WASHINGTON (JTA) — Holocaust survivors met with officials on Capitol Hill to discuss legislation that will help them pursue a lawsuit against a French railroad company.
Leo Bretholz and Mathilde Freund were both refugees from Austria living in Vichy, France during World War II.
Between March 1942 and August 1944, 75,000 Jews, undesirables, and even American citizens and soldiers, were deported to concentration camps from France aboard trains run by the Societe Nationale des Chermins de Fers Francais, or SNCF. The company was paid by the Nazis for deportations per head, per kilometer.
Bretholz escaped on a train to Auschwitz, but Freund’s husband was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald where he died on Jan. 31, 1945.
Legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) would allow survivors, family members and veterans a chance to sue SNCF in the United States. Bretholz and Freund met last week with staff for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
SNCF has never denied its actions, but has been able to claim immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. It claims it cannot be sued for its activities during the war, even though it is a commercial entity, because its shares are owned by the government.
Though the Act was not in place at the time of the deportations, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that its tenets are applicable retroactively. Furthermore, as the law stands, survivors cannot sue for the act of being deported.
The new legislation, would ensure that a lawsuit could be brought by tailoring a narrow exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
The scope of the exception would be narrowed to railroads that are separate commercial corporations and engaged in deportations from 1942 to 1944. The legislation would only take away sovereignty as a defense for SNCF; the railroad could still use any other defense at its disposal.
The legislation would not affect treaties with the German, Swiss, and Austrian governments, which preclude suits against the governments or their entities.
Survivors filed suit against the railroad in 2001; the case was dismissed by a federal district court judge. In 2003, a federal appeals court reversed the judge’s decision and sent the case back to the lower court. The railroad appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it had immunity from prosecution. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal and sent the case back to the appeals court in 2004. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case again in 2005.
The legistation to allow the survivors to sue the railroad was first introduced in the Senate in 2008.
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