Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh details his experience at Auschwitz
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Klaus Barbie, who was said to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during World War 2, fled to South America after the conflict, posing under the alias Klaus Altmann in Bolivia, where he helped drug lords and dictators, becoming an arms dealer and Lieutenant Colonel for the Bolivian Armed Forces. After his location was discovered by Nazi hunters, his true identity was later verified thanks to the work of a courageous journalist. He was finally arrested 40 years ago on January 19, 1983.
During the war, Barbie was head of the Gestapo in the French city of Lyon. The heinous crimes he committed and oversaw earned him the moniker “the Butcher of Lyon”. He was responsible for the execution of more than 4,000 people, taking personal pleasure in torturing prisoners, mainly those who were Jewish or French Resistance members.
One chilling example of this occurred in 1943 when French civil servant Jean Moulin, who was the President of the National Council of the Resistance, was slowly beaten to death by him.
The following year, 44 young Jewish children, aged between four and 17, and seven staff in a boarding house in Izieu were discovered. Barbie ordered all of them to be sent to the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz. Only one 25-year-old staff member, Léa Feldblum, survived.
Even as the war drew to a close, with Allies infiltrating Lyon, he ordered the final train containing hundreds of innocent people to be sent to an extermination camp.
Barbie then fled to Germany, taking the name Klaus Altmann, where he joined the US Counter Intelligence Corps. For a decade, he was protected and employed by British and American intelligence.
Military tribunals held in Lyon found Barbie guilty of torture, executions, and further crimes. He was therefore sentenced to death in absentia but managed to flee to Bolivia in the Fifties with the help of the Americans and Dr Krunoslav Draganovic, a Croatian priest, who organised a so-called ‘ratline’ which helped Nazis escape justice.
Then, in 1972, French journalist Ladislas de Hoyos, along with cameraman Christian van Ryswyck, flew to the Bolivian capital of La Paz to interview “Klaus Altmann”, in the hope of unmasking his true identity.
The interview was heavily controlled by the Bolivian government with the questions asked in Spanish and approved beforehand. But Mr de Hoyos quickly went off script.
He began asking Barbie to speak in French, telling him to state phrases such as “I was not in the Gestapo” and “I have never used torture”. It became evident that Barbie could speak some French which contradicted his alibi that he had been a manual labourer in Berlin until he moved to Bolivia after the war.
Then, Mr de Hoyos, speaking in French, asked whether Barbie had ever been to Lyon. Although he answered in German, Barbie said he had not, without hesitation — an so his French proficiency was now blatant.
Barbie was then handed photographs of the aforementioned Jean Moulin. Holding the pictures, he denied ever knowing him. Mr de Hoyos took back the images, which were covered in Barbie’s fingerprints. His true identity could now be proved.
The Bolivian government, however, refused to extradite him to France, where he had been sentenced to death twice. It was claimed that Bolivia did not have an extradition treaty with France.
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Then in 1983, he was arrested after it emerged that he owed the Bolivian government $10,000 (£8,000). He was handed back to the French government and finally stood trial for 41 crimes against humanity.
“When I stand before the throne of God, I shall be judged innocent,” he told the trial. But survivors told the jury the true extent of his heinous crimes.
Ms Feldblum, the lone survivor out of those captured at the Izieu boarding house, told the trial: “It is my duty to testify against Klaus Barbie in the name of my 44 children who were murdered at Auschwitz because every night they appear before my very eyes.”
Two months later, in 1987, he was finally sentenced with the judgment taking some 40 minutes to read. He was handed a life sentence as capital punishment had been abolished in France in 1981. Fours years later, he died from cancer in a prison in Lyon at the age of 77.
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