He Covered Wars All Around the World. Then Unearthed His Father's Dark Nazi Past

In an interview marking the publication of his Prix Goncourt nominated hugely successful autobiography, French journalist Sorj Chalandon speaks about his mythomaniac father and the contentious subject that still enthralls the French

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Sorj Chalandon.
Sorj Chalandon. The biggest bestselling book in France at the moment.

“At the sight of the corpses, bodies of women, children and elderly people – victims of the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982, which I covered for the Libération newspaper – I sat on the ground as tears streamed down my face. The famous Journalist François Luizet from Le Figaro approached me and said, ‘Stand up, my boy. Turn your tears to ink, and write,’” author and journalist Sorj Chalandon, one of the founders of Libération, and, since 2009, a member of the editorial staff of the satirical journal Le Canard enchaîné, recounts.

Chalandon has written many books, earning important awards along the way. Among other prizes, he won the prestigious Albert Londres Prize for Journalism for his coverage of the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie, the commander of the Gestapo in the French city of Lyon.

Chalandon’s new autobiography, “Bastard’s Child,” (“Enfant de Salaud”) has topped bestseller lists in France for several weeks now, and is a candidate for several literary awards in France that will be conferred this month, including the Prix Goncourt.

Sorj Chalandon’s new autobiography, “Bastard’s Child”.

French Nazi collaborators are often referred to by the term “salaud” – meaning bastard. The subject still enthralls the French, who presumably would prefer to adhere to the narrative of “the Resistance” nurtured by Charles de Gaulle following the war in the interest of national conciliation. De Gaulle’s claim has been undermined by a few details: France’s surrender to Germany in 1940, the establishment of the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain and the collaboration with the occupier, the antisemitic laws, transports to the death camps, French militias, the informing and treachery, torture and executions.

Curses in German

As a child, Chalandon, 69, was lulled to sleep by his father’s war stories. His father starred in the stories as the paratrooper who fought the Germans at Dunkerque in 1940, where the English prevented him from boarding an evacuation boat following their resounding defeat. In another story he appeared as a fighter in the Resistance, and even as the commanding officer of the underground hero Jean Moulin. When he wasn’t telling fictitious stories of heroism, he was in the habit of beating his son and wife and cursing them in German.

When did you begin doubting your father’s stories?

My father said that in the Resistance it was common to wear a German uniform in order to confuse the enemy. I was divided between the two versions of the story

“When I was 10, my grandfather told me: ‘In the war, your father was on the wrong side. You’re a bastard’s child.’ I was in shock, and asked him why he would say that. ‘I saw him wearing a German uniform in La Place Bellecour in central Lyon,’ he replied. My grandmother scolded him, saying there was no reason to shock me with such stories, but he insisted. ‘He must know the truth about his father,’ he said.”

“When I told my father what I’d heard, he exploded with rage. He claimed my grandfather was senile and speaking nonsense and he forbade me from seeing him. Essentially, I didn’t see him again until his death. My father said that in the Resistance it was common to wear a German uniform in order to confuse the enemy. I was divided between the two versions of the story.”

In 1987, following a resolute campaign by the Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was extradited to France from Bolivia, where he had been living under the alias Klaus Altmann. Barbie, nicknamed the “Butcher of Lyon,” had been commander of the Gestapo in the city. Among the hundreds of arrests, acts of torture and executions he carried out, he was present for the arrest of 44 Jewish children who had been hidden under assumed identity in a boarding house in the town of Izieu and were sent to their deaths.

Jewish children of Izieu at the Izieu Childrens Home shortly before they were deported to death camps in April 1944.

Barbie’s trial opened in Lyon in May 1987. In April of that year, Chalandon came to the school in which the Jewish children had studied. A heart-rending excerpt about the children’s games, their innocence and the arrest serves as the opening chapter of Chalandon’s book. While recounting the story during this interview, he is moved to tears.

“On the first floor, the classrooms have remained as they were 50 years ago,” he recalls. “No one took any interest in them. In the drawer of a school desk, I found a small slate with the word ‘apple’ etched in chalk in large, childish letters. In 1987, a woman named Thibaudet was living on the ground floor of the school building. She told me that she had not even gone up to see the classrooms on the first floor. She said that when she moved into the building she burned the children’s clothing and personal possessions in the yard. Absolute apathy in the face of tragedy. It still reverberated through the site.”

And nevertheless, the French rescued numerous Jewish children. In the town of Chambon-sur-Lignon they hid hundreds of them.

“Until the 1980s, no one spoke very much about the fate of the French Jews during the war. The Barbie trial was a turning point. They began establishing memorial sites and museums. Also, President Chirac’s declaration regarding France’s responsibility for the murder of the Jews had a powerful effect. There was Lanzmann’s cinematic opus ‘Shoah.’ Although it was released in 1985, it required some time to digest. Similarly, during those years the politician Simone Weil, a survivor of Auschwitz, voiced her eyewitness account for the first time. Today, the building in Izieu is being converted into a museum, and the small and emotionally evocative slate board is displayed in the Holocaust museum in Lyon.”

When Chalandon was sent to report on the Barbie trial for Libération in May of 1987, his father asked for a permit to enter the courtroom. This was no simple request, as hundreds of citizens who asked to be present were turned down. His father’s reaction at the trial was unexpected.

Lyon, France's Gestapo chief during WW II, Klaus Barbie, as he faces trial inside the local Palais de Justice, in 1987.

What did you expect to see from him as a spectator at the trial?

“I thought that after he had heard the eyewitness accounts he’d finally tell me the truth about his story. Member of the underground? German soldier? I was nearly 40-years-old, and I still didn’t know the truth. I kept turning around to glance at where he was sitting. I saw him smiling in ridicule while listening to the survivors’ heart-rending testimony, while they described the torture they endured at Barbie’s hands. When Barbie’s defense attorney, Vergès, a rude and arrogant man, took the court to task, arguing that an individual who had been kidnapped from Bolivia and brought to France against his will could not stand trial – my father rubbed his hands together with satisfaction.”

“I will note that during the blood-chilling reading by Serge Klarsfeld, listing the names of the 44 children of Izieu, my father was silent and looked down at the floor. But, during the court recesses, he kept calling me a naive child who believed all the garbage he was told. At the time, I did not know the truth about him and didn’t expect him to drop the facade. I just wanted him to tell me about his life now that I was an adult, and not the made-up stories he had told me in my childhood.”

Winding path

His father’s path is difficult to follow, and Chalandon only confirmed the story in 2020. His father was 18-years-old when the war broke out and was drafted into the French army. In June 1940, at the time of the surrender and ceasefire, only one French unit remained, under the command of Marshal Pétain. The so-called “Tricolor legion” continued to fight alongside the German army. Hitler decided to blend the unit into the Waffen SS, and called it the “Charlemagne Division.” Part of the unit was dispatched to the Russian front, and another part was offered the opportunity to work in the German arms industry. His father chose the second option, and began work at a submarine factory in Germany, before being kicked out for lack of skill. He was transferred to an engineering battalion that built the Atlantic Wall and roads for the Wehrmacht.

The only known photographs of SS Obersturmfuhrer Klaus Barbie in a Nazi Uniform.

After returning to France in a Nazi uniform, Chalandon’s father deserted from the German battalion, enlisted in the Resistance, and took part in several successful attacks against Germans. Following the invasion of Allied forces at Normandy, he managed to acquire a certificate as an American army volunteer. He made his way to Belgium, intending to blend in among the thousands of French forced laborers who had recently been released from Germany. There he was caught and dispatched to France, where he was jailed and placed on trial on charges of harming national security and collaborating with the enemy. He served a one-and-a-half year sentence at a prison in the city of Lille.

“My father,” relates Chalandon, “switched identities like handkerchiefs, wore five different sets of uniforms, and told fabricated stories where he was always the hero. For instance, although he didn’t join the Charlemagne Division and didn’t fight on the dangerous Russian front, he told me about his friends who died at his side in Stalingrad. He even claimed to have been among the last of the Waffen SS soldiers who defended Hitler’s bunker in April 1945 in Berlin. When I found his court records in the Lille archive, I understood that by April ‘45 he was already in prison.”

A person who switches identities indiscriminately and does not feel any guilt over it is defined as a sociopath.

I went into Lebanon with the Israeli army. Soldiers danced the ‘chicken dance’ on top of their tanks, and, a short while later, came to understand the scope of the tragedy

“I’m no psychologist and the psychological terms don’t interest me. As far as I’m concerned, my father was a confused kid playing war. He was a young man lacking even basic education, who did not have a profession, who simply chose the shiniest uniform, the most polished boots. He told me that he taught judo as a young man, that he was one of Edith Piaf’s lovers, that he founded the singing troupe ‘Les Compagnons de la Chanson’ – it was foolish and childish, but nothing more.”

“But he managed to confuse the five judges at his trial. In his legal documents, it states that the judges determined he was ‘a dangerous liar.’ In reality, he was not courageous, and he did not take things to their limit, in any direction: In spite of his claims of heroism, he chose not to join his comrades on the Soviet front. He often spoke of his comrades in arms who fell to their deaths alongside him, and who only wished to hear the song ‘Lili Marlene’ before their deaths. He was a sort of ‘Zelig’ who knew everyone. He used to say, ‘Ah, Jean Moulin, I knew him so well.’ ‘Ah, Klaus Barbie, we were so close.’”

How did you feel when you discovered his court file in 2020?

“I felt a certain sense of relief. I was afraid of finding some sort of ‘Lacombe, Lucien’ (the hero of Louis Malle’s 1974 film of the same name), a petty, sordid collaborator who informed on Jews or members of the underground. These were the true wicked ones. In the case of my father – we are talking about a pathological liar who switched uniforms and played at war, but we are not speaking of an informer or of someone who stole Jewish property. I cannot forgive him for not telling me, his only son, the truth about his life. Even on his deathbed he told me about fighting with the Waffen SS. I feel endless compassion toward him. I am angry about the violence with which he treated me and my mother, beating us and cursing us in German. Evidently, for him this was the language of evil and he used expressions that had been used against him.”

Why do you call him “my first traitor” in the book?

“I was a war correspondent at Libération for 22 years, and I covered wars all over the world. In 1982, I went into Lebanon with the Israeli army. Soldiers danced the ‘chicken dance’ on top of their tanks, and, a short while later, came to understand the scope of the tragedy. After that, I was with the Lebanese Army and the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Christians. So I also found my way to Sabra and Chatila. I was in Afghanistan. In Syria, I reported on Hafez Assad’s massacre against his own people, men and women, in the village of Hama. I reported on the events in Northern Ireland. A close friend, an Irish fighter who betrayed his friends, lied to me, as well, and was executed. How ironic that as a war correspondent all over the world I received the journalism prize in Lyon, of all places, the city where I was born, for covering the Barbie trial.”

If your father were alive today, would he be in support of Eric Zemmour, the presumed candidate of the extreme right in the 2022 presidential elections?

“No, my father believed in weaving dark conspiracies against France. Evidently, he would have voted for Marine Le Pen because she was nevertheless a Bretonne, a blond with blue, Aryan eyes. In his time, my father voted for her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. When I told him that I had met a Jewish woman and that I was planning to marry her, he said, ‘I hope she has Aryan eyes, like us, at least.’ When I introduced her to him, he looked at her and sighed, ‘Well, at least you don’t look Jewish.’”

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