BREAKING NEWS

Now Reading:

Nazi hunters: Serge and Beate Klarsfeld on the combat of their lives


interview

Nazi hunters: Serge and Beate Klarsfeld on the combat of their lives

ALL VIEWS

Tap to find out

They look like any other elderly couple. But Beate Klarsfeld, 76, and her husband Serge, 79, are two of the most fearsome Nazi hunters the world has ever seen.

For decades, they have travelled the planet to bring Hitler’s henchmen to justice, including notorious figures such as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ Klaus Barbie.

Their story began with a chance meeting on the Paris Metro in 1960 – between a French Jewish man and a German non-Jewish woman.

What happened next features in their new book of Memoires.

Euronews met the pair at their office in Paris.

Lesley Alexander, euronews:
First things first. 1960. The Paris Metro. Was it love at first sight?

Serge Klarsfeld:
“I wouldn’t say love at first sight. It was a mutual attraction.”

euronews:
Well it was certainly the start of a hugely successful partnership, personally and professionally. I think even the date of your first meeting was significant…

Serge Klarsfeld:
“We met on the day that Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and taken back to Israel to be put on trial. We didn’t know that this would be a symbol for our lives.”

euronews:
Your backgrounds were so different.

Beate, your father fought for Hitler in Germany’s Wehrmacht Army. Serge, your father, who was Jewish and Romanian, was captured by the Gestapo one night at your home, your family home, in Nice in September 1943 and he later died in Auschwitz.
Now you, your mother and your sister narrowly escaped being caught, thanks to him. What happened?

Serge Klarsfeld:
“My father had the presence of mind to understand the situation and to construct a false back door in a deep cupboard…and we were hidden behind it, in the cupboard. A German opened the cupboard door, swept the clothes to one side on the rail, but he didn’t realise that there were Jews behind.”

euronews:
Beate, what did you know about the Holocaust as a child?

Beate Klarsfeld:
“Not much. At school at that time, nobody spoke about what had happened to the Jewish people. I learned about it when I came to Paris in 1960 and then I met Serge. I also said that – as a German – you can’t just remain…You have to address the history of your own people. So afterwards I tried to campaign.”

euronews:
Well you were both outraged about former senior Nazis and collaborators living in impunity after the war. Beate, you famously slapped the late 1960s German Chancellor Kiesinger…

Beate Klarsfeld:
“When the Nazi propagandist Kurt Georg Kiesinger was elected Chancellor of Germany, that was my answer as a German woman – to take action and protest. So in this case I tried to fulfil an historic and moral mission and protested against him in articles. And there was an immediate reaction. I was dismissed from the Franco-German Youth Office where I had been working. So at that point I had to start fighting. One could either say, ‘okay, sorry’ or start campaigning to prove what his role was within Nazism and get him out of office as Chancellor.”

euronews:
Among those you caught, the French collaborator Maurice Papon and the infamous regional Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie – the so-called ‘Butcher of Lyon’. You found him in Bolivia. Why go to such lengths to pursue elderly, frail men, so many years after the war?

Serge Klarsfeld
“Frail? They weren’t frail at all. They were criminals who had deported our parents – thousands of families. We put our energy into this because German criminals who had led ‘The Final Solution of the Jewish Question’ in France couldn’t be put on trial in Germany. They couldn’t be extradited to France. So they were guaranteed total impunity. We didn’t pursue a criminal. We resolved a huge legal problem between France and Germany. France wanted Germany to put its criminals on trial. Germany refused to sign an agreement with France for 17 years. Willy Brandt, when he became Chancellor, in small part thanks to Beate, signed the accord.”

euronews:
So you agree with the current prosecution of 93-year-old Oskar Groening, a former Nazi guard, the so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz?

Serge Klarsfeld:
“No. We don’t agree. Today the concept of guilt has been broadened. And it is enough to have belonged to a criminal organisation of any kind, carrying out duties, even as a bookkeeper or even as a cook to face charges. For me, it is too broad a concept of guilt.”

euronews:
Serge, your work has helped France recognise the role of its collaborationist Vichy government under Marshal Pétain. You’ve said that after the war France airbrushed this episode from its history.

Serge Klarsfeld:
“France, or rather the French people, didn’t learn the history of Vichy so they didn’t know that the Jews were arrested by the French police. Nor did they know that the church and French citizens, courageous people, reacted in a really good way and helped many of the three quarters of the Jewish population of France who survived.”

euronews:
Today, internationally, we are seeing a rise in anti-Semitism. And if we take the example of France… We have seen Jewish children killed because they are Jewish. Jewish schools are now under armed guard. What does it do to you to see this climate in 2015?

Serge Klarsfeld:
“There was even a member of our own group killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. It is dreadful to see not only children killed but also to see a far right party that could use a presidential election to take power. All of this is extremely distressing.”

euronews:
Your book reads like a thriller, with important papers hidden in secret compartments as you take the train in Soviet-era eastern Europe, subterfuge as you pretend to be journalists and translators to get closer to your prey, the nights you spent in the cells under arrest and, of course, the attempted bomb attacks against you. It is a heck of a price to pay.

Beate Klarsfeld:
“At any rate, if you commit yourself to carrying out illegal acts, you are risking something. It is natural because we didn’t settle for conventional actions. For the Kiesinger campaign, I didn’t only hand out pamphlets. The slap was a call to action, you see.”

Serge Klarsfeld:
“No, we didn’t pay a high price. We didn’t pay any price at all. We have had nothing but rewards for what we have done. We have always had two dogs, two cats. We have a son who is a member of the French Council of State.”

euronews:
Just to end on a quotation from you, Serge. You say: “Together we are united, strong and happy. Without each other, we probably wouldn’t have achieved much”.

Serge Klarsfeld:
“Well, it is what you call synergy. One plus one equals 10.”

ALL VIEWS

Tap to find out

Every story can be told in many ways: see the perspectives from Euronews journalists in our other language teams.

Next Article

interview

Once Upon a Time with Claudia Cardinale