American Holocaust survivors and politicians demand that a French train company confront its own deadly involvement in the Holocaust or risk losing lucrative contracts in the United States.
French Holocaust survivor Ernest Hirsch was only nine years old the last time he heard from his mother. Though he lived to flee Europe and settle in Northern California, his parents were forced to board a train from Paris to the French internment camp in Rivesaltes in 1941. His mother, Lisa Kirchheimer, wrote to him to say they would be taken to a final destination.
“She told me not to worry, and that she loved me,” Hirsch recalled.
Shortly after writing that letter, she was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Jews around the world are still awaiting some kind of restitution from the French national railroad company that sent tens of thousands of citizens from their homes in France to the death camps of the Holocaust. Denied reparations by French courts, they’re now pinning more hope on an innovative financial tactic in the United States to exact justice from the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF), or French National Railway Company.
As the company’s American affiliate jockeys to bid on massive new rail projects in the United States, American Jews and their supporters are taking action to block lucrative contracts for the powerhouse transit company in the United States — unless the SNCF makes amends for its role in the Holocaust.
“It’s unbelievable that the same taxpayers whose families were sent to their death on an SNCF train could soon be paying taxes to contribute to the profits of the same company to create an American rail system,” said Harriet Tamen, a New York-based attorney representing some 600 American, French and Israeli Jews in their battle against SNCF.
SNCF officials have long insisted that the company was forced to comply with orders from their Nazi lords and collaborationist Vichy government, and that defiant operators risked death for themselves and their families. Some 1,600 train workers were executed or deported during the war, and many rail company workers played a significant role in the French Resistance.
However, critics say SNCF managers had more independence than officials admit and that they were more than eager to ship Jews to their deaths. Some 76,000 Jews began journeys to their deaths on SNCF trains from 1941 to 1944. SNCF trains carried them to the French-German border, where German trains then transported most to Nazi extermination camps. Only 3,000 of those who boarded SNCF trains survived.
According to records obtained by the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, the SNCF billed the German government for third-class passage for the deportees, though they were uniformly transported in jam-packed cattle cars.
Several survivors have also reported that they were robbed by rail workers and French security personnel prior to boarding the trains. Families brought cash and every portable item of value they could carry, hoping to use the cache to survive in their unknown future home.
“They took everything but the clothes on our backs,” Abe Dresdner, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Brooklyn, told MintPress. “The French were as bad as the Gestapo.”
Dresdner’s entire family of 11 managed to survive the war.
“It’s impossible to adequately describe the nightmare of that five-day trip to Buchenwald from France — 2,100 men, 400 women crammed 90-odd to a boxcar, room only to sit or stand,” captured Canadian pilot Jim Stewart recalled in his account of his trip that began on an SNCF train outside Paris.
The “only ventilation was a small wired window at each end,” and “we were stuck gasping for air.” He described the “brutality of the guards as they marched us round to another train,” and a French boy shot dead and left in a ditch for putting his hands on the barbed wire at a window.
The searing memories and pain of those days are fueling the growing movement to leverage public funds to bring the SNCF to heel in the U.S. Maryland State Delegate Kirill Reznik is co-sponsoring a bill that would require any company that bids for a public-private contract to divulge “ownership or operation of the trains on which individuals were transported to extermination camps, death camps, or any facility used to transition individuals to extermination camps,” and reveal what reparations have been paid. Failure to “certify” that reparations have been paid to victims would disqualify a company from the bidding process. If passed, the measure could ultimately block Keolis America from a massive 35-year contract for a new light rail commuter system in the state.
The SNCF owns 70 percent of Keolis, which is part of one of four private consortiums currently approved to bid for the contract. A key booster of the bill is Maryland resident Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who has gathered 107,000 signatures on a petition backing the measure.
“Enough is enough,” Bretholz wrote in the petition. “It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary is now competing to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line in my home state of Maryland – valued at more than $6 billion and one of the single biggest contracts in state history – while refusing to be held accountable.”
As a young man in France, Bertholz managed to jump from a train heading to Auschwitz. Only five of 1,000 people on the train with Bertholz survived
Reznik has called the SNCF’s actions during World War II a “failure of humanity,” insisting that the legislation is “absolutely the right thing to do,” particularly for a project funded by taxpayers.
“I’m Jewish, and I have several friends and neighbors who are Jewish,” he told MintPress. “Nearly everyone has been touched in some profound way by the Holocaust, and it’s inconceivable we don’t hold SNCF accountable for its actions.”
The bill was applauded by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who said it would make it “clear that Maryland does not contract with companies that have refused to own up to their involvement in the Holocaust and pay reparations.”
Maloney has co-sponsored her own federal bill, The Holocaust Rail Justice Act, which would grant U.S. courts the jurisdiction to judge victims’ claims against the SNCF. When survivors and families moved to sue SNCF in U.S. courts in the past, judges agreed with the SNCF’s argument that it was protected on American soil by foreign sovereign immunity provisions of U.S. law.
The new Maryland measure is a more exacting evolution of an earlier state law that required bidders in public projects to reveal any role in the Holocaust. To comply with the law, SNCF claims it posted 1.3 million documents online revealing its entire history during World War II, but only a handful of records are easily accessible on the site it established.
Because the rail company failed to win a bid for an earlier project at the time the law was passed, little was done to police the filings, according to Reznik. He’s optimistic that the new law with the reparations addition will also pass, particularly considering what he sees as a “half-hearted” attempt to fulfill the requirements of the previous law.
Similar controversies regarding SNCF’s past have arisen in Florida, Virginia and California, where Keolis stepped forward to bid on massive transportation projects. California passed a law in 2010 requiring SNCF to post its Holocaust-era documents online before Keolis could bid on a contract for the construction of a high-speed train system from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Keolis lost the bid, but in 2011 acquired Tectrans, a public transit operator headquartered in California. Despite the controversy over SNCF’s past, Keolis was granted an $85 million contract by the Virginia Rail Express Operation Board to operate and maintain its trains for five years. Keolis also recently won an eight-year Boston commuter rail contract with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority worth $2.68 billion.
The SNCF didn’t formally apologize to Holocaust victims until 2011 — just months after the California law was passed and a similar measure was introduced in Florida. But even then, the company didn’t appear to accept responsibility.
“In the name of the SNCF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported and before the suffering that still lives,” the company’s chairman, Guillaume Pepy, said in a ceremony at a railroad station outside of Paris.
Tamen and her clients were pleased with the “first step” apology, she said, but are still waiting to hear from the SNCF about reparations. Until then, her group and others will battle to keep future U.S. transit dollars out of SNCF’s pockets.