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The Sacrifice of a Father

Serge Klarsfeld was eight years old when the Gestapo organised a roundup in the building in Nice where he was living with his family. His father Arno had previously built a hiding place in a cupboard in their flat, into which Serge, his sister Georgette and their mother Raissa immediately went;  when the Gestapo entered the apartment and asked where his family was, Arno answered that they had left Nice because the flat had been disinfected. The Gestapo brought him to hotel Excelsior which had been converted into a transit camp for arrested Jews. Thanks to his father’s action, Serge survived the Holocaust. His father didn’t. He was deported to Auschwitz and died there nine months later, in summer 1944.

Later in his life, Serge Klarsfeld tracked down in Syria the German who had organized the roundup, Alois Brunner, but was unable to get him extradited. Together with his wife Beate, born Küntzel in 1939, they managed to expose many Germans responsible for the Holocaust, as well as many French supporters of the Vichy regime. Beate became world famous when she slapped German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger in November 1968. She wanted to draw attention to his role in the Nazi regime, where he had worked as a propagandist. Beate Klarsfeld was not born to be a fighter against anti-Semitism. She grew up in Germany and it was not until she was an au pair in Paris and met Serge, that she decided to take action against her country’s Nazi past.

The couple were not squeamish about their methods. For example, in 1971 they tried to kidnap the former Gestapo chief and SS-official Kurt Lischka from his home in Cologne. The aim was to take him to court in France to stand trial for his role in the deportations from France. The plot failed, but eventually led to a change in the law in Germany that made it possible to convict him.

The slapping of the German Chancellor was initially supported by the GDR, but they withdrew their support when the Klarsfelds began to protest against anti-Semitism, Stalinism and support for the Palestine Liberation Front in Eastern Bloc countries. They saw that the fight against anti-Semitism was not only a fight against Nazis, but also against the radical left: “To fight anti-Semitism, we must mobilise against the extremes that (…) have always brought misery and barbed wire. One side is the Gulag, the other Auschwitz,” they said in 2019.

In his memoirs, Serge Klarsfeld writes: “That night of the roundup [in Nice in 1943] has remained for the rest of my life a reference point that forged my Jewish identity and my indefectible attachment to the State of Israel.” About his father Arno, he says: “He gave me life, sacrificed his life for mine and gave meaning to my life.” When Beate gave birth to a boy in 1965, the couple decided to name him Arno.


Robert Parzer

Sources/ Further Reading

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