This introduction to the Klarsfelds is taken from the Foreword to French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial (New York: NYU Press, 1996). It was written by American journalist Peter Hellman, who has reported on the Klarsfelds since 1979.
Serge Klarsfeld and his wife Beate are best known to the public as Nazi hunters. It's a term they're not fully comfortable with, since the restoration of the names and faces of the victims is more important to them than the punishment of the murderers. Still, over three decades, the actions of this couple against Nazi criminals, focusing on the "desk murderers" rather than on lowly camp guards, have been astonishingly effective. As private citizens, they wield neither political nor police power, depending instead on dramatic acts of moral symbolism to get results. The first and purest example was Beate's public slapping of West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger in 1968. That slap was a reproach to the presumption that a man who had been an ambitious Nazi propagandist should lead a new, democratic Germany. Kiesinger lost the 1969 general election to Willy Brandt, who had been an opponent of and a refugee from Nazism.
In the early 1970s, the Klarsfelds focused global attention on Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyons," then in his comfortable Bolivian hiding place. They persevered in a lonely, ten-year campaign to bring Barbie to justice, culminating in his dramatic extradition to France in 1983 and his trial four years later. Another long effort finally brought the trial in Cologne in 1979 of Kurt Lischka, Ernst Heinrichsohn, and Herbert Hagen, three Nazis responsible for the deportation of Jews from Occupied France, who, until then, had been living free and unpunished in postwar Germany. The couple also carried out on-site campaigns against such Nazi criminals as Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas chamber, who had found refuge in Chile, and Alo‹s Brunner, a trusted henchman of Adolf Eichmann, hosted by Syria. Brunner was another key figure in the deportation of Jews--especially children--from France. He also headed a special unit which arrested Jews in Nice in 1943. Among those arrested was Serge's father, Arno, who offered himself for arrest in order to save his wife and children who were hiding behind a false panel in their apartment. He was murdered in Auschwitz.
No less astonishing than their record against Nazi criminals is the fact that, despite putting their bodies on the line in many unfriendly venues, including Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, and Khomeini's Iran, the Klarsfelds are still alive to tell the tale. The only casualty has been their car-destroyed by a bomb in its garage in 1979.
While the Klarsfelds often act alone, they created in 1979, on the eve of the Cologne trial, the Fils et Filles des Déportées Juifs de France--FFDJF, the Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. This organization filled a special train which carried them to the trial at Cologne, where they marched proudly, the first Jews to do so in Germany since Hitler rose to power. Another special train organized by the FFDJF marked the 50th anniversary of the first deportation convoy from France by duplicating its route to Auschwitz. The organization also created a striking memorial to the French Holocaust at Roglit, Israel, overlooking the valley where David slew Goliath. A long, slightly curving wall on which are inscribed the 76,000 names of the victims, the memorial is a conceptual precursor to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. A different kind of memorial is the plaque at the Hotel du Parc in Vichy, headquarters of the Vichy régime (1940-44). No other public recognition is to be found in this pleasant resort town recalling the "crimes and dishonor" of Vichy.
Understandably, given the high drama of the Klarsfelds' actions against Nazi criminals, their parallel and equally astonishing publication record is not so well known by the public. Yet, for over 30 years, Serge Klarsfeld has written or produced dozens of original books, meant to be tools of explication, evidence, and memory. Some document Nazi crimes, some point fingers elsewhere by revealing the contents of hard-won official files. A prime example is Vichy-Auschwitz (written by Klarsfeld and published in 1983 and 1985 in two volumes by Fayard in Paris), which tells the story, with meticulous documentation, of the role of the Vichy government in the Final Solution in France. The Calendrier de la Persécution des Juifs de France (written, edited, and published in 1993 by Klarsfeld in France) is a deceptively compact, yellow-covered tome in which the day-by-day recounting of the Holocaust as it unfolded in France becomes a universe of suffering even before the transport of the victims to Auschwitz. One book which manages to stand out even within the Klarsfeld canon is Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers (published in 1989 by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation in New York). This oversized work, reprinting German blueprints and correspondence concerning the construction of the killing apparatus, counters the perennial lie that the gas chambers were not big enough to carry out genocide. Author Jean-Claude Pressac, once a Holocaust doubter, was converted to a believer after several study trips to Auschwitz.
In the autumn of 1979, I flew to Paris, on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, to cover the impending trial in Cologne of those three top Nazis who'd been active in France. After the overnight trip from New York, I'd hoped to adjourn with the Klarsfelds to a café for a chat over a restorative cup of coffee. But, arriving at the couple's office, then on the Rue de Rivoli, I found a more pressing task at hand: Amidst much bustle, Beate was preparing to hand deliver to Paris newspapers copies of a large book, about the size of the Manhattan telephone directory, that was fresh off the press, Le Mémorial de la Déportation des Juifs de France ("The Memorial to Jews Deported from France"). Seeing Beate weighed down by her load, I could no longer think of lounging in a café and instead offered to help her on her delivery rounds while Serge remained behind, preparing for the trial. Only later did I examine the Mémorial. What I saw, even after having perused numerous Holocaust narratives, had a revelatory impact. Here were the 76,000 names of Auschwitz-bound Jews, listed by train convoy and identified by last name, first name, date of birth, place of birth, and nationality (or lack of one if stripped of citizenship). Whole families, from grandparents born in Queen Victoria's prime to babies born behind French barbed wire, appeared on the lists. Some of these families were deported together. Others were split so that children separated from their parents were forced to make the horrific journey uncomforted by loved ones. "In spite of our own domestic happiness," Serge wrote in his preface, "we often wept when confronted with the images which loomed from these lists full of children's names."
Though primarily meant as an act of "piety and homage" to the victims, the Mémorial also functioned as legal evidence. Its text explicated the deportation machinery in France, named its German operatives and French collaborators, and catalogued their official telegrams and internal memos. Introduced at the Cologne trial, this book was consulted by the judges and helped to convict the three defendants, Lischka, Heinrichson, and Hagen. Long after assuming they were quite literally "home free," this trio went to jail.
The Mémorial, published in an American edition in 1983 and now out of print, seemed definitive to all but Serge Klarsfeld. He resisted requests to reprint it, choosing, rather, to build on it and further advance the restoration of memory. The result is the book in your hands. The world knows the face of Anne Frank. Here are the faces of 2,500 children, under age 18, all but a tiny fraction soon to be killed. There's a depthless quality to the children's memorial. No matter how often I open it to a random page, it seems there's always a new face, solemn or smiling, that I'd missed, as from a luminous spring burbling up from a dark source. Each time, with the same fragile optimism, I check convoy number, hoping it's a later one from 1944, allowing for the slight chance that the child survived if he or she was old enough to be selected for slave labor. Far more likely, the convoy falls in that dreadful summer and fall of 1942, following the mass arrests of Jews in both Occupied and Vichy France, when more than half these children were deported. From that time, almost no child survived.
A cold silence once enveloped Vichy's crimes. It would be broken, Serge Klarsfeld once predicted, by the actions of the sons and daughters of deportees. That silence, early on, was total. Consider the publication in 1947 of Our Vichy Gamble, by William Langer, Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. In this major study of the U.S.-Vichy diplomacy, not a single mention is made of the state's anti-Jewish laws, arrests, incarceration, and delivery of victims for deportation, nor even that Vichy had a commissioner of Jewish Affairs. Jews do not exist in Langer's portrayal of Vichy. It is a long way from that vacuum to the publication of this book.
It is invidious to single out any one image from the children's memorial for attention. Still, I must point to one that strikingly shows how incomprehensible was the prospect of Holocaust to Jews in France. It's the Kogan family's 1941 New Year's card from Paris, featuring a photo of baby Marceline and offering the wish that 1942 will be a "good year." How to imagine that it would be the year in which Marceline and her mother would be arrested, deported, and murdered at Auschwitz?
The Klarsfelds have always placed an emphasis on the deported children. To me, that emphasis was puzzling. Why single out any group when all met the same end? Then I became a parent, as the Klarsfelds already were, and I had my answer, its full force coming at an unexpected moment that recalled what Magda Bogin, who translated some of these pages, has referred to as our "interchangeability" with the victims. It was on a summer day in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I was strolling with my three-year-old daughter. We were two tourists among many, gazing into shop windows. Thinking that she had her eye on me, I stepped into a shop for a moment which must have turned into two or three. Suddenly, I heard a shriek from the sidewalk. I dashed out to see my daughter's face filled with the fear of having been deserted in a strange town. At that instant, I had a flash of an image of her, separated from parents and uncomforted, first in the filth of Drancy, then in a boxcar on the way to Auschwitz: the actual fate of 11,000 children arrested in France. Then I understood, not with my intellect but with a father's protective instinct, why the Klarsfelds had always emphasized the children.
As parents, we observe simultaneously our own aging and our children's blossoming. Our expectations for ourselves are gradually transferred to them. If we could put our bodies in the way of their pain, even trading our lives for theirs, we would do so--as Arno Klarsfeld had done. The parents of the children in this book could not do that. They were powerless even to preserve the memory of their children. This memorial book full of innocent faces accomplishes that sacred task.
New York, October 1996
This is a year of signal events in the lives of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.
On March 2, 2001, Alois Brunner was convicted, in absentia, of crimes against humanity in the Palais de Justice in Paris. Brunner, the pitiless right hand of Adolf Eichmann, deported 130,000 Jews from Austria, Germany, France, Greece, and Czechloslovakia. In Nice, he had directed a commando unit of Austrian SS men who arrested Jews in the late summer and fall of 1943. Among them was Arno Klarsfeld, Serge's father. In 1954 and 1956, Brunner was sentenced to death, in absentia, by military tribunals in Marseilles and Paris for war crimes. In 1982, Klarsfeld lodged a a new charge of crimes against humanity against Brunner, once again centered on children.
Between July 21-25, 1944, Brunner directed the arrests of 345 children who were in Jewish orphanages in and around Paris. In most cases, their parents had been previously been deported. Brunner's zeal was such that he arrested these children as the Allies were advancing on Paris. He deported his victims on July 31, 1944, aboard the last convoy to leave Drancy for Auschwitz, only three weeks before the liberation of Paris Two hundred and eighty-four of them were murdered at Auschwitz. The youngest victim, Henri Lindenbaum, was two years old when he was murdered along with his sister, Charlotte, age three.
Brunner had been hosted by Syria since the 1950's. In 1962, he lost his left eye to a letter bomb in Damascus. At the time, he was plotting to take Jewish hostages to trade for his old boss Eichmann, who was awaiting execution by the noose in Jerusalem. Brunner was then forgotten until Serge and Beate set out to relocate him in 1979. They hired private detectives in Vienna who were able to gathered information about Brunner at the home of his daughter, Irene, including his unlisted phone number.
Beate called the number from Paris. Masquarading as the daughter of an old friend of Brunner, she was able to trick Brunner into admitting his identity, even though he had long used the alias of Dr. Georg Fischer. A few months later, "Fischer" received a package at the Damascus post office bearing the return address of a Viennese apothacary from which he ordered herbal medicines. The package exploded, tearing off four fingers from Brunner's left hand. This attack was a direct result of information gleaned by the Klarsfelds in Vienna. It was a physical way to let Brunner know that Jews he had not caught had not forgotten him and would not let him rest.
As a result of Serge's documentation of Brunner's arrest of the 345 children in July, 1944, a French court charged him with crimes against humanity in 1982. Serge and Beate each traveled twice ti Damascus, over the coming years, to demand that the Syrian government expell Brunner to justice. Each time, Syria insisted that no such person was in their country--even in the face of news reports, including photographs , of Brunner, who gloated that he had killed so much "Jewish garbage."
The one day trial of Brunner finally occurred in the Cour d'Assises on March 2, 2001. On the bench of three judge panel were 52 volumes of documents comprising tens of thousands of pages. Serge, his lawyer-childen Arno and Lida, all took part in the proceedings while Beate remained in the audience that was packed with members of their organization, the Sons & Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France. Brunner was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He would now be 89 years old, but it is unknown if he remains alive. His daughter refuses to comment.
In their Own
The Chronology, Publications, and Press Archives tell of the work and accomplishments of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. Here is what they themselves say of their work:
When we act, it is in the lion's den, so to speak, and not, like some who pretend to be active, in comfortable conference rooms facing friendly audiences, giving polite speeches. Our 'friendly audiences' have been Assad, the Hezbolah, extreme right-wing governments in South America, Muslim fundamentalists, Hussein, and brutal German police. Our 'polite speeches' are "Let the Syrian Jews go, "Extradite the Nazi Brunner," and "Free the Jewish hostages from
As for our research, our small Foundation publishes more scholarly books than many larger ones. Our books already are, and shall be more and more, the lethal weapon against the negationists once the last survivors of the Holocaust will have disappeared. Our supporters can count on us to be at the center of the fight for the memory of the Shoah, for justice and against the rise of Nazism.