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Truth and justice were lifelong pursuits for authors

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Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. Translated by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld married on Nov. 7, 1963. The union of these two exceptionally resolute and determined individuals created a cyclonic force for justice of unstoppable potency.

Both were born before the Second World War – Serge in 1935, Beate in 1939 – and raised in a Europe whose earth was sodden with the blood of millions upon millions. Serge, a Jew from Romania, grew up in France and survived the war because of the heroic self-sacrifice of his father. Beate, a Christian from Germany, grew to adulthood abhorring the racism, xenophobia and brazen cruelty that had led to her country’s moral and physical ruin.

They met in Paris, married and raised their family there. The city became the base for their life’s work of bringing Nazi and collaborationist criminals to justice and championing human dignity and human rights around the globe.

Not surprisingly, the Second World War formed them. It became the emotional, ethical and moral springboard for their subsequent life’s work. One of the unique, fine aspects of Hunting the Truth is that Serge and Beate tell, in their own words, how this occurred.

The book is jointly written, but not in the usual sense of two voices blending into one. Rather, Hunting the Truth features both voices, each distinct. The Klarsfelds take turns, as it were, providing information, confiding personal details, sharing reflections and summarizing various parts of their remarkably daring lives.

A short time before their son was born in 1965, Serge felt the need to travel to Auschwitz to somehow connect with the murder of his father during the war. The experience launched him toward a lifelong, unflagging pursuit of justice.

“In the main camp, Auschwitz I, there were lots of visitors, all of them from Poland or other Soviet satellite countries. At Birkenau, the final destination for the Jewish people, I was alone, completely alone. At that moment, I felt certain my life should have ended there, that the immense suffering of the slaughtered Jewish people had not been assuaged by the passage of time. It seemed that I could hear my people screaming, a scream as great as the crime that had provoked it, a scream that was impossible to interrupt, that would go on forever. I could not block my ears or my heart: if the child who had survived the genocide by a miracle, and by his father’s sacrifice, remained deaf to that scream – which was also a call for him to assume his responsibilities as a Jew – wouldn’t my life be an act of betrayal? I was a Jew who had survived the Holocaust and I was a Jew who had seen the creation of an independent Jewish state, a Jew belonging to an exceptional generation assuming exceptional responsibilities. It felt like a revelation,” he wrote.

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For Beate, the impetus for her life of radical, political activism was the imminent election in 1966 of Kurt Georg Kiesinger as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

Kiesinger had been a key Nazi propagandist during the war. But his role had been mostly overlooked by the mainstream German and European media. Cold War realities seemed to constrain proper inquiry and comment into his background. Beate was appalled.

“What seemed impossible 10 years ago is now happening almost without resistance. It was probably inevitable that former Nazis would occupy high-ranking political positions, simply because there are too few non-Nazis to look after the functions of the state. But that a former National Socialist should now rule the entire federal republic implies that the fact of having been a Nazi no longer has any significance,” she wrote.

“I remembered Hans and Sophie Scholl’s (the sibling leaders of the White Rose student resistance movement in Munich that opposed Hitler) final leaflet. Who were they writing it for? For us, for all of us: ‘Once the war is over, the guilty must be severely punished in the interests of the future, so that no one will ever want to do something like this again. Do not forget the bastards who run this regime. Remember their names, so that not one of them may escape! So that they cannot, at the last moment, change sides and pretend that nothing ever happened.’”

The Klarsfelds are engaging writers. They write in a direct, straightforward, crisp, unembellished manner. The “literature” of the book, however, stems not from its style, but rather from the unfolding chronology of the compelling stories, whose drama hovers at the high edge because it is all true.

And that chronology takes the reader to wherever Beate and Serge, often separately, needed to travel to find and unmask Nazis. Their work was decidedly not for the faint of heart. Very often, they knowingly placed themselves in harm’s way, whether in remote places in Peru or Bolivia, small towns in Poland or West Germany, in Sarajevo, Damascus, Beirut and countless other places. They sought out the dark spaces where malevolent individuals and their cadres of bodyguards and friends exhaled the noxious fumes of anti-Semitism and hatred.

Hunting the Truth is an important book, with an immeasurable educational value. At the narrative level, the authors have written a history primer about the unimaginable cruelty of the Nazis and their willing French collaborators, whom the Klarsfelds helped bring to justice.

Alongside the narrative stratum, however, they have compiled a moving treatise based upon their personal experiences. It magnificently explores the nature of justice, the sometimes cloudy relationship between means and ends, the role of courage in human achievement, the sustaining strength that we find in memory, and the anchoring bedrock that love provides during extreme trial and tribulation.

Near the end of the memoir, Serge refers to the words of French Jewish writer Edmond Fleg, which are carved into the face of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris. The words, he tells us, speak to the importance of all such Holocaust memorials: keeping memory alive for all generations to come “will lead you to the highest peak of justice and truth.”

Simply, elegantly stated, that is why we should read Hunting for Truth.