Nazi hunt reaches final climax. Serge Klarsfeld says he and fellow Nazi-trackers are down to the last two big cases
Paris — With the noose tightening around former SS leader Alois Brunner and the trial nearing of former SS captain Klaus Barbie, Nazi-hunting is reaching a climax. ``These are the two big cases left,'' explains Serge Klarsfeld, the French lawyer who, along with his German-born wife, Beate, is largely responsible for focusing public attention on Brunner's and Barbie's alleged roles in the Holocaust. In his office here, the intense, bespectacled Mr. Klarsfeld explained, ``these men must not live in impunity. They must be judged so the world remembers.''
Klarsfeld now is optimistic that he will achieve his goal.
Brunner, who is accused of deporting more than 120,000 Austrian, German, French, Slovakian, and Greek Jews to Nazi death camps, recently gave an interview to the German magazine Bunte.
In that interview, he said he would be willing to leave his exile in Syria and face an international tribunal.
``The interview is proof that the Syrians are putting pressure on Brunner,'' Klarsfeld says.
``Otherwise, they never would have let him talk to the press.''
Barbie faces much more direct pressure. Since being expelled from Bolivia and brought back to France to face ``crimes against humanity'' in 1983, he has languished in the city's St. Joseph Prison. A former SS chief, Barbie earned the nickname ``the Butcher of Lyons'' for his part in the deportation, torture, or murder of at least 11,000 people from the Lyons region. Klarsfeld said he expects Barbie's trial to start at the beginning of the new year.
And while not officially commenting, Lyons's judicial authorities indirectly lent additional evidence to this prediction by recently mailing out forms for press accreditation.
Bringing Nazis to justice has not been easy. For most of Klarsfeld's career, he has been forced to overcome either a sense of intertia or a reticence to reopen the wounds of the Holocaust. His car has been destroyed by a bomb and he has received a booby-trapped parcel through the mail. Only remarkable perseverence along with a penchant for public relations have let both Klarsfelds succeed.
When Mr. Klarsfeld first started tracking Nazis responsible for deporting 76,000 French Jews, he learned that three Gestapo officers who had been sentenced to death by French courts were living safely in West Germany as civilians. Under German law, they could not be extradited. But due to intense lobbying -- and the publicity garnered when Klarsfeld tried to kidnap one of the officers himself -- Germany brought the men to trial in 1975. They were convicted.
Klaus Barbie presented a different problem. No one knew where he was. The Klarsfelds sent press kits around the world with his photo.
In 1971, one kit caught the attention of a German businessman in Lima, Peru, who identified a local German expatriate as the former Nazi. Barbie soon fled to Bolivia.
During the next 12 years, the Klarsfelds lobbied the French government for action and accumulated evidence against him. When a democratic socialist government replaced Bolivia's military rulers in 1983, Barbie was expelled from Bolivia and brought back to the scene of his crimes.
But putting him on trial has proved delicate. Since Barbie was helped during the war by French collaborators inside the resistance in his crackdown against the Lyons underground, his lawyer, Jacques Verger, has threatened to turn any process into a process against the French resistance.
In addition, under French law, Barbie cannot be tried for war crimes, but for ``crimes against humanity.''
Instead of being motivated by war, his acts must be proven to have been motivated by political, racial, and religious motives.
The case against Brunner may be easier to prove -- he was one of the chief assistants to Adolf Eichmann, who helped engineer the Holocaust.
Brunner deported Jews from across the entire continent, and Klarsfeld says that ``as late as June 24, 1944, he had 300 Jewish children arrested in France and put them on the last convoy for Aushwitz.''
Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Vienna-based Nazi-hunter, reported that Brunner was living in Damascus in 1961. But it was Klarsfeld who provided the proof -- and publicized the issue.
Journalists started visiting the street where Brunner lives under the name of Georg Fischer, and publishing articles. But the Syrians denied that Fischer was Brunner and that the Nazi was hiding in their country. That makes the present Bunte interview even more noteworthy.
``It shows that the Syrians were lying,'' Klarsfeld said. ``Evidently, they began to feel uncomfortable protecting Eichman's right-hand man. Helping such a man showed they were not just anti-Israel, but anti-Jew as well.''
Following the Bunte interview, the German Foreign Ministry has promised to push harder for Brunner's extradition.
After the Barbie and Brunner cases are finished, Klarsfeld says his career as a Nazi-hunter will end.
He believes press reports that the other two major criminals he was searching for, Joseph Mengele, the Auschwitz camp doctor, and Walter Rauff, who invented the mobile gas chamber, have died. But he will never stop documenting the Nazi horror.
``I will be working on the definitive history of the Holocaust for the rest of my life,'' Klarsfeld said.
``It was such a truly cosmic event that how it happened and who was involved should be known so that it should never be forgotten.''