From tracking Klaus Barbie down, to his trial

In the 1970s, Klaus Barbie was found in Latin America, where he had been exfiltrated in 1951. When Beate and Serge Klarsfeld set out to find him, he was living in Bolivia under the name of Klaus Altmann. After trying to track him down for almost ten years, and with the help of two of the mothers of the children of Izieu, Fortunée Benguigui and Ita-Rosa Halaunbrenner, the Klarsfeld couple brought Klaus Barbie back to Lyon, France, in February 1983.

With Beate Klarsfeld, Fortunée Benguigui, Ita Rosa Halaunbrenner and Léa Feldblum, all three civil party plaintiffs and witnesses summoned by the public prosecutor. © AFP

In the same year, Serge Klarsfeld published the first reference book on the history of the children of Izieu, where he traced their journey: where they came from, their families, their faces but also the numbers and dates of the convoys by which they were deported. Through this research, he reiterates that the only reason they were killed is because they were Jewish. Thanks to this work, the story of the children of Izieu became a part of Jewish remembrance for deportation and extermination.

In this context, an important ceremony was held in Izieu on 8 April 1984. For the first time, Jewish institutions were officially represented. The Chief Rabbi of Lyon and Théo Klein, President of the Conseil représentatif des Institutions juives de France [CRIF], were present. That day, the latter declared:

« Nous avons, comme les autres, commis un péché d’oubli envers ces enfants. ».

“We have, like the others, committed the sin of forgetting about these children. “.

(Theo Klein, President of the CRIF, excerpt from his speech of 8 April 1984).

The authorities and residents of Izieu and Brégnier-Cordon, who have been keeping the memory of the children of Izieu and their carers alive since 1946, feel targeted by this and deny having committed any “sin of forgetting”.

« Comme les autres… La formule valait assurément pour la communauté au nom de laquelle le président du CRIF parlait et vaut aussi pour certaines autres associations. Elle ne s’appliquait pas aux institutions de la République, et, notamment à celle au nom de laquelle je parle. »

“Like the others… The phrase certainly applied to the community who the president of the CRIF was speaking on behalf of and also to some other associations. It did not apply to the institutions of the Republic, particularly not to the one I am speaking on behalf of. ”

(Robert Mériaudeau, excerpt from his speech of 29 April 1984).

The Lyon Trial in 1987

The investigation of the Klaus Barbie trial was carried out by Judge Christian Riss. It took place from February 1983 to October 1985, which was the time needed to find witnesses forty years later and to clearly determine what events are classified as war crimes and what events were crimes against humanity. During the investigation. Serge Klarsfeld found Barbie’s telex reporting on the deportation of the forty-four children. This decisive piece was found in the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Centre archives and was one of the main pieces of evidence that made it possible to convict him of crimes against humanity.

A 1985 ruling of the Court of Appeal ruled that crimes committed against resistance fighters (war crimes) were to become imprescriptible crimes against humanity when they are committed, “consistently”, “in the name of a State practising a policy of ideological hegemony”, against the opponents of this policy.

On 11 May 1987, the trial of Klaus Barbie began before the Criminal Court of the Rhône in Lyon. André Cerdini was the President of the Court. Pierre Truche was the Attorney General.

 Klaus Barbie, at the opening of his trial, in the Palais de justice in Lyon, on 11 May 1987. (AFP)


Klaus Barbie was tried for:

  • The roundup on 9 February 1943 at the Lyon Committee premises for the General Union of Israelites of France, rue Sainte Catherine, followed by the arrest of eighty-six people, eighty-four of whom were deported;
  • The deportation of around six hundred and fifty people on 6 August 1944 by the last convoy leaving Lyon. The French resistance fighters and hostages being transported to Dachau and women being taken to Ravensbrück; while the Jews were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they arrived on 22 August;
  • The arrest and deportation of forty-four children and seven carers, who were all Jewish, from the children’s home of Izieu;
  • Torturing and murdering Marcel Gompel, a professor at the Collège de France who was a Jew and member of the resistance;
  • The deportation of twenty-one Jews and thirty-eight resistance fighters who were arrested individually.

During the seven and a half weeks of the trial, three hearings, between 27 May and 2 June 1987, were devoted to the Izieu roundup.

Several witnesses related to the home’s story appeared:

  • Sabine Zlatin, founder of the home;
  • Lea Feldblum, from Tel Aviv, a carer at the home;
  • Leon Reifman, a doctor at the home;
  • Gabrielle Tardy (Perrier, after her maiden name), a teacher appointed to the home in October 1943;
  • Paulette Pallarés-Roche, a carer at the home during the summer of 1943;
  • Fortunée Benguigui, Ita-Rose and Alexandre Halaunbrenner, the mothers and brother of the children who were arrested on 6 April 1944 in Izieu;
  • Paul Niedermann, Adolphe Waysenson and René Wucher, who stayed at the Izieu home as children;
  • Julien Favet, an eyewitness to the roundup;
  • Robert Mériaudeau and Henri Perret, mayors of the municipalities of Brégnier-Cordon and Izieu.

Among the lawyers for the civil party plaintiffs, there was Roland Rappaport, who represented Sabine Zlatin, Serge Klarsfeld (for the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France association [association des Fils et Filles des Déportés Juifs de France]) and several of the children’s families who were arrested at the Izieu home. Ugo Iannucci represented Léon Reifman; while Alain Jakubowicz represented some of the other childrenof Izieu’s families, as well as the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

On being advised by his lawyer, Jacques Vergès, Klaus Barbie only appeared at the first three hearings and the last one.


Founder of the Izieu children’s home Testimony at the Barbie trial, 13th hearing, 27 May 1987
Sabine Zlatin
« I want to say, especially to Barbie’s defense, that Barbie always said that he only cared about resistance fighters and the Maquis. That means the German army’s enemies. So let me ask you: “The children, the 44 children, what was that about? Were they resistance fighters? Were they Maquis? What were they? They were innocent!” »

On 4 July 1987, he was convicted of the five crimes against humanity for which he was tried. The jury did not grant him any mitigating circumstances. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died on 25 September 1991 at the Saint-Joseph prison in Lyon, at the age of 78, after 8 years and 7 months of incarceration. Of all the people sentenced to prison in France for crimes committed during the Second World War, he was the first to die in prison.


A trial that would go down in history

The Klaus Barbie trial in Lyon in 1987 had an exceptional outreach. This was the first trial and first conviction in France for crimes against humanity. Carried out meticulously, filmed for posterity, and widely publicised, the Barbie trial was an educational exercise in a context where, since the 1970s, denial that the Holocaust happened succeeded in making its poisonous voice heard. Many classes attended the hearings. The witnesses recounted before the courts the reality of Nazism and of all the Jews that were persecuted and killed and their words had a real impact on the French population.

This trial proved that none of the perpetrators were immune from justice. At the same time, it was a solemn way to recall the historical reality of the events.

Through the action taken by the courts and the impact of the trial, Izieu remembrance truly became a part of French national history.



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