PARIS — Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, France’s most famous Nazi hunters, thought their activist days were mostly behind them. After decades spent tirelessly tracking down Nazi war criminals across the globe, the couple — now 78 and 82 respectively — had finally settled into a quieter life.
Then Marine Le Pen arrived on the French political scene.
With the rise of Le Pen and her far-right National Front party, the Klarsfelds have marshaled the forces of the Holocaust memorial organization they represent — Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France — to keep Le Pen from winning the presidency.
They have published five full-page announcements in the French daily newspaper Libération denouncing the rise of the far right and demanding public support for centrist Emmanuel Macron in the final round of the presidential election. And they have written op-eds denouncing Le Pen’s candidacy and some of her more controversial statements, including her denial of French responsibility for the brutal fate of the 13,000 Jews arrested during the July 1942 Vel D’hiv round-up in Paris during the Second World War.
By now, one would have imagined this couple could rest.
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, the Klarsfelds tracked down, exposed, and helped bring to trial Nazis who had served the Gestapo in France during World War II. They weren’t quiet about their struggle: In 1968, Beate, a non-Jewish German, famously (and publicly) slapped the chancellor of West Germany while shouting “Nazi! Nazi!” She chained herself to a bench in Bolivia alongside Itta Halaunbrenner, a mother whose three children and husband the Nazis had murdered, to protest the country’s sheltering of Klaus Barbie.
Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” was the Nazi SS officer in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, France, from November 1942 to August 1944. Due to the efforts of the Klarsfelds, Barbie was eventually tried and sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for crimes against humanity. He is believed responsible the deaths of 14,000 people.
For their work, the Klarsfelds received worldwide recognition and were awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest civilian honor granted by the French state.
The Klarsfelds’ offices, on Rue de la Boeite in center of Paris, harken to another era. The warren of rooms are filled floor to ceiling with paper files: the meticulous, painstaking work of documenting the names, ages and identities of every single Jew deported from France — some 76,000 all together, including 11,400 children — published in two of Klarsfeld’s most famous books.
I sat down to talk with them about the upcoming election, why they felt compelled to take a stand against Le Pen, and what the rise of the far-right in France means to them. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Wildman: What does it mean to you to have worked so hard for Holocaust memory and to have the National Front do so well in this election?
Serge Klarsfeld: Well, for survivors of the Shoah [Holocaust], it's of course very sad to see a political situation reminding us of the thirties, when we were small children — a time when parties from the extreme right or left were very strong. Of course, an extreme right party today, even if they don't campaign against Jews, we understand that they will be opposed to Jews also.
Today, Muslims are the enemies. They feel that the priority is to be given to Islam, but there was never an extreme right party which was not against Jews. Many Jews are, how to say, opposed and unhappy with the level of the extreme right in France. The level which is seen by the fact that Marine Le Pen is one of the two candidates for the second ballot.
Sarah Wildman: And you have organized against her, yes?
Beate Klarsfeld: We have placed a full-page announcement in [the newspaper] Libération five times — an announcement against her and against the National Front and asking [readers] to vote for Macron. It explains the danger of right-wing parties, what happened in Europe, you know.
Sarah Wildman: Before this, had you felt that your work was done? Did you ever feel finished with your work?
Beate Klarsfeld: Finished with our work against Nazi criminals? Yes, finished because it was due to our efforts that all those who were active in in France, the German Nazi criminals, they were condemned and tried in Cologne.
Sarah Wildman: Did you feel then with the rise of Marine Le Pen that you needed to almost return to work?
Beate Klarsfeld: No. For Nazi criminals, it's finished. But we are not retired. My husband is publishing a lot of books.
Sarah Wildman: Why is she so popular, do you think? Is it that people have forgotten the past, or that she successfully hides herself?
Beate Klarsfeld: No, because it's the crisis, you know. They want to have something better, so they go to those who promise things. She was never in government, so she can promise whatever she wants because she has never shown that she is able to do something.
Sarah Wildman: Do you consider her rise to be as dangerous as the rise of the parties in the 1930s?
Beate Klarsfeld: No. We cannot compare this for the moment.
Sarah Wildman: Are you concerned, though? Are you worried? Are you fearful of what will happen on Sunday?
Beate Klarsfeld: We have more certainty now that she will not become president, but you never know. But, sure we have been very much afraid.
Sarah Wildman: History has been very central to this election, with Le Pen denying France’s responsibility for the 1942 Vel d'Hiv round up of 13,000 Jews in Paris, and Macron going to pay his respects at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Paris. Why do you think that this election has had such a strong tie to history?
Beate Klarsfeld: Everybody has known that the National Front is an antisemitic party, and a fascist party against foreigners, and a very dangerous party because of this. It was not surprising when she made the statement. Her father [Jean Marie Le Pen] was worse. He said the Holocaust is a detail of the Second World War, you know, and denies the Holocaust.
Sarah Wildman: Do you think that it was a means of appealing to the people that she has, that were the original National Front?
Beate Klarsfeld: Well, she has all the clients of her father, you know. She has to keep them.
Sarah Wildman: I'm the grandchild of a Jewish refugee who fled Europe on the eve of World War II. Do you feel the majority of my generation remains connected to this history?
Serge Klarsfeld: I believe that they will be involved and that we have now the opportunity of seeing if people are involved or not. All the members of our organization vote against the National Front. Some vote left. Some of them vote right, but they vote all against the National Front. I believe that not one vote, from our members, will escape.
But, in 10 years from now, like I cannot tell you how people will react. We are Jews — not Beate, but I am a Jew — and almost all the members of the organization are Jews. I don't know how they will react. If tomorrow you have Le Pen as president, how many will leave France? You know, old people don't leave their country so easily.
I can say that today, 95 percent of Jews vote against the National Front and they fear the emergence of the National Front. That's sure.
Sarah Wildman: How do you continue without that strong relationship to the history that you can feel? It's different to read in a book about a mother who lost her children than to hear her talking about it in front of you. How do you teach children now about that profound shock and loss?
Serge Klarsfeld: It's difficult to transmit something that they don't understand. They don't understand hunger. They don't understand violence. The don't understand war. They don't know what is destruction. They know that because they see that on TV, but they don't understand really.
Now, you have 70 years of quiet life. After 70 years of quiet life, people don't know what is violence. They cannot even imagine that the National Front can be a police regime, you know. Because they don't know what is a police regime. They go in the street, and they say the CRS — the French police — are [like] the [Nazi] SS. They don't know what the SS were. They know that virtually, but emotionally really they don't know. So, you cannot teach that. You can explain, but not everybody understands. So each generation makes its education.