RESTRICTED: Michel Goldberg Wanted to Kill Klaus Barbie, but Could He Pull the Trigger?
Klaus Barbie, alias Klaus Altmann, now 69, the “Butcher of Lyons,” is back in France. For two years during World War II the Nazi Gestapo chief terrorized that city of 470,000 in the Rhône-Alpes region. He was just doing his job, Barbie remarked glibly last week. The job: rounding up Jews and Resistance fighters; killing them or shipping them to the gas chambers. Like many other Nazi leaders, Barbie managed to slip out of Europe after the war, and eventually he settled in Bolivia, out of the reach of French authorities who twice sentenced him to death in absentia. Early this month, after years of haggling, the Bolivian government turned Barbie over to the French, who will again try him for “crimes against humanity”—specifically, the deportation to death camps of some 7,000 French Jews and the execution of more than 4,000 people, including Resistance hero Jean Moulin. For having lived long enough to face justice in France, Barbie owes a debt to a 44-year-old Jew named Michel Goldberg, whose father, Joseph, was captured by Barbie’s Gestapo in 1943 and sent to die in Auschwitz. To protect his wife and 4-year-old son, Joseph had obtained false, non-Jewish French papers. Michel thus survived the Nazis with his mother. Later he was educated in France and the U.S. and resumed his Jewish identity despite his gentile upbringing. “I discovered,” he says today, “that I was Jewish and that there are anti-Semites.”
Michel Goldberg also discovered the personification of evil, in the guise of Klaus Barbie. In his autobiography, Namesake, published in America last fall, Goldberg tells how he set out to find the man who killed his father. In 1975 he went to La Paz and, posing as a journalist, found a man who promised to introduce him to Barbie. In the passage that follows, Goldberg described the bizarre meeting that almost ended in murder.
At 10 o’clock on Friday, I was standing in front of the café on Calle del Mercado, mouth dry and hands clammy. My guide arrived on time and took me up the Avenida Camacho to the La Paz pastry shop.
My guide, whose eyes were riveted on the door, gave me a sign when Barbie entered. Still youthful-looking, very European, rather small, wearing tie and hat for protection from the sun, Barbie looked very much like his photos. It took him a long time to reach us because he received a greeting from almost every table he passed. I shook his hand, surprised that I felt no special disgust.
He was not happy to learn that I was a journalist: “The case has been tried and closed. There is nothing more to say about it.” I had heard that he was upset that people to whom he had sold interviews had failed to send him copies. Nevertheless, he sat down beside me and was soon joined by a Croatian and a certain Alex, a Bolivian citizen who was a wanted man in his native Hungary.
The conversation took a turn reminiscent of sidewalk cafe discussions, model 1942. Alex grabbed me by the sleeve.
“The Americans,” he said in a pompous tone, “can’t drive the whole world crazy forever just because of three million Jews.”
Alex’s upper denture came loose. He snapped it back in place with a strong jaw movement.
“When I think of that German Jew Kissinger who is making a pile!” added the Croatian, probably one of those Ustachis [Croatian terrorists] who had helped Hitler slaughter the Yugoslavs. “Another coffee, please.”
I steered the conversation toward Barbie, who showed surprise.
“But why so much hatred on the part of the French? Me, I have nothing against them. My son is married to a Frenchwoman. I have stayed in touch with the veterans of the Charlemagne Division—you know, the French who volunteered to join the Waffen SS. I even took pleasure, a few years ago, in stopping off at Orly Airport.”
His Spanish was effortless. He looked at me as though he wanted me to vouch for his good faith. The man was known to be dishonest. I was unable to determine whether he really believed what he was saying, whether he grasped the enormity of it.
I played my role as a journalist, but not a sympathetic one.
“And the torture of members of the Resistance?”
“The French have done much better since in Algeria. What is the name of that general of yours who wrote a book bragging about it?”
His smile was not even ironic.
“And the deportation of the Izieu orphans?”
“That wasn’t me, it was Eichmann. I was responsible for the struggle against the Resistance—in other words, against Communism. The anti-Jewish struggle was the work of special commandos who hardly saluted me on arrival and departure.”
“Nevertheless, there are many telegrams of arrest signed by you.”
“They are false.”
I looked at him incredulously. He corrected himself.
“Or else they had me sign them, but I didn’t pay attention to what I was signing; there was a lot of bureaucracy, you know. At any rate, I have thousands of friends here.”
“And millions of enemies elsewhere.”
“They cast stones at us today because we lost the war. The conqueror makes his own law. But why does France blame me for doing my duty as a German officer and not the Frenchmen that she has right there, who were in no way obliged to help us with so much…zeal?”
“Who, for example?”
“That I will tell if they continue to annoy me. And then many people will be sorry!”
He was clearly irritated by the nature and precision of my questions. He tried to switch the subject.
“Don’t you think there are more serious and more current problems than those of a war that I stopped thinking about the day I turned in my gun? Vietnam, for example. We were the forerunners in the struggle against Bolshevism. Look at where they are now! That would never have happened if the Americans had not made us lose the war. Besides, I prefer the Russians to the Americans. They are more cultured, more intelligent, more courageous…”
“Would you have preferred Russian camps to American camps?”
“No, of course not, but the camps and the purges are the work of the Communists. I said I liked the Russians, not the Communists!”
“Siberia already existed under the czars.”
Alex, whose denture was clattering tragically, brought us back to the subject of Barbie.
“But Klaus, why are they after you so much? During most of the time you were in Lyons you were only an Obersturmführer [chief SS company commander].”
Barbie was cut to the quick.
“Of course. But I had more power than a general, and in the capital of the part of France that was still resisting! By arresting Jean Moulin, I changed the course of history.
“Jean Moulin, de Gaulle’s man in France, was so intelligent that had he lived it is he and not de Gaulle who would have presided over the destiny of France after our departure. France would probably have become Communist.”
Then, changing the subject again: “You realize that the problems the West faces today stem in large part from the fact that the Jews have committed a great injustice by settling on Arab land.”
“Would you have preferred they create their state in Baden-Württemberg?”
Embarrassed silence. There is no doubt that he would have preferred no state at all, and no Jews either. But he didn’t dare to express his nostalgia for the ovens.
“I’m hungry,” he said in French, almost without an accent.
It was 1:30. We walked a little way together on the sunlit Prado. Then the group broke up. Barbie took his leave. A few seconds later, I turned around. He was going up the stairs to the Daiquiri Restaurant. He, too, turned. Our eyes met for an instant, in spite of the distance. It would be useless to wait for him to come out, and the Daiquiri has several exits.
I was shaken by this encounter, suddenly exhausted by the effort I had made to appear natural and relaxed in the presence of such a run-of-the-mill monster. I slumped onto a bench. What bothered me most was not having felt the flash of hatred I had expected. I had sat next to him, I had looked at him, listened to him, spoken to him, shaken his hand, and it was difficult for me to think that destroying “that” would change much in the world or in my suffering. He seemed utterly despicable, wallowing in his lies and in the smugness of a defeated soldier. But I felt no hatred for him. My frustration went so far beyond him.
Barbie was going away for the weekend and I decided to do likewise. I had learned a little about his schedule for the next few days during our conversation. My best opportunity to act would come on Monday…
I was unable to telephone my wife, Marie-France, during the weekend, as I had promised. I, who was coming here to earn her love, had disturbed her.
Was it to my wife, to my mother, or to France that I wanted to present Barbie’s head? France was on the other side of the ocean, my mother on the other side of my life, my wife on the other side of love. So why kill Barbie? For the first time it dawned on me that it wasn’t my father I had come to avenge.
I was more alone than ever. I almost hoped that I wouldn’t find Barbie at the spot where I would be waiting for him with death in hand. Nevertheless, caught up in my own momentum, I went through the motions as planned. I took two tranquilizers and got on my way. At 12:30 I was sitting on a bench in the Prado facing the Daiquiri, sufficiently disguised that I wouldn’t be recognized. My revolver was hidden under the poncho so dear to tourists. Would he or wouldn’t he come?
At 12:50 Barbie-Altmann approached, engaged in a lively conversation with a gray-haired man. The two men stopped at the edge of the sidewalk about three yards from me. On this continent, where nothing turns out as expected, everything was proceeding to plan.
And now Barbie is there, at my mercy. Rather elegant in his brown suit, his back turned to me, he stands much closer than the watermelons I used for target practice. There are very few people around, and even if one of my bullets should go through him, the risk of harming anyone else is practically nil.
There he stands, the presumed instrument of my liberation, of my rebirth, waiting. That he has his back to me doesn’t bother me. It is no more courageous to shoot an unarmed man from the front than from behind.
I am very calm. The revolver rests lightly in my lap, under the poncho, my hand on the grip and cylinder. I feel no pity but rather contempt for this man who does not have the courage to face his past.
All I need is the will.
I can kill Barbie almost without risk. His gray-haired companion is certainly not a bodyguard, and the police in the area have gone to lunch. In my arrogance, I fear no police, no court.
I feel both very weak and omnipotent. I feel that a superior force is guiding my steps and my actions. I look at the two men standing in front of me talking. Something now tells me that to kill is not the right solution. “Every murder is a suicide,” Elie Wiesel wrote somewhere.
Obviously justice will never be done. The man responsible for the death of some 10,000 men, women and children, usually in hideous circumstances, cannot be punished for his crimes. What is cutting off the few years remaining to him compared to the deportation to Auschwitz and the death of the 41 orphans of Izieu, the oldest of whom was 13? How can five smooth bullets, which numb the senses in a fraction of a second, compare to the torture of Jean Moulin and of hundreds of others, day after night? What does a quick death mean to a purveyor of slow death? What is death to a man who has worn the uniform with skull and crossbones? No, justice will never be done.
And what if Barbie’s true punishment were this eternal flicker of anxiety? Is it living always to look over one’s shoulder, to hesitate before going out, to jump whenever the doorbell rings, to fear every public gathering, to mistrust all strangers? Is that the life I want to snuff out?
I let a few minutes pass between Barbie and myself. Eight minutes. Finally, he and his companion shake hands in the European manner, without embracing. Then he crosses the street, goes up the stairs to the Daiquiri and sits at his usual table near the window. From where I stand I can sometimes see the back of his head.
I stay where I am for a long moment. I even go up the stairs to the restaurant and watch Barbie through the little glass swinging door while he is eating. I can still go in and fire.
I leave. I breathe deeply. I tell myself that I could have killed him if I had wanted to, that I intentionally decided not to do so for what seemed to me powerful reasons.
Actually, I had just inflicted defeat on myself. It was the first, in the area most important to me and probably the only one in which I was vulnerable. Was it to make myself suffer or to cure me? It is not Barbie I killed but myself, the person I had been up to then.
So I did kill a Nazi in La Paz, but not the one I had planned to kill.