“Serge Klarsfeld and his wife Beate are best known to the public as Nazi hunters,” Peter Hellman wrote. “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.”
Serge was born on September 17, 1935, in Bucharest. In 1943, when he was eight, he, his mother and sister hid in their home in Nice while his father was taken away by the French Vichy police during a roundup ordered by Alois Brunner and sent to Auschwitz. He never saw him again.
Serge is a graduate of the Sorbonne where he studied history. He also studied political science at the Institute of Political Studies of Paris and became a lawyer at the Court of Appeal of Paris. Serge had worked in an Israeli kibbutz in 1953 and wrote a thesis on the “Cooperative Economy in Israel” (1959).
Beate Auguste Klarsfeld (née Künzel) was born on February 13, 1939, in Berlin. Beate was the only child of Helen and Kurt Künzel who were not Jewish. According to Beate her parents were not Nazis, but they did vote for Adolf Hitler. Her father was drafted in the summer of 1939 into the infantry. From the summer of 1940, he fought with his unit in France and was moved in 1941 to the eastern front. In the following winter, because he had contracted double pneumonia, he was transferred back to Germany and worked as an accountant. Beate spent several months in Łódź with her godfather, who was a Nazi official.
The Berlin apartment in which she lived was bombed and relatives in Sandau gave shelter to Beate and her mother. In 1945, her father was released from British captivity and joined them. The house and property in Sandau were seized by the Polish government, and the family returned to Berlin.
In 1960, Beate spent a year as an au pair in Paris. In 1963, she met Serge on the platform at a Metro station. At the time, he was the administrator of a Paris radio and television station. They married and Serge helped Beate become “a German of conscience and awareness.” She worked from 1964 as a secretary at the new German-French Youth Office.
Serge told Beate about his experience as a child and they decided to devote their lives to bringing the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice. “I understood by the mid-1970s,” Serge told the Forward, “that if we didn’t do something, Vichy would be rehabilitated. We had to change the vision of the French.”
In 1965, Serge visited Auschwitz. “It was there I understood that I belonged to an exceptional generation. I had witnessed the Holocaust and the birth of a Jewish state.”
In 1967, Serge served as a volunteer in the Six-Day War. The Klarsfelds spent a month at various kibbutzim in Israel nearly every summer.
While the Klarsfelds were in Paris, Kurt Georg Kiesinger was chosen as the new German chancellor. In a series of articles, Beate accused Kiesinger of having made a “good reputation” for himself “in the ranks of the Brown Shirts.” She was subsequently fired by the French-German Youth Office in August 1967.
She continued to voice opposition to Kiesinger. On April 2, 1968, for example, she shouted “Nazi Kiesinger, resign!” from the public gallery in the Bundestag and was arrested. During a party conference in West Berlin in November 1968, Beate slapped Kiesinger, and shouted “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi.” She was arrested and this time received a one-year sentence, but due to her part-French nationality she did not go to prison. In late 1969, Klarsfeld’s sentence was reduced to four months in prison, which were suspended on probation.
“By insulting and slapping Kiesinger in the middle of a parliamentary session,” Beate recalled, “I forced the Germans and the media to look into the affair and react. Getting arrested by the police also helped me connect with public opinion. The authorities couldn’t keep me in prison while war criminals were still running free.”
The Klarsfelds worked on many legal cases against Nazi criminals, including Rene Bousquet, Jean Leguay, Maurice Papon, and Paul Touvier.
Rene Bousquet was the head of Jewish affairs for Vichy regime who deported hundreds of Jewish children from Izieu to Auschwitz. He was murdered in 1993 before he could be tried for crimes against humanity.
Leguay was second in command in the French National Police. In 1979, Leguay was charged with crimes against humanity for his role in the mass arrest of more than 13,000 Jews in Paris in July 1942. He died of cancer in 1989.
Papon was the former Paris police chief. In 1998, their son Arno conducted the trial in which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the deportation of 140,000 French Jews. “I prepared the case and Arno prosecuted him in court,” Serge told the Guardian. He was released from prison early, in 2002, for ill health and died in 2007.
Touvier served as head of the intelligence department in the Chambéry Milice under the direction of Klaus Barbie. On September 10, 1946, the French government sentenced him to death in absentia for treason and collusion with the Nazis. On April 20, 1994, Touvier became the first Frenchman to be found guilty of war-related crimes against humanity for ordering the execution of seven Jews 50 years earlier. He died in prison in 1996.
The Klarsfeld’s disclosures about the crimes of the Vichy government is seen as the inspiration of President Jacques Chirac’s declaration that officially recognized the responsibility of France during World War II.
The Klarsfelds published a commemorative book with the names of more than 80,000 victims of the Nazi era in France. They gathered the pictures of about 11,400 Jewish children deported in the years 1942 to 1944, which were displayed at stations of the French railway.
Their most famous success was the discovery of Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, living in Bolivia. Though they found him in 1971, Barbie was not extradited to France until 1983 and tried in 1987.He was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and died in prison of leukemia four years later at the age of 77.
In 1974, the Klarsfelds tried to kidnap Kurt Lischka, who was responsible for the deportation of some 76,000 Jews from France. Lischka was living openly under his own name in Cologne. They planned to deliver him to justice in Paris, as a previous conviction in France blocked further legal action against Lischka in Germany. The police caught them trying to push the former Nazi into the trunk of their car.
Although the kidnapping was unsuccessful, it served to draw media attention to their cause. Beate turned herself in to the German authorities, saying that they must arrest either her or Lischka. The Klarsfelds were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for the attempted kidnapping. After an international outcry, their sentences were suspended.
Lischka remained at large until 1980, when he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. They also tracked two other Nazis living openly in Germany who were responsible of the deportation of Jews from occupied France –Ernst Heinrichsohn, and Herbert Hagen – who were also tried.
Prior to their trial, the Klarsfelds published Le Memorial de la Deportation des Juifs de France (“The Memorial to Jews Deported from France”) with the names of more than 75,700 Jews who were deported to the concentration camps from France, only 2,564 of the deportees survived the war. The book lists deportees by train convoy, last name, first name, date of birth, place of birth, and nationality.
Tracking Alois Brunner
The Klarsfelds also hunted Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s assistant who was responsible for the deportation of 47,000 Austrian Jews, 43,000 Jews from Salonika, more than 25,000 Paris Jews, and 13,000 from Slovakia. They found Brunner living under the name Georg Fischer in Damascus.
Serge and Beate each traveled twice to Damascus to demand that the Syrian government expel Brunner, but the Syrians denied he was in the country.
According to one story, Beate went to Syria to try to lure him into a trap set by the Israelis to capture him. She found his phone number and called him to say he should leave his apartment because the Israelis knew where he was. Brunner left before the Israelis arrived. Beate was arrested and put in jail for three months before the Syrians deported her.
Another story is that Beate called Brunner from Paris in 1980 masquerading as the daughter of an old friend of Brunner, who admitted his real identity. A few months later, he received a package from the Viennese apothecary from which he ordered herbal medicines. It was a letter bomb believed to have been sent by the Mossad, which exploded, tearing off four fingers from Brunner’s left hand. He had earlier lost an eye from a letter bomb sent to him in 1961 by Israeli Military Intelligence Unit of the IDF.
On March 2, 2001, Brunner was convicted, in absentia, of crimes against humanity in the Palais de Justice in Paris. He was never found, however, and was believed to have died in Syria around 2010.
The Klarsfelds received many death threats and, in 1979, their car was bombed. No one was injured and members of the Nazi organization Odessa claimed responsibility.
In 1984 and 1985, Beate went to Chile and Paraguay to draw attention to the search for Walter Rauff and Josef Mengele. She was arrested by Chilean police in 1984 for staging a demonstration to demand the expulsion Rauff.
The same year they established the Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportees of France to locate former German and French officials for prosecution. In 1981, the organization created a memorial to French victims of the Holocaust in Roglit, Israel, inscribed with the names of 76,000 victims. They also were responsible for a memorial plaque at the Hotel du Parc in Vichy, which served as the headquarters of the Vichy regime.
In 1996, during the warfare in the former Yugoslavia, the Klarsfelds joined the outcry against Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić for alleged war crimes and genocide of Bosnian Muslims.
In 2015, the Klarsfelds acknowledged their Nazi hunting days were over and were focused on documenting the Holocaust in France.
Serge has written several books related to the Holocaust including Vichy-Auschwitz documents the role of the Vichy government in the Final Solution in France, and Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, which detailed the construction and use of gas chambers in the concentration camps.
Serge told The Guardian their proudest achievement was “solving the problem of relations between France and Germany. Germany wouldn’t extradite Nazis and their law wouldn’t allow them to trial criminals for offences outside the country. It took nine years, but we got the law changed.”
Today, the Klarsfelds are most concerned about the threats to democracy in Europe. “The fight against anti-Semitism is not the priority,” Serge Klarsfeld told the JTA. “The priority is the defense of democracy to defend the republican state of France and democracies in other states in Europe.”
The Klarsfelds have two children: Arno David (born 1965) and Lida Myriam (born 1973).
1974: Beate received the Israeli “Bravery medal of the Ghetto fighters.”
1984: French President François Mitterrand named Beate a Knight of the Legion of Honour.
2007: French President Nicolas Sarkozy named Beate an Officer of the Legion of Honour.
2009: Beate received the Georg-Elser Prize.
2011: President Sarkozy awarded Beate the National Order of Merit.
2014: Beate and Serge were awarded the Legion of Honour with the rank of Grand Officer.
2015: Beate and Serge received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, first class.
2015: UNESCO designated the Klarsfelds as “Honorary Ambassadors and Special Envoys for Education about the Holocaust and the Prevention of Genocide.”
2015: Serge was named an officer of the Order of Saint-Charles.
2016: Beate received honorary Israeli citizenship.
2018: Serge received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award, and Beate received the National Order of Merit.
2018: National Jewish Book Award in the Book of the Year category for Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.
2019: Beate and Serge received the Elie Wiesel Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Beate was also the subject of the film Verfolgt und gejagt (Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story).
Sources: NYU Press;
“Serge Klarsfeld,” Wikipedia;
“Beate Klarsfeld,” Wikipedia;
Michael Freedland, “The family firm that hunts Nazis,” The Guardian, (May 30, 2015);
Peter Hellman, French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial, (New York: NYU Press, 1996);
David Stout, “Paul Touvier, War Criminal, Is Dead at 81,” New York Times, (July 18, 1996);
“Beate and Serge Klarsfeld,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (September 13, 2013);
Clément Thiery, “Serge and Beate Klarsfeld: ‘We Will Keep Fighting as Long as We Are Alive,’” FRANCE-AMÉRIQUE, (July 3, 2018);
“France awards top honours to Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld,” i24, (September 10, 2018);
Robert Zaretsky, “Why Serge And Beate Klarsfeld Became Nazi Hunters,” Forward, (January 9, 2019);
Ron Kampeas, “Famed Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld: It feels like the 1930s,” JTA, (May 1, 2019).
Photo of Serge licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons - cc-by-sa-3.0.
Photo of Beate licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons - cc-by-sa-3.0.
Photo of Klarsfelds is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.