How Beate Klarsfeld grappled with Europe’s demons

  • Themes: History, The Holocaust

For nearly sixty years, Beate Klarsfeld has been a fearless pursuer of the Nazis who evaded justice after the Second World War.

During the trial on January 31, 1980 at the Regional Court in Cologne, French Jews and German Nazi victims demonstrate for a conviction of the accused Kurt Lischka, the former Gestapo chief of Paris. Beate Klarsfeld demonstrates with them
During the trial on January 31, 1980 at the Regional Court in Cologne, French Jews and German Nazi victims demonstrate for a conviction of the accused Kurt Lischka, the former Gestapo chief of Paris. Beate Klarsfeld demonstrates with them. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

It was the slap heard around the world.

Beate Klarsfeld was 29 when she braved tear gas, crossed three police barriers, infiltrated Germany’s Christian Democratic Party convention, got past two security guards, and slapped Kurt Georg Kiesinger in front of 300 journalists.

Kiesinger had been the assistant chief of the radio propaganda department in the foreign ministry of the Nazi government. By producing antisemitic and war propaganda from 1943-45, he abetted Joseph Goebbels, who orchestrated German public opinion to support the annihilation of six million Jews.

In 1968 Kiesinger was Germany’s democratically elected chancellor. It was a slap that blew apart an invisible wall that had allowed Nazi criminals to live unpunished and hold public office after 1945. Over the next four decades, Beate, along with her husband, Serge Klarsfeld, were responsible for gathering evidence, coordinating arrests, and bringing to justice nine Nazis and French collaborators who had never been held to account for crimes committed during the war against Jews. In the process, Beate Klarsfeld chained herself to a tree on a busy Warsaw sidewalk; prepared to throw smoke bombs at the Austrian president in front of the Vatican; was arrested 11 times; spent months in jail; and survived an assassination attempt. She ran for the German presidency in 2012.

When I found myself sitting next to Beate Klarsfeld, a petite, soft-spoken women wearing an impeccable suit, at a lunch served in Lyon’s fourth arrondissement town hall, I fell understandably speechless. At the time, I was teaching Second World War-era literature in a Franco-American university programme and had been invited to bring my students to a talk by the Klarsfelds about the capture and trial of Klaus Barbie, who was the first criminal to be convicted of crimes against humanity in 1987 for deporting 42 Jewish children from the Izieu Refuge Home near Lyon to Auschwitz in 1944. Before 1987 Nazi criminals had only been found guilty of war crimes, a conviction that did not account for the annihilation of the Jews or widespread attacks on innocent civilians.

Beate Klarsfeld poured some wine, slid the glass towards me and, in a firm, motherly voice said: ‘Here, have some wine. It’ll help you relax.’

The lunch was short and, as expected, she talked generously to everyone who approached her during the meal. The photographs, loud chatter, and copious amounts of food made sustained conversation difficult. She was whisked away to another event.

I met her again five years later. The yapping of small dogs answered me first when I rang the bell at the headquarters of the Fils et Filles des Juifs Déportés de France (F.F.D.J.D). Located in Paris’ chic eighth arrondissement, the F.F.D.J.D., was founded by Beate and Serge Klarsfeld in 1979, to support descendants of those deported from or displaced to France during the war.

With her broad, energetic smile and her two dogs trailing her heels, Beate Klarsfeld led me through the quiet offices that had no doubt witnessed monumental moments in France’s postwar history. Photos, drawings, and documents covered walls, desks, and shelves: the Klarsfelds with Golda Meir, snapshots of survivors they’d helped, newspapers detailing their actions, and a poster of Farah Fawcett, who starred as Beate in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1986 film, Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story.

‘I was, quite simply, a good German,’ she told me. ‘For 60 years, I’ve been a good wife. I would like people to remember that I was a rebel.’

Until the age of 21, she seemed to have little reason to believe that she was anything besides a good German. In March 1939, three weeks after Beate-Auguste Künzel’s birth in Berlin to a non-Jewish family, Hitler occupied Prague and her father, Kurt Künzel, entered the Wehrmacht. Her parents weren’t members of the Nazi party, but they had voted for Hitler. Kurt was sent to the Eastern Front in 1941 but was lucky enough to be relegated to military accounting for the rest of the war after a severe bout of double pneumonia. In 1943, Beate and her mother fled bombardments in Berlin to live briefly with her godfather, a high-ranking Nazi officer in Lodz, Poland, the site of the second-largest Jewish ghetto. She recalls no mention of the ghetto, describing the several months there as ‘prosperous’.

Beate spent the rest of the war with family in the countryside and returned to the ruins of Berlin in 1945. She thought of herself as fortunate since many of her friends’ fathers had been killed, detained, or gone missing during the war, especially those who were sent to Russia. Most Germans concentrated on rebuilding rather than confronting the past and no one talked about Hitler, the lost war, or the extermination of the Jewish people. ‘We forgot’, Beate says as her dogs settle at her feet. ‘We didn’t ask any questions even in history class at school.’

People in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) were distracted further from their past by focusing on a new enemy: the communists in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in the east. Beate, perhaps acting on the first rebellious stirrings, enjoyed taking Sunday walks to East Berlin. After her 20th birthday, she had one idea in mind: ‘To leave that city despite my deep yet inexplicable attachment to it,’ she says. Poor and sombre, East Berlin nevertheless charmed her as she felt drawn by ‘its unknown past’. She was certain that all German people would be reunited. She felt alone with this idea, but it must have started shaping her definition of what it meant to be both a ‘good German’ and a ‘rebel’.

In May 1960, while waiting for the metro at St Cloud in Paris, she met Serge, a student at the elite university, Sciences Po. He took her number and days later they went to the cinema. Serge was a teacher and a guide for Beate. With him, she cultivated a passion for ideas, history, art, literature, politics, and the French language. Beate realised that she’d never expressed herself: ‘We never stopped talking. I’d been silent for too long; with him, I felt as if I’d been delivered.’

Serge’s family, Romanian Jews, sought refuge in a small apartment in Nice in 1942. They enjoyed relative safety until September 1943 when the Gestapo raided their building. Serge, his sister, Georgette, and their mother, Raïssa, hid behind a partition in an armoire. Georgette, suffering from bronchitis, gagged herself with a handkerchief. Today, Serge still hears the ‘sound of clothes sliding across the rod’ as the Gestapo searched the armoire.

Serge’s father, Arno Klarsfeld, was taken first to Drancy, a French detention camp, and then to Auschwitz. He struck a Kapo who had hit him and was transferred to work in the coal mines at Fürstengrubbe, where the life expectancy was six weeks. Arno survived nine months. He can’t know for certain, but Serge claims ‘If he hadn’t retaliated that day when the Kapo struck him, he might well have gotten out alive.’ It might be the only instance of Nazi defiance Serge regrets in his lifelong combat with Beate.

Serge’s personal life had the greatest impact on Beate and her future. On a bench in the Bois de Boulogne, Serge’s story made Beate realise her ignorance of Germany’s history: ‘My instinctive reaction was to hold myself back. In Berlin, I had rarely heard a good word about Jews.’ Swayed by Serge’s ‘tender face’, she writes, ‘this was how I came in contact with the terrifying reality of Nazism.’

When Beate married Serge in 1963, she set out on the traditional path of becoming a ‘good wife’ as the couple settled into a path of stable jobs and family planning. In 1965, they had a son, Arno, named after Serge’s father.

Beate was employed as a researcher by the Franco-German Youth Office, an organisation fostering intercultural exchange and understanding. She was demoted to secretary for publishing articles speaking out against the repression of women in postwar Germany, which, she argued, was the main reason young women fled the country for France. She wrote that German women needed a ‘real task in shaping the nation’s destiny’ and warned that ‘once again, the German public opinion is veering dangerously towards the idea of a domestic woman, devoted exclusively to the well-being of her husband and her natural reproductive function’.

The publication caught the admiring eye of the German politician Willy Brandt, who agreed to see her in Paris. Brandt had fled Germany during the Nazi reign and had become outspoken about the postwar burgeoning antisemitism. Meanwhile, Kiesinger was rising to the position of chancellor despite revelations about his Nazi past. When she met Brandt, Beate claims she knew he was the right leader for a modern, unified Germany. In 1967, for Combat, the newspaper founded by the French Resistance, she wrote articles advocating for Kiesinger’s dismissal in favour of Brandt, who would go on to become Germany’s chancellor in 1969. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

For her outspoken work, the Franco-German Youth Office fired her in 1967. This was the push Beate needed to forge her campaign against Kiesinger leading up to the slap.

Beate’s mother-in-law, Raïssa, feared officials would mistake Beate for an assassin and kill her. ‘My mother-in-law was scared when I left. She was understandably frightened. But she also knew I was going to do it anyway. She lost her husband after all.’ Raïssa eventually stopped protesting. She seemed to know that for Beate to be a good wife to a man whose father perished in Auschwitz, her daughter-in-law would have to be ‘a good German’, who was ‘doing her duty’. Serge and Beate Klarsfeld decided Arno would be Jewish. She was being a ‘good mother’, too.

Beate’s femininity, not her anti-Nazism, was attacked in the hours following the slap. Ernst Lemmer, the chancellor’s Berlin representative was the first to speak with her and reported to journalists: ‘This woman, who might be pretty if she weren’t so pale, is sexually frustrated.’

Beate smiles wryly when I ask her about the incident. Two weeks later, Lemmer gave a disarming apology. ‘He said he didn’t know I was married,’ she says. Also, he claimed he had no idea that she ‘had a child and that her father-in-law died in Auschwitz’.

Beate was given a suspended four-month sentence. In 1969, Kiesinger lost his party’s bid for re-election. Beate had rallied Germans from both sides, but now she turned her attention to youth in other countries from the Soviet bloc to join the post-war condemnation of antisemitism. ‘If Willy Brandt were to make history, that was where it would be made.’ She attended gatherings of Eastern bloc officials to make a diversity of connections. One evening, she was filmed dancing in the arms of a white-haired Soviet marshal in uniform. She writes: ‘The six-year-old German girl who watched in terror as the Cossacks invaded the village where she and her mother had taken refuge in 1945, could she have ever imagined that one night she would find herself waltzing with one of the leaders of the Red Army?’ Yet, she concludes: ‘Commitment to a cause can never be absolute; it always leaves a small breach through which you can follow your own adventure, like a mildly fascinated spectator.’

Through such connections, she snuck into Warsaw, where she chained herself to a tree in the city centre and, before police arrested her, managed to hand out 200 leaflets that read: ‘The elimination of the Jews that is still going on in Poland is not part of a struggle against supposed Zionist traitors – it is simply ANTI-SEMITISM.’ She infiltrated Czechoslovakia under a false name, hiding her leaflets in a bag carrying a particularly stinky Camembert cheese to dissuade police from searching her. She had good reason to fear. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal warned her that Czech police were more brutal than in Poland. Two years before, a leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had drowned at the hands of the Czech secret service.

As she speaks, Beate’s dogs shoot up from their sleep and run to the front door barking as a key turns in the lock. The door opens. ‘It’s Serge,’ she says, her eyes brightening and a broad smile stretching across her face.

They embrace, greeting each other tenderly. She introduces me. ‘You can ask him any questions you want, too,’ she says to me, ushering her husband towards her desk where I’m interviewing her. He is polite and warm but makes it clear that this is her story. ‘Ok, well you can ask him questions after me,’ Beate says, settling in her chair, the dogs reclaiming their position at her feet.

After Kiesinger, Serge’s meticulous documentation and research led to the couple’s mission to bring Kurt Lischka to justice. Lischka had been the head of Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs division in France and had been condemned to life imprisonment in France, but he lived openly in Cologne as a wealthy businessman. Due to administrative and judicial sluggishness, Lischka wasn’t tried in Germany and the demand for extradition to France had been refused. The Klarsfelds tried to kidnap him and bring him to France to face justice, but their actions failed. While Beate was thrown in a women’s prison, she received worldwide support, including an open letter from an Israeli journalist: ‘May you be blessed, Beate, for your actions. You will not be alone in that dock of the Cologne court… the state of Israel must not be absent from the courtroom of Cologne, because your trial is ours.’

In 1975 the couple got a law ratified, which stated that former Nazis living in postwar Germany who had committed crimes in France, could be tried in Germany.

Lischka’s trial took place in Cologne in 1979. Ernest Heinrichsohn and Herbert-Martin Hagen, who had been top Nazi officials in France, were also tried. Serge had spent almost ten years preparing an 11-volume document on the Final Solution in France, which was used in the case.

Beate did her part by helping to orchestrate protests outside the courtroom. Despite the 250 family members of victims who wanted to attend the trial, the German court wouldn’t grant them the larger courtroom, which had been given for a much smaller trial involving bank fraud. The couple also organised the arrival of 1,500 French Jews who marched from the Cologne train station to the courthouse. Serge wrote: ‘The last time that many Jews had been seen on German streets was during the arrests that followed Kristallnacht.’ For Beate, the trial was especially significant because it allowed for Holocaust victims to testify in the country that had persecuted them. ‘Before, lawyers, who were pro-Nazi mocked the witnesses,’ she said. Lischka was sentenced to ten years in prison.

The Lischka trial and the Klarsfeld’s other missions prepared them for their most infamous case against Klaus Barbie, the former head of the Lyon Gestapo who had fled, with the help of the CIA, to South America after the war. It took them 16 years to bring him to justice. Called the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Barbie was known for especially sadistic methods of torture against Jews and resistance fighters, including Jean Moulin. He had also signed off on sending 44 Jewish children, who sought refuge in nearby Izieu to their deaths. Through his meticulous research, Serge Klarsfeld discovered Barbie was living in La Paz, Bolivia under the name Robert Altman. In 1972 the Klarsfelds organised a plan in Chile to abduct Barbie, but it fell through. Beate, however, continued to travel through South America to out other Nazi criminals being sheltered by the continent’s dictatorships including Josef Mengele and Walter Rauf.

In 1983, thanks to Bolivian friends of the Klarsfelds, Barbie was deported to France. In 1987, after four years of preparation, he was tried at the Cours d’ Assises in Lyon and was sentenced to prison for life. He was forced to spend a night in Montluc prison, where he had tortured hundreds of victims.

When I’d finished talking to Beate, I asked Serge about the Barbie trial. He explained that Barbie was the first war criminal to be charged with crimes against humanity because ‘of the children and his desire to exterminate every Jew he found by deporting them. He knew very well what happened to them when deported. If it could have been proved that he didn’t know what happened to them, it might have been a war crime. He was charged with the crime against humanity and not war crimes’.

Beate was not just a ‘good German’. Over time, she became a ‘good Frenchwoman’, too, as the couple unveiled France’s own buried history with unpunished war criminals. In addition to Maurice Papon, they brought to justice Paul Touvier, the leader of the French milice tasked with combating the Resistance, and charged René Bousquet, the principal organiser of the largest French round-up of Jews, Vel d’Hiv. Serge’s multi-tome book, Vichy-Auschwitz, helped destroy the myth that Vichy had been necessary and that Marshall Pétain had saved France from the fate of Poland. It was also said that Pétain saved the French Jews, since, at first, he only allowed the deportation of foreign Jews who sought refuge on French soil. They also showed that Vichy, the official French government from 1940-42, was responsible for antisemitic decrees and mass Jewish deportation, including Vel d’Hiv. The myth had said Vichy officials acted on the orders of the Nazis. Even President François Mitterand maintained Pétain’s virtues. It was only in 1995 that President Jacques Chirac publicly admitted France’s role in the Holocaust, rendering the nation’s responsibility official.

For her actions in France, Beate was decorated as a Grand Officer in the National Order of the Legion of Honour, one of the highest French orders of merit. She also was awarded the German equivalent, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

On 27 February 2012 the left-wing German party, Die Linke, nominated Beate as their presidential candidate. She accepted and ran against Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor who had fought for human rights in East Germany, who she admired. On the morning before the election, she was welcomed by Angela Merkel. With her family, she was brought to a room reserved for deputies and delegates from individual western German states. Even though she lost by a landslide, she savoured this moment because, as she writes: ‘each and every one of us had been arrested in Germany at least once during the course of our protests and illegal actions, and because of me – with the exception of me – each one of us had lost a mother or father in Auschwitz’.

I asked her what she would have done if elected. ‘If elected’, she says, ‘I would have insisted on educating people about fighting against poverty.’

Beate Klarsfeld. A good German, who, by rebelling against historical erasure and national disunity, lived to see a prosperous unified nation that has been internationally admired for its educational outreach about the Holocaust to its youth. A good wife, who married a man who is almost as rebellious as she is, brought to justice unpunished criminals responsible for the death of Serge’s father.

‘How did you do it?’

Hard rain pattered the windows and although I knew she would invite me to stay until the storm passed, I decided to leave her in peace for the afternoon. She’s in her eighties, but I have a feeling she might be getting ready for her next fight.

To answer my question, Beate directs me to a passage in her memoir. After almost 60 years of successfully chasing Nazis, she says:

‘The essential thing, in fighting against the Nazis, is to recognise before acting that success is not a certainty. What matters most is that you try courageously, to follow your conscience, with your eyes wide open.’


Jennifer Orth-Veillon