A Tribute to Beate and Serge Klarsfeld

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This year, it is my privilege, with Philippe Labro, to present the prestigious Scopus Prize of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to the two French "Nazi hunters", Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.

The first thing that comes to mind when one contemplates the itinerary of the Klarsfelds is their remarkable solitude. That may seem bizarre when we look at them today, so immensely famous. And yet, it's the truth. Like Claude Lanzmann, all those years when he was working on his masterpiece, Shoah, and Raul Hilberg, who spent decades struggling for the recognition of his monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, all the Klarsfelds did, they did alone, that is to say against. I remember the first time I met Beate. It was in 1972. Philippe Tesson had asked me to write a portrait of her for the Paris daily, Combat. She already had to her credit having slapped Chancellor Kiesinger in the face, the law permitting Nazis condemned in France to be tried and judged in Germany, and many other things. But for all that, for the mountains she had moved, her path was full of obstacles: the very people she was pursuing, the States provoked by her activities, the institutions, including Jewish ones, she bothered and disturbed. The Klarsfelds were an institution all by themselves. But they were terribly, sometimes desperately, alone. Perhaps they still are.

What can one do when one is all alone, like Lanzmann, like Hilberg, like the Klarsfelds and faced with mountains to move? Well, one uses cunning, one invents stratagems, beginning with the classic strategy of guerrilla warfare of the weak dissuading the strong. And that's the second striking thing about the Klarsfelds. They are guerrillas. They conduct themselves like anti-Nazi activists, they always have. They believe, as they have always believed, that any means is acceptable when you're fighting a battle of memory. Any means? Like kidnapping, for Barbie. Or a hoax, as in that amusing affair of the phoney press release (how could he possibly deny it ?) announcing that François Mitterrand would no longer have flowers laid at Marshal Pétain's grave every year. Strange tactical alliances. To say nothing of acts like Serge's declaration that he would shed no tears if he learned one day that Aloïs Brunner had died, but not of natural causes. Memory, for the Klarsfelds, this is a war.

Why war? That is the other question. The answer is neither as new nor as obvious as it seems. In principle, of course, for the Law, except that the Klarsfelds have always said they do not particularly like the Law as such. In principle, for Justice, except that the Klarsfelds know there are crimes so monstrously inhuman they are beyond the measure of human justice, to say nothing of reparation. In principle, for morality, except that the Klarsfelds are too detached, still too concerned with their combat, to worry about giving the Barbies, the Papons, and the Touviers lessons in morality. And, as their son Arno Klarsfeld has often pointed out, not one of the latter has ever manifested the least remorse or regret. No, the Klarsfeld's real struggle concerns neither Law, nor Justice, nor Morality, but the Truth. This injection of Truth to which a great French writer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, referred in Hommage à Zola, in 1933, as the sole effective antidote to dictatorship. This injunction of truth, Sigmund Freud added only a few years later, which is the necessary condition of civilization.

And then, finally, the essential. This most moving of moments in the Klarsfelds' adventure, when they realized there is no point in pursuing the executioners unless their victims are taken into account and consequently undertook their great life's work: the construction, in its double version of stone and paper, of the Memorial to the Deportation of the Jews of France. There is a beauty in the life of one haunted by the dead, who talks with them in secret and who, like Solal, the hero of Albert Cohen's novel, Belle du Seigneur, lives a kind of double life, spending his days with the powerful, the princes of the Gentiles, and his nights with ghosts and shadows, children who never grew up, souls that have come up from limbo. And a beauty in this act of counting, one which perhaps unconsciously recalls the most ancient of Jewish acts -- that of Numbers, which was simply a long enumeration of names, that of Exodus, whose real title, in Hebrew, was The Numbers. An act of counting that reminds one of Franz Kafka exclaiming, when a young musician told him of his plans to write a Jewish play whose subject would be the anonymous Jewish crowd, "No, you poor wretch! Judaism is the name; there's nothing left of Judaism if not the act of naming and of counting the names."

I conclude with the name of a precedent laureate, that of the 2003 Scopus Prize, another son of a deportee. A man who could easily have been one of those shadows whose name was reverently archived by the tomb man Klarsfeld has become. A laureate who could not be here with us today as he has been retained by a sombre matter, one Franz Kafka could well have imagined, one that promises him an existence that may finish as it started, hunted and locked away. I ask the officials of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to remember that those fine qualities that led them to honor him with this award six years ago remain, clearly, undiminished. His name is Roman Polanski.