Klarsfeld, Serge (b. 1935)

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French Jewish historian and Nazi hunter.

In the United States and Israel (where he is a citizen, as well as in France), Serge Klarsfeld is best known as a "Nazi hunter," and in France he is known as a historian of the deportation of French Jews and as the president and founder of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France (Fils et Filles des Déportés Juifs de France). He is all of this at once, an activist grounded in his rigor as a historian and professional lawyer.

Born a Jew in Romania, Klarsfeld emigrated to France with his family. As a young boy he lived through the persecutions and the tragedy of the deportation of Jews from Nice and the murder of his father at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It was probably when he met his wife, Beate Künzel, a German Protestant, at the beginning of the 1960s and told her of the horrors perpetrated by her country from 1933 to 1945 that the couple became "militants of memory." The Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 solidified their commitment. Many Jews, who had largely remained silent after the Holocaust, were beginning to make the voices of its victims heard. Beate and Serge Klarsfeld became known for their tenacity in exposing and bringing to justice Nazi criminals, sometimes by means of provocative symbolic gestures that led to their imprisonment. In 1968 Beate slapped the German chancellor Kurt Kiesinger; in 1971 they attempted to abduct Kurt Lischka to highlight the need to bring Lischka and two others, Ernst Heinrichsohn and Herbert Hagen, to trial for the deportations of Jews from France. They traveled to Iran, Syria (to hunt down Aloïs Brunner), and South America. Although Serge Klarsfeld and Regis Debray failed in their 1972 attempt to abduct Klaus Barbie in Bolivia, ten years later the head of the Lyon Gestapo was finally extradited and tried in France. His trial was followed by those of two Frenchmen—Paul Touvier, a former Lyon militia leader, in 1994, and the high-level state official Maurice Papon, in 1997–1999. The lawyer for the Jewish plaintiffs in this civil trial in Bordeaux was none other than Beate and Serge's son Arno Klarsfeld, named after his murdered grandfather.

At the same time as he was seeking out the executioners and their accomplices, Serge Klarsfeld published a major work of historical scholarship. This work describes the suffering of the Jews during the war, the crushing responsibility of the Vichy authorities in the deportations, especially of children, and also the not inconsiderable efforts of "ordinary" citizens that allowed many Jews on French soil to be saved. Klarsfeld is not a typical academic: above all, he assembled documents—documents from the convoys, letters, and photographs of eleven thousand children killed in the Holocaust. His historical work on deportation represents a standard of scholarship that many European countries are trying to equal.

Klarsfeld also personally established memorials to the Jews of Romania and Grodno; he later focused on Hungarian victims. His archival work aims above all to provide a "symbolic burial" of the victims. It also enables their descendants to assert their rights, which Klarsfeld, through the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France, is helping to defend. He participated in the Matteoli commission studying the confiscation of Jewish goods under the Vichy government and waged a successful campaign to secure indemnification for Holocaust orphans from Lionel Jospin's government in 1999.

Klarsfeld's initiatives continue to receive extensive media coverage. Personally close to Jacques Chirac, he helped to write the 1995 speech in which the president of the republic acknowledged France's culpability in the deportation of seventy-eight thousand Jews, of whom only twenty-five hundred returned. From 2002 to 2004 Klarsfeld invited survivors and descendants of the victims to come to the various points from which the convoys left, including Angers, Valenciennes, Compiègne, and above all Drancy, on the anniversary of the departures. Participants read the victims' names and sometimes spoke a few words. Klarsfeld restored to each of them a name, a life, and sometimes a face. He also gave their relatives a place to mourn: the wall engraved with names at the Shoah Memorial inaugurated in Paris in January 2005.

See alsoBarbie, Klaus; Deportation; Holocaust; Wallenberg, Raoul .


Klarsfeld, Serge. Le mémorial de la déportation des Juifs de France. Paris, 1978.

——. French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial. Translated by Glorianne Depont and M. Epstein. New York, 1997.

——. La Shoah en France. 4 vols. Paris, 2001 .

Laqueur, Thomas. "Sound of Voices Intoning Names." London Review of Books 19, no. 1 (1997): 3–6.

Wieviorka, Annette. "Serge Klarsfeld, l'archive au cœur." L'histoire 261 (2002): 30–31.

Annette Becker