A few weeks after taking office in 1995, President Jacques Chirac told the French people that it was past time they acknowledged the "black hours" that "forever besmirch our history and dishonor our past and our traditions."
In blunt and humbled terms the likes of which had never been used by a postwar French president, he recalled the willing collaboration of French authorities and thousands of individuals in consigning more than 76,000 French Jews to their deaths in Nazi gas chambers.
"France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners," Chirac said.
The origins of this belated national admission of France's Nazi past can be traced to the work of one family and notably to one man, whom Chirac cited in his speech.
Serge Klarsfeld, a stout and unassuming Parisian of 61 years, has made it his life's work, as Simon Wiesenthal has made it his, to bring to justice Nazi war criminals still abroad in the world -- Klaus Barbie is the best known. He persists, too, in the less sensational work of remembering the slaughtered, whose names and faces and stories he has retrieved from a kind of willed obscurity. He remains haunted most of all by the children. His latest book, nearly 2,000 pages long, is devoted to "French Children of the Holocaust." It bespeaks Klarsfeld's belief in the tragic revelations of meticulous documentation. The bulk of its pages are given over to photographs of more than 2,500 French Jewish children, a quarter of the 11,000 young people, from infants to pre-teens, who were put on cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz to die.
(Photographs from the collection Klarsfeld has assembled for the book, which is published in English by New York University Press for $90, are on display through April 26 at Georgetown University's Bunn Intercultural Center. Klarsfeld will speak at Georgetown's Leavey Center at 5:30 p.m. next Thursday.)
The pictures are taken, most of them, from family albums, so they are of brighter moments. The boys and girls almost always are smiling and in their best outfits, with a sibling or parent or pet or toy. Examining a random few of the matted photographs spread out on the table, Klarsfeld can name the children on sight.
Each picture, each smile, is a sadness. The sadness they leave is difficult to dispel; it plants a new recognition of the nature of their going.
As a Jewish child living in Nice, France, in September 1943, Serge Klarsfeld nearly became one of the victims. He and his mother and sister hid behind a false closet in their family's apartment while French police came for his father and dispatched him to the train for Auschwitz.
But his work was inspired not by his experience but by his German-born wife. Like him, Beate Kunzel was a student living in Paris in 1960 when they met on a Metro subway train. The Jewish son of an Auschwitz victim and the Protestant daughter of a Wehrmacht officer were married in 1963.
In those days, the wartime enemies France and Germany were forging tentative new alliances, and Beate found work as a secretary for a Franco-German youth group in Paris. She was fired in 1967 for writing articles exposing the Nazi pasts of Germans holding public office and then refusing to recant them. A year later, she approached the chancellor of West Germany, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, at a speech and in full public view slapped him across the face, shouting "Nazi! Nazi!"
Kiesinger had in fact been a propaganda officer for Hitler. The outcry that followed ended his political career a year later and gave the Klarsfelds a global renown they had not intended.
"We were very poor, both of us, and things were getting better," Serge Klarsfeld says. "There were more vegetables in the market. You could travel. You could go to museums. That was happiness. We were not political. We just wanted to be happy."
But, he says matter-of-factly, "to win you have to engage totally. We knew it would turn our lives upside down." And the job he took on was part of his nature. "When my father got to Auschwitz," Klarsfeld says, "he struck the capo. That's why he died." As a French citizen and lawyer, the Romanian-born Klarsfeld has devoted the bulk of his energies, in legal action and archival research, to the French role in the Nazis' work and to the French victims.
Through their organization, Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported From France, the Klarsfelds and their son, Arno, have worked to make a record of every French victim of Hitler's "final solution." Klarsfeld set the tone for the research he meant to do with a 1978 volume called "The Memorial to the Jews Deported From France," a list of every person and every train convoy. His subsequent books include "Vichy-Auschwitz," establishing that dark connection, and now "French Children of the Holocaust."
But when he is pressed to condemn the ordinary French people who yielded to the pro-Nazi Vichy government, Klarsfeld says sorrowfully, "They didn't want to know."
In a conversation in his Paris office, whose walls are crammed floor to ceiling with folders of documents and whose armchairs are stacked with photographs, Serge Klarsfeld softly describes his goal: to rewrite that period in French history books, in whose texts for 50 years French complicity has been buried -- out of "shame and perplexity."
A new generation of French people, and survivors of the old one, need to know that in many cases it was French people who fingered and arrested other French people to satisfy, or to anticipate, the thirst of Nazi murderers, Klarsfeld says.
"The young need to be confronted by two Frances, not a single France: the France of de Gaulle and the Resistance, and the France of Vichy and Petain," he says. "If we didn't show the crimes of Vichy, then Vichy could be rehabilitated one day." This fall the last of the group the Klarsfelds selected for their most-wanted list almost two decades ago will stand trial: Maurice Papon, the former prefect of the Bordeaux region who is charged in the deaths of some 1,700 Jews.
Did the French who helped the Nazis know what they were doing?
"They didn't, in many cases," Klarsfeld says. "But they knew that 3,000 had died in French camps. So what could they think about Jews heading east,' when they saw the very young leaving without their parents. They didn't think they were going on vacation." He pauses, twiddling with a piece of cellophane tape. "They didn't want to know," he repeats.
The Germans, Klarsfeld says, had been conditioned by the Nazis for seven years to accept the atrocities against the Jews. "Totalitarianism makes people insensitive to those who have been made scapegoats for all the ills of society, including the war itself," he says.
"We see a truck full of cows going by on their way to the slaughterhouse. They're no longer in a field, in the sunshine, and we feel a little sad, but we understand it's necessary for the good of society. Hitler convinced the Germans that the same treatment of Jews was just and necessary for society."
The French, on the other hand, Klarsfeld suggests, didn't need seven years of propaganda. Referring to the armistice that surrendered France to Germany in 1942 and established the Vichy regime, "just a few weeks after France was at war with Germany, the French gave themselves an antisemitic regime, and Jews became pariahs." Klarsfeld has been vilified, his car bombed (no one was in it), for carrying on his hunt for justice and memory, but he has also been cited -- by Chirac, not surprisingly, among others -- for establishing by his research an important and even redemptive fact: Three-quarters of the Jews in France escaped deportation and execution.
Many hid, many were hidden, and in unknown numbers many were allowed to elude capture -- something that can be said for few other continental European countries. No picture Klarsfeld wants to leave is without that redeeming caveat.
Arno Klarsfeld, who is 30, cuts a different figure from his understated father and elegant mother. A lawyer like his father (as well as a promising novelist), he will be on the prosecution team at the trial of Vichy collaborator Maurice Papon. Like his father, Arno worked on the first case brought against a French war criminal, Paul Touvier, who was convicted in 1994 and died last summer.
Rolling into his office across the old wooden floors of the apartment on rollerblades, he describes himself as a product of his education, by which he doesn't just mean New York University Law School and a stint at the law firm of Skadden, Arps so much as a lifetime as a Klarsfeld. "I never have tried to kill' my parents psychologically. What they said was reasonable and I follow what is reasonable," he says.
The longhaired Klarsfeld says the work of retrieving the history of Holocaust victims was "solely Serge, 100 percent Serge," but suggested that Beate had served as another kind of example.
Ten years ago, when he was 20, he went to a rally of the extreme-right National Front party. Its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had recently described the existence of Nazi gas chambers as a "historical detail." Just as Le Pen was to speak, Arno leaped on stage wearing a "Le Pen Nazi" T-shirt. He says he was taken offstage and beaten bloody for 10 long minutes by party security officers.
Arno says he has studied Vichy France and traveled to the killing fields of Rwanda to understand human nature better. He has also taken a lesson from the United States -- especially the movies: "The individual always prevails against the group," he says. "If I have an optimistic view of life it's because American movies tend to end happily." The moral victory Serge Klarsfeld could take from President Chirac's 1995 confession had a poignant context for him.
Chirac delivered the speech on July 16, in commemoration of the day in 1943 when 4,500 French policemen obeyed German orders to round up nearly 13,000 Jews, about 4,000 of them children. They were taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver, a huge cycling arena in Paris, where they lived in squalor, hunger and terror for several days before they were put on death trains bound for Auschwitz. "Vel d'Hiv," as the facility is called, is the best known symbol of the horrible passage from French citizenship to Nazi incineration.
For most of his life Klarsfeld had watched in repugnance every Armistice Day as French presidents -- Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- had laid wreaths on the tomb of Marshal Philippe Petain. The ceremony honored the World War I hero that Petain had been, but to Klarsfeld it ignored, to the point of implicit forgiveness, the job for which Petain is far better known: as the Nazi stooge who ruled part of France on Hitler's behalf.
When Francois Mitterrand, for 14 years president of France before Chirac, took up the habit of his predecessors, the Klarsfelds decided to turn on the pressure. "He had to stop. And he decreed the 16th of July a day of commemoration for Vel d'Hiv to compensate for the scandal we brought him." Today, Klarsfeld says, it would be "unthinkable . . . impossible" for a French president to honor Petain. "The fruit of our engagement," he notes. CAPTION: Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld at 1995 news conference. Left, a cloth star identifying its wearer as a Jew and photos from Klarsfeld's new book, "French Children of the Holocaust," are on exhibit at Georgetown University. Among the children deported to the death camp at Auschwitz were Nicole Bloch and the Bajroch boys, Isaac, Maurice and Willy. CAPTION: Photographs from Serge Klarsfeld's book "French Children of the Holocaust," on exhibit at Georgetown University. CAPTION: Beate Klarsfeld in 1991. The daughter of a Wehrmacht officer has devoted her life to hunting Nazis.