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Still Hunting Nazis

After half a century tracking down Nazis for prosecution, Serge Klarsfeld says his work continues

Alexander Aciman
November 29, 2012
Serge Klarsfeld commemorates the 70th anniversary of the departure of the first convoy of Jews from France's Drancy internment camp to Auschwitz on March 27, 2012.(Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
Serge Klarsfeld commemorates the 70th anniversary of the departure of the first convoy of Jews from France's Drancy internment camp to Auschwitz on March 27, 2012.(Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1997, when I was 7 years old, my father handed me a book called Remembering Georgy. At first I thought it was just an ordinary picture book clearly below my third-grade reading level, but I did my dad a courtesy and sat down with it. Within pages, it was clear to me that there was much more to this short book than I had assumed. My parents explained to me that it was put together by Serge Klarsfeld, one of the world’s most famous Nazi hunters, and was the story of Georges Halpern, a young French boy who, in 1944, the year he was murdered, was only a year older than I was in 1997.

The book chronicled the life of Georges—or Georgy, as he liked to be called—through school portraits, pictures on vacation and in costume, letters to his mother, and countless drawings and diary entries. I sat attentively for many nights after finishing my division and multiplication homework, rereading the book, looking at pictures and letters that so hauntingly resembled the very ones I drew in school or wrote to my grandparents in Wisconsin, and read about the life of a boy who, 60 years later, could have very easily been me and, if not for those same 60 years, who I could have been myself. The difference between us, of course, was that Georgy died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.

Although the Holocaust had never been a taboo subject in our house full of young children, the reality of the massacre was nothing more than a history lesson to me until I read Klarsfeld’s book. I couldn’t let go of the idea that there was something I could do to save Georgy retroactively—if not by killing the remaining Nazis, then by commemorating him on his birthday every year, which I did throughout elementary school. A few months after my parents gave me Remembering Georgy, I was drawn to another book that had come in the same Amazon shipment—a book called French Children of the Holocaust, also by Klarsfeld. The tome, which was almost 2,000 pages, tells the story of every French child who was killed by the Nazis. Although I knew all along that many children had died in the Holocaust, I could hardly comprehend the fact—just as surreal as it was painful—that there were 10,000 books just like Remembering Georgy still waiting to be written.

This week in New York, I was finally able to meet Klarsfeld, who was visiting from France and who, at 77, is the last living Nazi hunter. Klarsfeld, along with his wife Beate, is responsible for making possible the convictions of top Nazi officials such as Klaus Barbie, Kurt Lischka, and Adolf Eichmann’s assistant Alois Brunner, who was convicted in absentia in 2001 after the Klarsfelds went after him for a decade and a half.

From the moment they met on the metro platform in Paris in 1960 until now, Serge and Beate have spent the last 52 years hunting down Nazis. Their system was relentless and methodical; the couple surrounded themselves with people willing to help research and assemble data, offer political support, and spend time being locked up in prison for their activism. The Klarsfelds often researched through the night in record offices that were either not officially open to the public or were previously unexplored. They worked in collaboration with the Stasi in the 1960s, and in 1968 Beate even slapped the West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, calling him a Nazi in the middle of the Christian Democratic Convention. (Kiesinger was a former member of the Nazi party who opportunistically took a high-ranking job in the new government.) Although Beate was sentenced to a year in prison, from then on Kiesinger couldn’t travel anywhere without being greeted by an ironic and condemning Nazi salute.

On Monday, at a lecture at NYU, Klarsfeld moved the audience of francophones and law students by telling the story of how, at 8 years old, he hid with his with his mother and sister behind a fake wall in a closet and watched the Gestapo take his father away from their apartment in Nice. Alois Brunner had ordered the roundup. Klarsfeld also entertained the crowd with stories of a botched kidnapping attempt on Kurt Lischka, the head of the Gestapo in Cologne, in which they were unable to overpower him and force him into the trunk of a rented car.

Today, high-ranking Nazi officials are dead. But Klarsfeld made it clear there is still a great deal of work to be done for Nazi hunters in the world without Nazis. After all, one of Klarsfeld’s greatest accomplishments—along with hunting down Barbie—is undoubtedly French Children of the Holocaust, which reminds the world of the children who were killed, some too young to even know their own names, logged instead by numbers before being sent off and murdered. “I wrote it maybe because I was a survivor. I was able to escape death, but I didn’t escape it for nothing,” he told me when I spoke with him at La Maison Francaise. “I didn’t want what happened to others, and what could have easily happened to me, not to be known.” While I once felt the need to celebrate Georgy’s birthday having been born more than half a century later, Klarsfeld was compelled to celebrate every single French child whose very fate he was just able to escape.

The primacy of the victims—forcing the world to see their names, faces, and perhaps most important, their ages—has been one of the most significant aspects of the Klarsfelds’ work. After the Klarsfelds helped change a series of laws that prevented extradition of German nationals to France and impeded the prosecution of former Nazis in Germany, Kurt Lischka, Herbert Hagen, and Ernst Heinrichsohn were finally able to be prosecuted in Cologne in 1979. Serge and Beate made sure to assemble as many victims as possible in the courtroom by organizing transit. Thousands showed up. “After such a crime, it would be horrible if there were no victims and only one lawyer showed up,” he told me. The Klarsfelds’ mission was not just to put high-ranking Nazi and Vichy officers in prison, but to make an entire and largely uncooperative nation unable to forget what had happened.

To take what was denied, obfuscated, and forgotten and make it inescapably visible has been a great part of Serge Klarsfeld’s job as a Nazi hunter. The same dedication that drove Klarsfeld to go after Brunner manifested itself when he spent countless months copying, by hand, the names of the more than 10,000 children, like Georgy, who died in Auschwitz. He went after entry logs to recover names and stories and did masterful detective work that led him to the only series of photographs of Auschwitz. It is a result of his work that the Holocaust is seen not as a period in history, but as a series of crimes against individuals. The title of Nazi hunter, as interpreted by Serge Klarsfeld, is not simply someone who chases down and prosecutes criminals, but someone who hunts down and exposes the act itself of escaping and trying to forget one’s crimes, even if the perpetrator is an entire nation.


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Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.