Maryland lawmakers are preparing to debate a bill next month that would block a Paris-based rail company from bidding on the state’s $2.2 billion light rail project unless its parent company pays Holocaust survivors reparations for transporting them to Nazi death camps.
At the same time, the State Department opened formal negotiations Feb. 6 with representatives of the French foreign and defense ministries regarding reparations payments to American Holocaust survivors who were aboard those trains. Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust-Era Issues, told The Jewish Week in an email that he is leading the U.S. delegation.
Asked whether the French would pay reparations both to survivors who were forced aboard those trains as well as their heirs, Eizenstat said that issue “remains to be negotiated.”
He added that both the U.S. and French governments would like the talks concluded quickly and that France has proposed reaching an agreement by June.
Harriet Tamen, a Manhattan attorney who filed suit in the U.S. in 2000 seeking to compel the French railroad, Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF), to pay reparations — only to have it thrown out of court because the railroad as an agent of the state has sovereign immunity — said she welcomed the discussions.
“We are encouraged that the parties are talking,” she said, adding that she first became aware of the talks in the past year while they were still in the informal stage.
But even if the negotiations were to prove successful, Tamen said they would provide reparations for American citizens only.
“That is unacceptable to us,” she said. “The railroad did not care about nationality when you were put on the train and sent to Auschwitz — it was an equal opportunity deporter. We represent people from all over the world, over 650. Some are the children [of deportees] and some were on the trains themselves.”
Tamen added that although the railroad insists the Nazis forced them to transport the Jews, it was in fact, “paid quarterly throughout the war — per head and per kilometer. We have a copy of a bill … and it even charged 1.5 percent interest if the payment was more than 30 days late.”
But Alain Leray, president and CEO of SNCF America, insisted that the Nazis never paid the railroad anything and said the document Tamen has involved a transport that did not involve Jews.
“Under the June 1940 armistice convention, France was defeated by the Nazis and it said all of the railroads would be under German command,” he said. “They took over and stole everything. They stole 2,000 locomotives and killed more than 2,100 of my colleagues — 820 were beheaded. How is this cooperating with the Nazis?”
Leray said a total of 76,000 Jews were transported on German trains pulled from Paris by SNCF locomotives on SNCF tracks to the German border, Leray said. There, German locomotives replaced the French ones and pulled the trains all the way to Nazi death camps in Poland. About 3,000 passengers survived the war.
Most of the deportees were French citizens and in 1950 those who survived were automatically given a disability pension for the rest of their lives; spouses were also paid, Leray said.
But Tamen refuted that, saying SNCF’s own webpage points out that in order to qualify for a pension deportees had to undergo “a medical visit intended to evaluate the harm endured and the repercussions … and will serve as a basis to determine the amount of the pension.”
In 2000, Jews ages 21 and under at the time of the deportation and who had at least one parent deported and killed were eligible for an orphan compensation, regardless of their nationality.
Leray said the two funds have paid more than $6 billion. He said he believes the negotiations now being conducted between the U.S. and French governments would extend the disability pension and the spousal benefits to Americans. He added that he believed the issue of whether these payments would be retroactive is also being discussed.
Tamen said she is demanding that the heirs of deportees murdered by the Nazis receive reparations along with those who survived the train ride and death camps.
“If reparations are to be paid only to those who survive, the message will be to kill them all next time so no reparations will have to be paid to anyone,” she said.
“For how many years were U.S. companies pressured not to deal with South Africa because of apartheid issues? Perhaps we should consider the moral issue here. If the company wants to bid on a contract that involves taxpayer money, then it should make reparations for war crimes. … I am hopeful that through negotiations we will reach something that is fair and equitable,” she added.
Tamen said she and some of her clients plan to testify at the Maryland legislative hearings to support the proposed legislation. Among those who might testify, she said, is 92-year-old Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who had been on one of the death trains.
“My life has been forever changed by the actions of SNCF,” Bretholz said in a statement. “It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary [Keolis] is now competing to build and operate the Purple Line [light rail project] in my home state of Maryland … while refusing to be held accountable.”
Bretholz was 21 when he was forced aboard a SNCF train in 1942 that was headed for Auschwitz. He jumped off and hid in Europe to await the war’s end. Of the 1,000 people aboard that train, only five survived, he noted.
“SNCF’s actions during the Holocaust were a failure of humanity,” Bretholz said in the press release, issued by Change.org, a website on which he started an online petition demanding that SNCF pay restitution to Holocaust victims. “It would be a further tragedy for the company or its affiliates to thrive in the very communities many Holocaust survivors call home without first owning up to its past and making things right.”
Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) both applauded the Maryland legislation.
“While we look forward to the innovative Purple Line, we do not believe that it should be done through the partnership of Keolis as an entity of SNCF,” they said in a joint statement.
Last year Maloney and Ros-Lehtinen introduced the Holocaust Rail Justice Act (H.R. 1505), which would provide Holocaust survivors their day in court against SNCF. The bill has not seen committee action as yet.
Following a recent visit to Auschwitz, Maloney vowed to redouble her efforts to pass the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, saying: “Any promises of ‘never again’ and ‘never forget’ ring somewhat hollow, if we are willing to do business with a company that aided and abetted the Nazi killing machine. The world must not forget their collaboration with evil, even if they turn out to be the lowest bidder.”
Leray insisted that French law bars SNCF from paying reparations because deportations are treated differently than slave labor or the stealing of property.
“The state of France is the only entity by law — it was voted into law in 1948 — that is responsible for making payments to deportees,” he said. “The bill in Maryland would require the company to pay reparations. But it would not help survivors; it has zero chance of helping survivors because it is in complete contradiction of French laws. I am a resident of the state of Maryland, and it is not going to change the laws of the French Republic.”
Tamen said that argument was raised for the first time last week.
“We have been involved in lawsuits with them for 14 years and it has never before been raised as a valid defense either here or in France,” she said. “And French lawyers who sued the railroad in France said they never heard it before.”