Beate Klarsfeld Never Forgets

Recent recipient of the 'Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour' Beate Klarsfeld spent her life confronting the scourge of anti-semitism. In commemoration of her newly received honor, revisit Klarsfeld's words in Mastermind 04 where she recalled a test of moral courage.

Beate Klarsfeld was honoured on Monday by French President Emmanuel Macron for her decades spent ensuring those responsible for the persecution of Jewish people were brought to justice. Klarsfeld and her husband Serge were commemorated for their acts of braveness as the recipients of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. In Mastermind 04 Klarsfeld reflected on a trip she took to Ardèche to ensure the horrific acts of anti-semitism were not forgotten. This excerpt is an example of her courageous life’s work.

After a six-month campaign against the impunity of the Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie, who had disappeared from Germany, I succeeded in having annulled the Munich prosecutor’s dismissal of his case on October 3, 1971. On December 28, my informant in South America gave me the name that the former Lyon Gestapo chief was using and his address in Lima, Peru, where he had been living for a short time.

I was preparing to travel to the Peruvian capital on January 25 with irrefutable proof of the true identity of Klaus Altmann, but before leaving for this exotic, faraway destination, Serge and I decided to go to the Ardèche department in France following the death of Xavier Vallat, who had been the first Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions (CGQJ, the French acronym) for the Vichy government. We knew that the funeral would give his political allies the opportunity to celebrate Vallat’s merits and ignore the anti-Jewish role he had played so effectively. We were there to remind the world of the consequences of his acts when he was the head of the CGQJ.

We took the night train to Annonay. It was a long journey in a dilapidated second-class compartment. We were accompanied by our friend Elie Kagan, a renowned photographer who supported our struggle. He knew that there was a good chance we would be attacked by Vallat’s friends. In spite of all this, we enjoyed the trip into the heart of France, leaving Paris behind to go to a small provincial city in a region we had never visited. Our weapons consisted of one of the three volumes about the CGQJ written by the great historian Joseph Billig, which Serge planned to hold in his hands, and yellow stars, which we would both wear on our coats.

It is true that Xavier Vallat was a heroic fighter in 1914 and that he had the fortitude to overcome his handicaps after being severely wounded. He was an eloquent orator and became a competent deputy and a remarkable jurist, but he was also thoroughly anti-Semitic and xenophobic. In the illusory context of “French sovereignty,” he aided the Germans by supporting tough anti-Jewish laws that facilitated arrests and deportations after he was dismissed by the Germans. He had accomplished what they expected of him, and they replaced him with the fanatical anti-Semite Louis Darquier de Pellepoix.

That explains why we made this long trip. After having coffee and fresh country bread and butter in a cafe that probably hadn’t changed in a century, Serge and I went to stand on either side of the door to the funeral home where the religious ceremony was being held. We were insulted, and people even spit in our faces. Vallat’s friends called the police. The police commissioner arrived, but since we were silent and nonviolent, he refused to force us to leave. From there, we went to the cemetery in the village of Pailharès, where Vallat was buried. His family and friends were once again confronted with the book and the yellow stars. We were tired but relieved to have had the moral courage to make this trip.

After this experience, I felt ready to go by myself to the end of the world – to the Andean cordillera – to try to bring Barbie back. One’s personality and will power are forged from experiences like this: it becomes possible to take on the most important and most difficult missions because one has been able to take on less important missions that are just as difficult. From this episode, which took place when we were young, adventurous and in love, we still have the beautiful photos of Elie Kagan, which I believe explain what I have just written.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 04 – buy all issues here.

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