Book Review: “Hunting the Truth” — Models of Activism

Hunting the Truth is a handbook on how to become an effective activist and an exciting, often awe-inspiring read.

Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages, $14.99 (e-Book).

By Helen Epstein

It’s bracing to read this activist memoir written by the extraordinary Franco-German couple revered (and sometimes reviled) as “the Klarsfelds.” Starting in 1967, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld campaigned to bring to justice former Nazi criminals and to document the life of every French Jew deported and/or murdered by the Nazi regime. The Klarsfelds began their work alone, with no funding, few political or social connections, and no training. They learned on the job: to research, investigate, forge alliances, write, publish, stage actions, and make the best of jail. They also learned to manipulate the press, diplomatic corps, and legal systems of several countries as they pursued former Nazis in Germany, France, the Middle East and South America, publishing hundreds of documents, pamphlets, and books. Along the way they created a community of sons and daughters of what in France are called “les déportés.”

Hunting the Truth, written in alternating sections by Beate (now 79) and Serge (now 82) is the story of an unlikely intermarriage that became a mission. It’s also a handbook on how to become an effective activist and an exciting, often awe-inspiring read.

Beate Kunzel is the more fluent writer of the two. She was born in Berlin in February, 1939. She describes her background in the opening pages of Hunting the Truth as a typical German child of the second world war. Her father was an insurance clerk conscripted into Hitler’s infantry; her mother, a housewife. Her godfather was a high-ranking Nazi; she recalls the house he commandeered in Lodz that she and her mother lived in for a while during the war. She sums up her childhood quickly and unsentimentally: abrupt moves, terrible housing, playing in bombed-out ruins, a diet of potatoes, and silence about the reasons why. Her parents, she writes “had neither learned nor forgotten anything from the epochal events they had sleepwalked through. They weren’t Nazis but they had voted for Hitler like everyone else, and they did not feel any responsibility for what had occurred.” Deep reflection on their early years is uncharacteristic of either Klarsfeld. About the widespread rape of German women and girls by Russians after the war, Beate writes only, “For those who believe that childhood impressions are a critical factor in decisions made later in life, I should point out that the Soviet Mongols never hurt or sexually abused us.”

Serge was born in Bucharest in 1935, raised in Paris by secular Jewish parents until the German invasion, and then moved into various hiding places in France. In September of 1943 he was eight years old when the Gestapo raided his home in Nice: his father was arrested. “The night of that raid has stayed with me all of my life,” he writes, “and forged my identity as a Jew.” Arno Klarsfeld was deported to the French camp Drancy and then to Auschwitz, where he made the mistake of assaulting a guard. He was sent to a camp where he was worked to death. Serge, his mother, and sister survived the war and returned to find their Paris apartment looted and occupied. They left from place to place; Serge went to several schools. “Lacking any ambition — except a desire to be happy — and being by nature impulsive” he decided to become a humanities teacher and studied history at the Sorbonne and the selective Sciences Po.

The two met in the Paris Metro, on May 11, 1960 — the day Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped by the Mossad in Buenos Aires. Beate, then a fresh-faced, 21-year-old brunette, had left Berlin to work in a city that her father called “the whorehouse of Europe.” She loved Paris but disliked her work as an au pair for Parisian families. She knew almost nothing about Jews.

Serge, then 24, took her to see the film Never on Sunday and, over the next two years, during his military service, they corresponded. He corrected her French, gave her books to read, and taught her European history, including recent German history. He told her about Sophie and Hans Scholl — siblings who had been executed by the Nazis in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University of Munich. Their heroism, he said, had made it impossible for Serge to hate all Germans; Beate writes that she saw herself in them.

The Klarsfelds married in 1963. Both worked conventional jobs at first: Serge as an administrator for the French Broadcasting Authority; Beate as a bilingual secretary for the Franco-German Youth office. She soon exceeded her job’s requirements by writing a guide for German nannies in France that garnered attention after a nanny was murdered in a Paris suburb. Beate was invited to appear on panels about Franco-German relations; she writes that this annoyed her male employers. In 1965, she gave birth to a son and took maternity leave.

As a bored adolescent in Berlin, Beate had preferred to spend Sundays in the Eastern half. She portrays herself as an indifferent student who regarded the postwar division into East and West as arbitrary, traveling to both throughout the Cold War. She does not mention that, in 2012, she was named by scholars as co-operating with the Stasi, but writes that she voted Social Democratic and admired Willy Brandt, then Mayor of West Berlin, who had fled the Nazi regime during the war.

In 1966, she became increasingly agitated that former Nazi Kurt Georg Kiesinger – not Brandt — would likely become Chancellor of Germany. In December, Kiesinger did become Chancellor. Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote that “it was probably inevitable that former Nazis would occupy high-ranking political positions, simply because there are too few non-Nazis to look after the functions of the state. But that a former National Socialist should now rule the entire Federal Republic implies that having been a Nazi no longer has any significance.”

Beate, who had returned to her secretarial job, was galvanized into action. Inspired by the Scholls’ injunction not to “forget the bastards who run this regime,” she wrote an Op-Ed of protest and published it in Combat the newspaper founded by members of the French Resistance. It ran during Chancellor Kiesinger’s first state visit to France in January of 1967. Then she published a second. Then, the Franco-German Youth Office fired her for violating employee protocol.

Beate and Serge decided to sue the Franco-German Youth Office in French court, not to win back her job, but to raise public consciousness of ex-Nazi Kiesinger. That “action” crystallized the template for what would become dozens of outings of ex-Nazis by the couple: a massive, carefully researched dossier; an “action,” plus, perhaps an arrest. Then would come a court appearance, a group protest, efforts at international publicity, and single-minded perseverance to keep the issue in the papers.

Beate and Serge Klarfeld in the 1960s. Photo: University of Chicago.

The three Klarsfelds were then living with Serge’s mother, his sister and her family in a communal apartment to minimize expenses. But, without Beate’s salary, money became tight. They stopped paying their taxes, sold their car, and cut back on essentials while they prepared their dossier and eventually published a pamphlet –- The Truth about Kurt Georg Kiesinger.

While Beate studied archival documents they obtained from Paris, London, and D.C., Serge traveled to Potsdam and Vienna: Kiesinger had joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, party card number 2633930. He himself had not killed anyone nor had he ordered deportations but, in 1940, he became a “desk Nazi,” responsible for all radio propaganda broadcasts abroad. In 1945, he was arrested by the American Army for de-Nazificaion and re-education. Beate writes that his father-in-law was on his de-Nazification committee and that, when Kiesinger entered politics, his file conveniently disappeared.

Beate’s suit against the Franco-German Youth Office was heard in February of 1968. She invited 40 journalists, including a German television crew. The verdict – which predictably referred the case to internal mediation by her employers – was unimportant to the Klarsfelds. They appealed the verdict, received more news coverage, and more readers in France, Germany, and beyond.

To capitalize on that publicity, Beate traveled through West Germany. At 29, older than members of the burgeoning German student movement, she learned from their tactics – carefully staged actions, homemade posters, printed leaflets, and plenty of press releases – and decided to disrupt a speech the Chancellor was giving in the Bundestag, She collaborated with a photojournalist and when Kiesinger began speaking, stood up in the public gallery, shouting “Kiesinger, Nazi, resign!” and was photographed being dragged out of the Bundestag. She and Serge planned a follow-up: she would slap Kiesinger’s face, arrange for it to be filmed, and, after being arrested, would demand to be tried under French law as the wife of a French citizen.

On November 7, the fifth anniversary of the Klarsfelds’ marriage, Beate charmed her way into Kiesinger’s party convention in Berlin to administer “the slap that was heard around the world.” She was arrested, as planned, and received a four-month suspended sentence. For another year, she kept Chancellor Kiesinger and the shameful role of ex-Nazis in Germany in the press until his party was voted out and, in 1969, he was replaced as chancellor by Willy Brandt.

Beate briefly alludes to Antigone’s obsession with honor and justice, along with the Scholls, for context. Readers may reflect on our various contemporary responses to genocide and slavery, including South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation effort. But she does not go any deeper into her motivations for activism and is oblique about how she manages to do research in the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War.

In 1945, when the Second World War ended, vigilantes of all nationalities attacked and/or murdered Germans. Stalin reportedly wanted to kill 50,000 members of the Wehrmacht; Churchill wanted to execute high-ranking Nazis without trial. It was the U.S. that pushed for the Allied Nuremburg Tribunals, in which 24 high-ranking Nazis were convicted of crimes against humanity.

In France, 6,763 people were subsequently sentenced to death for treason, but more than half of those trials were in abstentia. The vast majority of Nazis and their Vichy French collaborators were never arrested and returned to normal lives without difficulty. Except for survivors and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, there was little public interest in pursuing them. On the contrary, France and the U.S. made use of Nazi expertise — France in North Africa; the U.S. in South America. The West German constitution initially forbade the extradition of German citizens and an extradition treaty between France and Germany enabling live trials of ex-Nazis in France was not ratified by the Bundestag until 1975.

While Serge held onto his corporate job and his mother took care of their son, Beate threw herself into research: culling, translating and photocopying data. In 1970, Serge quit his job at Crédit Lyonnais to join her. Their strategy was to “out” high-profile Nazis who had operated in France, and in doing so pressure Germany to ratify an extradition agreement. They chose the most infamous Nazis who had operated in France: Kurt Lischka (Gestapo chief in Paris), Herbert Hagen (SS chief in Bordeaux and Paris) and Klaus Barbie (Gestapo chief in Lyon).

Two of them — Lischka and Hagen — were living openly in Germany. “It’s only in detective novels that ex-Nazis live in constant fear in Patagonia,” Beate observes. Some had taken other names in South America, but Lischka and Hagen were listed in the phonebook. Posing as television journalists, the Klarsfelds managed to meet, interview, and film both men. That footage and the Kiesinger slap can be seen below:

In 1971, trying to emulate the Mossad’s capture of Eichmann, they tried to kidnap Lischka. They failed, were arrested and tried, but stayed the course. Nine years later, a German court in Cologne sentenced Lischka to ten, and Hagen to twelve years in prison.

In the era before “Holocaust” was a household term, the Klarsfelds built an international network of volunteers, donors, and allies –- French deportees and their children, anti-Nazi Germans, former members of the French Resistance, Holocaust archivists, members of the European student movements, investigators, diplomats, and sympathetic journalists.

In the summer of 1971, while still pursuing Lischka and Hagen, they got on the case of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon.” Operating out of a hotel in Lyon, Barbie was directly responsible for the deaths of 14,000 people, had personally tortured French Resistance hero Jean Moulin, was especially vicious toward Jewish children, and had twice been sentenced to death in abstentia. In June of 1971, the Klarsfelds were told, the German prosecutor had quietly closed his case. They immediately went to the press.

In fact, counter to Beate’s assertion about the myth of Nazis living under aliases in South America, Barbie was working in Peru as Klaus Altmann. Mustering former Resistants and an Algerian-born Auschwitz survivor whose three children had been deported and murdered on Barbie’s orders, Beate organized a protest in Munich, demanding that the case against Barbie be re-opened. The prosecutor wound up giving her crucial photographs of Barbie; she flew to Peru and then to Bolivia. She was unable to get him extradited to France but the Klarsfelds did not let go of the case. In 1984, Barbie was indicted for crimes committed as Gestapo Chief in Lyon. In 1987, sixteen years after they began their hunt, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and later died in prison.

Both Klarsfelds became activist frequent flyers and it was in Brazil, reading a back issue of Le Monde, that Serge learned that graduates of Sciences Po could enter the third year of law school without taking an exam. “It was not too late, at 37 years old,” he writes, “to go back to my studies. It would be another challenge, of course, but the law was one of the few professions open to me that would prove useful in accomplishing our mission.” Serge began to litigate as well as research war crimes cases; later, the two Klarsfeld children Arno and Lida both became lawyers.

Serge considers that the couple’s “single most important act,” was the publication in 1978 of the Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, a 656-page directory that lists the name and birthplace of every one of the 75,700 Jews deported from France, convoy by convoy, during the war. Only 2,564 of the deportees returned in 1945. Le Nouvel Observateur noted “the pitiless, methodical, meticulous rigor that it required” and “its exceptional moral importance. The human being bears a name, and it is the name that makes it a human being.”

The Klarsfelds today.

As the Klarsfelds entered middle age, they did not slow down – despite death threats as well as indifference to their work on the part of the French, German, and even Jewish establishments, the bombing of their car, the rise of Holocaust denial, and opposition to their work, especially when they turned their attention to the war criminals of France who had escaped trial: men like René Bousquet, Jean Leguay, Paul Touvier, and Maurice Papon.

You don’t get much historical or cultural context in Hunting the Truth. The Klarsfelds wrote their book for a French audience and assumed that the many names, places, and incidents they allude to are known quantities. I found myself frequently consulting the internet to better understand exactly how their activism and contributions dovetailed with those of other people. (More evidence that good biography is often more comprehensive than memoir.) Serge and Beate rarely credit or even reference anyone else working to bring war criminals to justice or published Holocaust-related documents; or organized memorials; or built Holocaust Studies departments or museums (the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad VaShem was established in 1953; the survivor group Bergen Belsen Association was founded in 1962; American universities began offering Holocaust courses in 1971). How did the Klarsfelds navigate between the intelligence services of East and West? Did they co-operate with the Stasi? They do not address those questions.

You also shouldn’t read Hunting the Truth for its literary value. Serge’s chapters tend toward the ponderous while Beate’s are sometimes glib (she reminds us that, between manhunts, what she really likes to do is grocery shop and do her family’s laundry). But style takes a backseat to content as, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the Klarsfelds pursue Alois Brunner in Syria; Walter Rauff in Chile; the war criminals of Bosnia and Burundi; and Kurt Waldheim in Austria. In the 21st century, they continue to protest Holocaust denial and contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe, especially as expressed by Marine Le Pen and French comedian Dieudonné.

“So what message can Beate and I leave to our readers and descendants?” Serge asks in Hunting the Truth‘s Epilogue. He doesn’t answer it directly, burying his message at the end of a paragraph: “We learned through experience that we were capable of raising ourselves higher than we thought possible. Our readers will see this and will, we hope, realize that they would be just as capable if circumstances demanded it.”

I don’t know about that, but reading this memoir provides an invaluable model for pursuing the truth — with courage, energy, and dedication.

Helen Epstein, a regular Arts Fuse reviewer, has written a trilogy of Holocaust-related books: Children of the Holocaust; Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History and The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma. All are available from Plunkett Lake Press.


  1. Gerald Peary on May 14, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks, Helen, for writing this illuminating essay. Should I feel that I don’t need to read the book because everything germane is here–and you are a far better writer than this couple whose story is told?

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