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Nazi-hunters not amused by comedian

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WASHINGTON — It looks like Europe’s most famous Nazi-hunting family is back at it again, and this time, they’re going after a different kind of opponent: the controversial French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonne Mbala-Mbala, who most recently made headlines after French soccer star Nicolas Anelka used the comedian’s trademark gesture, widely interpreted as a Nazi salute — a reverse "Heil Hitler"— and ignited a debate about anti-Semitism across Europe.

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, a married couple now both in their 70s, have made a name for themselves over the past half-century going after Nazi war criminals who have escaped persecution. And though their Nazi-hunting days are over, they and their son Arno called for a protest of a performance by Dieudonne in the French city of Nantes. On Jan. 7, a day before the planned show, the Nantes authorities announced that it was cancelled, making Nantes the third city after Bordeaux and Marseille to ban the comedian. French President Francois Hollande has also called on city authorities to prohibit Dieudonne’s one-man show.

Not that Dieudonne is going quietly. He enjoys the cover of comedy, huge success and a fan base that is fiercely loyal to his shocking on-stage antics. Most of his shows at his regular Paris theater are sold out; his YouTube videos get millions of hits.

Since 2000, the comedian has been fined 65,000 euros (about $88,000) for defamation, using insulting language, hate speech and discrimination. On Friday, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls vowed to ensure that the comedian would have to pay the fines, which he has reportedly evaded thus far by placing his assets in his wife’s name. "[Dieudonne] unites anti-Semites from all sides. They are Islamists, ultra-left or far-right... His shows are anti-Semitic political rallies," Arno Klarsfeld told Agence France Press.

But though it’s Dieudonne who’s getting all the attention, it’s the Klarsfelds who are far more interesting. They belong to a small club of professional Nazi hunters — men and women who have dedicated their lives to tracing Second World War criminals and bringing them to justice. And though they never quite reached the fame of the charismatic Simon Wiesenthal, the Klarsfelds’ Nazi-hunting tactics have made them a subject of many a front-page headline over the years, landed them in court, and provoked attempts on their lives — including a bomb placed in their car in 1979.

The star-crossed lovers — Beate, a daughter of a Wermacht soldier, and Serge, whose father had perished in a concentration camp — met in 1960. Their lifelong mission to track down Nazis began soon after.

In 1968, Beate famously slapped in the face Chancellor Kurt Kiesenger, a former Nazi who rose to power in post-war Germany. In 1973, Serge walked up to Kurt Lischka, a prominent SS commander and Gestapo chief, and put a gun against his head. Eventually, Lischka was sentenced to 10 years in prison for war crimes. In their most famous hunt, after a failed attempt to kidnap Klaus Barbie, a Lyon Gestapo chief who was hiding in Bolivia, the Klarsfelds succeeded in tracking him down, getting him extradited to France and tried.

Since, Nazi hunting has become the family business. Since the 1980s, Serge and Beate have been working with their children Arno and Lida, both lawyers. (Arno, former aide to Nicolas Sarkozy and, perhaps awkwardly, ex-boyfriend of Carla Bruni, has been making headlines of his own, and has even been called a "darling of the French tabloids"). In one case, three members of the Nazi-hunting family presented evidence against a former war criminal.

The Klarsfelds have been widely recognized for being unrelenting in their mission to bring former Nazis to justice. On Jan. 1, Serge and Beate were named grand officer and commander of the French Legion of Honour, respectively.

The matriarch of the family, and arguably also its most daring member — she had been arrested in at least 11 countries — was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the state of Israel twice (the Klarsfelds are also known for being fiercely Zionist). In 1986, she was portrayed by Farah Fawcett in a TV film The Beate Klarsfeld Story.

The Klarsfelds, who were both small children during the Second World War, are significantly younger than their Nazi prey. As nature took its course, and the only remaining Nazis became low-level prison guards — now decrepit nonagenarians — they adapted their lifelong mission. Today they focus on commemorating the fate of Jewish deportees from France and working with their children. In 2009, they told the BBC that after five decades, their hunt was over.

And yet, just five years later, Dieudonne’s anti-Semitic comedy and the rise in Nazi gestures on the soccer field have brought them back from retirement. With little effort, they’ve already made a popular comedian’s life much harder. Dieudonne, brace yourself for a tough fight.

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