“I should have died but thanks to my father, I had the right to a second life” says Serge Klarsfeld at the heart of an exhibition in Toulouse
The departmental council of Haute-Garonne is organizing from October 22, at the Resistance Museum, an exhibition dedicated to Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. For fifty years, the couple fought to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Interview with Serge Klarsfeld.
The departmental council of Haute-Garonne is organizing from October 22, at the Resistance Museum, an exhibition dedicated to Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. For fifty years, the couple, who will be present this Wednesday in Toulouse, fought to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Interview with Serge Klarsfeld.
At a time when we are devoting a retrospective exhibition to you, for 50 years of combat in the name of memory, what is your view on your action?
I am happy to have been able to carry that voice with my wife, Beate. When we look back on our life, we say to ourselves that we were lucky to accomplish an individual and collective destiny. I owed the Shoah when I should have perished. It took a few centimeters for the Gestapo to discover me behind the plate where my father had hidden us. I was eight years old. If I survived, by chance or divine will, I would have done something positive with my wife. It is a beautiful love story that was not common at the time between a French Jew who marries a German non-Jew. We have accomplished common work which has benefited Germany, France and the Jews.
Do you often think about the day your father was arrested?
Yes, very often. I was hidden behind the wall of the closet with my mother and sister. My father had told us: if we find you that you are dead. We weren’t worried about him, he was a strong man who had already escaped. He opened the door to the Gestapo and he sacrificed himself. One of the policemen searched the closet, in the middle of the clothes, and it came close to touching the thin partition that hid us. I should have died but thanks to my father, I had the right to a second life. When I think about it it gives me strength.
What was your greatest pride?
Undoubtedly that of having restored their identity to the deportees, in particular with the creation of the deportation memorial. It is my greatest pride, more than having made it possible to bring Nazi criminals to justice. I was more interested in the victims than their torturers. I am also proud to have established the memory of what happened under the Vichy regime.
Exactly how do you react when people like Eric Zemmour claim that Marshal Pétain saved Jews?
I’m used to it. It is moreover against this kind of negationist remarks that I mobilized in the seventy years to write the history of the Jews under Vichy. I am a little jaded because the supporters of Vichy always used the same argument, that the French Jews had been placed in the second line compared to the foreigners. But the arrest of all Jews should have been stopped. Pétain did not protect French Jews. We have to face regularly a current of the extreme right which aims to defend the Vichy regime, but also to certain historians who would like to convince us that if Vichy had refused to arrest all the Jews, it would have been a catastrophe. It is fictional history. Real history has shown that thousands of French police arrested tens of thousands of French Jews. We cannot change reality.
And do you have any regrets?
Not especially, I have always done my best. And even when I failed, I always felt like I had done my best. I regret that Alois Brunner (one of the most wanted war criminals, Editor’s note) was not found to be contradictory; he was convicted in absentia. When Beate and I traveled to Syria, where Brunner had taken refuge, we were deported but Brunner’s situation had changed. He was the target of an attack (a letter bomb attributed to the Mossad, Editor’s note) then he was arrested by Assad’s personal guard and ended his days in prison.
Are there still unsolved mysteries surrounding the disappearance of former Nazi war criminals? Like Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller or Doctor Mengele?
Not particularly. The death of Martin Bormann has been formalized by German justice (it has long been thought that Bormann had fled under a false identity, Editor’s note). Müller would also be dead. As for Mengele, when we tackled his case, he was already dead. He drowned in Brazil while swimming.
A 96-year-old former secretary of the Auschwitz camp will be tried in Germany. Does that still make sense?
Yes, that makes sense. Germany shows that it still wants to judge Nazi crimes until the last breath of the last criminal. Others think, on the contrary, that we cannot judge people who are very old today, unable to defend themselves, or who occupy subordinate positions and whose involvement cannot be testified in the absence of documents.
Is the gift given in 1968 by your wife, Beate, to Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger, a former Nazi, the starting point of your joint action?
Yes, it was a spectacular gesture. Beate showed the world that there is a new generation of Germans who do not want former Nazi leaders to take up positions of responsibility. Moreover very quickly Kiesinger was replaced by Willy Brandt who transformed Germany into a true democracy.
If you had not succeeded in having Klaus Barbie extradited from Bolivia to put him on trial in France, you were considering kidnapping him, like Eichmann …
It is true, we had envisaged it with Régis Debray. We made contact with Bolivian opponents in 1972. We wanted to stop him on the road between La Paz and Chile and smuggle him back to France via Chile. But the coup against Allende did not allow it. Finally, our Bolivian friends managed to get him expelled ten years later, through official channels, while Régis Debray was a close adviser to François Mitterrand.
Is current anti-Semitism comparable to that of the 1930s?
There is a new anti-Semitism hidden in anti-Zionism. And an older anti-Semitism still exists. It is a complex disease that will not be cured until Humanity is at peace. But we have to be realistic: anti-Semitism is not about to disappear and we have to fight it.
When you are no longer there, who will be the keeper of this memory?
I am not worried about the transmission. The great events of Humanity, such as the Shoah, have gone down in history. Tomorrow, there will be no more survivors to testify but there remains historical work which gave rise to an assessment and that is the main thing. I am confident in the future of memory.