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A Life Dedicated to Pursuing Nazis, and Remembering Their Victims

Courts and Law, New York Times Blog, November 29, 2012, By Ralph Blumenthal

Yana Paskova for The New York Times. Serge Klarsfeld, a French lawyer who has dedicated his life to memorializing Holocaust victims and hunting Nazis, spoke on Monday at New York University.

As Serge Klarsfeld tells it, he had the “luck” to see his father and other French Jews in Nazi-occupied Nice carted off to Auschwitz by Germans. It spared him the pain of seeing them rounded up, as often happened, by their own French countrymen. Since Sept. 30, 1943, when he huddled behind a secret closet wall with his mother and sister while his father was seized by the SS for deportation and death, Mr. Klarsfeld, now a prominent French lawyer, has dedicated his life to memorializing victims of the Holocaust and bringing their killers to justice, most notably the notorious Gestapo chief in France, Klaus Barbie.

The quest, pursued alongside his German-born, non-Jewish wife, Beate, and their son, Arno, brought him and Arno Monday night to New York University in Greenwich Village with a monumental new work of documentation, a colossal volume of 12 inches by 19 inches weighing some 18 pounds, as intractable and chilling as the mass murders it chronicles.

“True emotion comes from precision,” Mr. Klarsfeld has said. “You have not to be guided by hand to the emotion.”

We’ll get to the book, but first the man himself who drew 300 avid listeners to a talk co-sponsored by the N.Y.U. Center for French Civilization and Culture and the N.Y.U. School of Law. Whatever a Nazi-hunter (or “militant of memory,” as he prefers to call himself) is supposed to look like, he doesn’t. At 76, he is portly with glasses, a balding dome and frizz of white hair. Oh, and the rosette of a commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur in the buttonhole of his blue pinstripe suit.

For Arno, 46, a high-ranking French judge who lived for a time with Carla Bruni, the model who is now Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy, it was a kind of homecoming; he attended law school at N.Y.U.

In fluid English with a pronounced French accent, Mr. Klarsfeld, in conversation with Peter Hellman, a journalist and friend who profiled the Klarsfelds in The New York Times Sunday magazine in 1979, said his family’s fate mirrored that of France’s 350,000 prewar Jews. Almost a quarter were murdered. In his little family of four, three-quarters, too, survived.

Meeting his German wife-to-be, Beate Künzel, daughter of a Wehrmacht soldier, in the Paris metro in 1960 forged a powerful alliance. “We were weak individually,” he said. “Together, we had the strength of the Jewish people and Germany together.” One of their first exploits, he recounted, was infiltrating Mrs. Klarsfeld into the West German Bundestag in Bonn on Nov. 7, 1968, where she publicly confronted and slapped Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, whose history as an early Nazi Party member and radio propagandist had been largely ignored.

The shocking and symbolic act — a postwar generation’s rebuke to its Nazi elders — was particularly risky amid the security mania that followed the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it sealed Kiesinger’s political demise. Mrs. Klarsfeld served four months of a year’s sentence but won striking vindication this year as a protest candidate of a small leftist party for president of Germany.

I was a Times correspondent in Bonn in 1968-69 and vividly remember the uproar. I subsequently kept in touch with the Klarsfelds myself and consulted them when searching for the possible hide-out of the long-missing Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele, who later turned out to have drowned in Brazil in 1979. His secretly buried body was exhumed and conclusively identified in 1985.

With the same savvy agitprop that gained the civil rights movement its leverage to transform American society, the Klarsfelds kept shaming German and French authorities with their unexpiated wartime sins. Tracking down the former Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka, who was living peacefully in Cologne in 1973, Mr. Klarsfeld held a gun to his head, before laughing and walking away.

“We show you we can kill criminals but don’t want to,” Mr. Klarsfeld explained at N.Y.U. “But if you don’t judge them, it will happen.”

In what Mr. Hellman called “a scene out of the Marx brothers,” the Klarsfelds also sought to kidnap Lischka from a trolley stop. After the comical plot unraveled — the hulking ex-Nazi proved too tall to knock out with a billy club — Mrs. Klarsfeld presented herself to the police demanding to be arrested. Lischka was finally tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 years.

Mr. Klarsfeld said he was particularly honored to have forced France to come to terms with its collaborationist history. At this year’s annual commemoration at the Vel d’Hiver, where French Jews were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz, President François Hollande declared, “The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France.”

But his proudest accomplishment, Mr. Klarsfeld said, lay on a reception table at the law school: an updated version of his masterwork, Le Mémorial de la Déportation des Juifs de France, a giant coffee-table volume that now for the first time lists all 76,000 deported Jews by family name and address, even if they were separated on different death trains. His previous books recorded the victims by convoy number and provided many of their photos, particularly the children.

“All the narratives of the Holocaust pale in comparison,” said Mr. Hellman.

Mr. Klarsfeld said because the book cost as much as $121 to mail from France he was able to provide copies only to the New York Public Library, and Jewish and academic institutions.

Ralph Preiss, 82, a retired computer engineer, traveled from Poughkeepsie to hear Mr. Klarsfeld and afterward hunched over the book searching for relatives. He found them grouped under Wohl — Erna, Erich, Frank and Ernst, at 4 Gabrielle D’Estrées in Paris. They had fled Berlin in 1934 to seek refuge in France. One day, Mr. Preiss said, “they disappeared from their apartment.”

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