On July 9, 1979, a time bomb placed inside the automobile of fearless Nazi-hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld detonated. No one was hurt in the blast next to their Paris apartment building, but their six-year-old Renault was destroyed.
The neo-Nazi group Odessa claimed responsibility for the attack, and warned the independent war-crime investigators that if they didn’t desist in their work, next time it would be them, not their car.
They didn’t desist, of course. In fact, 55 years after they first met, on a Paris Metro platform, Serge and Beate are still active, though these days, they are more involved in commemorating the memory of the Nazis’ victims more than in exposing the criminals, whose numbers have been winnowed by time.
Serge Klarsfeld was born in Bucharest in 1935 to Raissa and Arno Klarsfeld, Romanian Jews who had emigrated to France (Raissa was visiting her family when he was born). Arno Klarsfeld was rounded up by the Germans, in Nice, in 1943, and deported to Auschwitz, where he died.
Beate Kunzel was born in Berlin in 1939 to Helene and Kurt Kunzel, German Protestants. Kurt Kunzel served in the Wehrmacht during World War II.
Beate learned little about the Holocaust until she came to Paris to work as an au pair in 1960. According to some biographies of the couple, the day she met Serge, then a political science student at the University of Paris, was the same day that Mossad agents apprehended Adolf Eichmann and smuggled him out of Argentina to Israel.
The couple quickly realized they shared a passion for justice, and for understanding what happened to the Jews in World War II. They married in 1963. (Beate did not convert.)
When Beate learned that the West German chancellor Kurt George Kiesinger, who was elected in 1966, had been a key propagandist in the German Foreign Ministry during the war, she was outraged. She began stalking him, calling him “Nazi!” when he appeared in public, and finally, in 1968, walked up to him in the Bundestag and slapping him in the face, for all the world to see.
Beate Klarsfeld was arrested and convicted for the assault, but Kiesinger was finished: The following year, he lost the chancellorship to Willy Brandt.
Kurt George Kiesinger (Photo: German Federal Archive, Wikimedia)
From that point, the Klarsfelds shared the double mission of bringing former Nazi and Vichy officials to justice, and of learning as much as possible about their victims, particularly in France. The most impressive expression of the latter is a thick volume published in 1978, with the names and basic details of the 76,000 French Jews killed by the Germans in the Holocaust.
Evidence compiled by the Klarsfelds was used to locate and bring to trial such big fish as Klaus Barbie, a notorious Gestapo official in Lyon; Maurice Papon, the Paris police chief during the occupation; and Kurt Lischka, who had led the Gestapo in Cologne. The French couple was also instrumental in having Germany and France sign a 1971 agreement by which Germany undertook to prosecute Germans suspected of carrying out Nazi crimes in France.
In 1979, Beate traveled to Damascus in search of Eichmann’s right-hand man, Alois Brunner, who was responsible for the deportations of some 140,000 European Jews. She found him, and alerted the Syrian government -- which arrested and deported her. Brunner was eventually tried in absentia in France, however, and convicted; his death was confirmed in 2014.
In some of their work, they have been aided by their son, Arno, a lawyer and now judge, who is probably best known in France for having been the romantic companion of Carla Bruni for several years – long before she became First Lady.
The Klarsfelds have persisted, in the face of the bombing of their car, and in spite of numerous arrests, threats, and even the 2012 revelation that Beate had shared information, and even received money from, the East German Stasi in the 1970s.
In 2012, the Left party in Germany nominated Beate for federal president, though she lost to Joachim Gauck. Earlier this year, the couple published their joint memoirs in France.