazis they have trapped dying in jail. Names like the man known as the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie,who organised the killing of the Jewish population of his city. Also there were the men responsible for the round-up of 140,000 Paris Jews, Maurice Papon and Rene Bousquet, head of Jewish affairs in the collaborationist Petain government.
It all began when the lawyer Serge was eight years old. It was in 1943 that he, along with his mother and sister hiding behind a false wall in their home in Nice, saw and heard his father being arrested by French police. He was taken to Auschwitz. The family never saw him again.
Serge is Jewish. But his wife is not. She is German - and so involved in her native country that three years ago she ran for election as its president. Go into her psyche and you realise that her motives are pretty unique. Her father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht. To her, it is a gesture of atonement. She has carried the burden into that family business of theirs - finding men who she believed defiled the name of Germany. And as she told me, sitting in the office she and Serge share within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe, their son, Arno, has been an integral part of the "firm" since she carried him at a demonstration when he was three years old.
Hallachically, Arno is not Jewish. But he holds joint French and Israeli citizenship and served in the Israeli army. It is not, however, the reason he became famous. Carla Bruni, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, was once his girlfriend. Even then, the work continued - his father did the backroom legal jobs and Arno pleaded their cases in court, most notably that of Maurice Papon, who as a result was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
As for now, "We are very busy," says Serge. "I don't know how we have time to do it, but Beate and I have both produced our memoirs."
Memoirs and memories. For that is what the family business is now trading . It's a different kind of action, telling the story of the sufferings, the deportations and the killing of Jews in his country. Beate is always by his side, researching, campaigning, working for the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France, an organisation they founded. Of course, Serge is one of those sons.
Inevitably, you want to talk to Beate about her father, a Protestant, who died in 1955. ''Yes. He was a soldier in the Wehrmacht. But he was not a member of the Nazi party," she emphasises, but she knows he would not have approved of her work.
Other people have - and more so. Back in 1986, her life was turned into a film starring Farrah Fawcett. This is where romance comes into the story. Beate was an au pair working in Paris and first met Serge standing on a Metro station platform in 1963. Before long, they married and vowed to take on the job of bringing Nazis to justice, wherever they were - particularly still in Germany. Soon afterwards she broke up a session of the old West German parliament, the Bundestag, to shout at the then chancellor, Georg Kiessinger: "You're a Nazi." Later, she disrupted a political rally and slapped his face. She was sentenced to four months in prison.
Even that was small German beer. She and Serge spent years trying to find Alois Brunner. His was a name to be cursed. The Klarsfelds were convinced that Brunner was guilty not just of the murder of 43,000 Paris Jews but also of 66,000 of their co-religionists in Salonica and 13,000 in what is now Slovakia. They discovered that Brunner, who had long been on the run, was living under the name of Georg Fischer at an address in Damascus and working for the Syrian government. She recalled: "I borrowed our maid's passport, changed my hairstyle to look like hers and got into Syria. In Damascus, I found his phone number. I pretended to be a Nazi. I said that he ought to leave his apartment because the Israelis knew where he was. He said: 'Thank you, my dear.' That was all I needed to hear. It proved that he was exactly whom we suspected him to be."
Sadly for the Klarsfelds and the heirs of Brunner's victims, he took her at her word, left the flat and escaped before the men from Mossad, who were in on the plan, could go into action. Beate was arrested and jailed for a year. But she was released after three months.
Klaus Barbie remains their top achievement. Serge went to Bolivia where Barbie was living. Only this month an investigation by the government there revealed he organised the killing of Che Guevara and was the country's main drug baron.Unmasked by Serge he was taken back to France and sentenced to life in prison, where he actually did die.
The Klarsfelds were the ones who tracked down Rene Bousquet, to many the most heinous of all. His victims were children - although his reputation as the torturer of women was also pretty extensive. The children lived in the quiet village of Izieu and a tip led Bousquet to order the French police to break into houses where they had, hitherto, been saved by kind local people. Sadly for the Nazi hunters, Bousquet was assassinated just as he was about to be brought to trial.
The couple have not always been favourites of government regimes. Both husband and wife have served jail sentences, he in South America - where he was tracing more Nazis - and both of them in Germany. I asked Beate if she was ever afraid. "Yes," she says hesitatingly. "I could have been killed [by neo-Nazis]" Was she prepared to be taken to jail? "Well, I didn't take my suitcase." That suitcase could easily have been the one in their car, which in July 1979 was bombed near their home. The Nazi organisation Odessa was suspected.
Eventually, the couple's work was recognised by the French government. Both have been awarded the Legion d'Honneur.
Apart from their family, the Klarsfelds' own proudest achievement was helping to improve relations between France and Germany by getting laws on extradition changed.
When the books are put aside, they are turning their attention to French Jewry's problems today. Serge makes no bones about deciding that if Marine le Pen were to win the next presidential election, they will book a couple of plane tickets. "I don't trust her," he told me. "How could she not be an antisemite?"
If anyone knows about antisemitism it is the Klarsfelds.