An agreement signed Monday in which France will pay $60 million to Holocaust survivors and heirs to atone for its national railroad’s deportation of Jews to Nazi camps was applauded by Jewish groups but criticized by some for being too restrictive.
The deal, which was hammered out between the French and American governments over the past several months, means that survivors of the camps will likely each receive more than $100,000 and their widowed spouses tens of thousands of dollars.
In return, the U.S. will guarantee France — “and its instrumentalities” like the national railroad — “legal peace,” or freedom from lawsuits brought by survivors seeking compensation. Until now, it has used sovereign immunity to get those suits dismissed.
“There is no amount of money that could ever make up for the horrific injustice done to these victims and their families,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
“But agreements like this provide some modest redress, an important recognition of their pain, and acknowledge the responsibility of governments and institutions to leave no stone unturned in seeking every possible measure of justice for Holocaust victims.”
Lawmakers who had pressed for legislation to allow survivors to sue the National Society of French Railways (SNCF) also applauded the agreement, which must still be ratified by the French National Assembly.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the deal “will finally bring a measure of relief and closure. I am glad to have played a part in bringing this deal to fruition, which will not only provide compensation to Holocaust survivors that were transported to Nazi camps on SNCF train cars, or their family members, but more
importantly, will provide those individuals with some justice.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish
Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, sent a letter to the major legislative sponsors asking them to show their support by withdrawing their legislation.
Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser to the secretary of state on Holocaust issues who represented the U.S. in the talks and signed the agreement, said in an email that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) — who along with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) had introduced such legislation — told him at the agreement signing ceremony that she would lead a congregational delegation to Paris to urge legislative authorization of the $60 million.
Maloney “applauded” the agreement, saying in a statement that it is “a breakthrough in a decades-long struggle for justice” and that it “will deliver fair compensation to these victims and to the loved ones of those who did not live to see this deal finalized.”
“The world made a promise never to forget the Holocaust’s unspeakable horrors,” she added. “That is why, nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, we are still making sure that those who participated in the Holocaust pay just compensation to those they harmed.”
The Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice representing survivors, their families and advocates issued a statement welcoming the agreement, saying that “almost 70 years after the end of the Holocaust [it] finally brings a measure of justice to at least some of those victims.”
It quoted Raphael Prober, whose firm represented survivors and families pro bono, as saying the agreement “represents an important admission by SNCF and the French government that they were complicit in the atrocities of the Holocaust. It is also a testament to the unwavering fight for justice waged by survivors and the families of those who were transported on SNCF trains in barbaric conditions to Auschwitz and other death camps.”
But the statement also quoted Harriet Tamen, a lawyer who since 2000 has represented SNCF’s victims in two unsuccessful suits against the railroad, as saying “work still remains.”
She told The Jewish Week that the agreement “is wonderful for those who qualify but it must be considered a first step, not a final step.”
She explained that she has as many as 500 clients — 75 percent of her caseload — who are not covered because both of their parents were killed in the Nazi camps after they stepped off the railroad cars.
“This agreement has the perverse result of providing benefits to those who lost one parent and providing nothing to those who lost both parents,” she said. “The ones who lost the most get the least.”
And she noted that even if someone survived the Nazi camp, he or she still had to live until 1948 to be eligible to receive any payment under this agreement.
The agreement calls for funds to be made available to surviving spouses and to the estates of survivors, with the amount to be determined based upon how long the survivor lived after the war — the amount increases for each year lived.
Herbert Karliner, 88, of Miami said his parents and sisters were deported by the French railroad to Nazi camps where they were murdered, said he and his older brother escaped deportation using false identification papers.
He said they both applied in 2000 for compensation from a newly created French Orphans Program. His brother, who died a year ago, chose to accept a $25,000 payment and he opted for a French pension, which today pays about $600 each month. But Karliner said he is upset that this new settlement is closed to him but open to those who lost only one parent in the Nazi camps.
Eizenstat explained in an email to The Jewish Week that what Tamen is asking for is not available even to French Jews.
“So we could hardly give non-French Jews something different and expect the French parliament to pass it over the objection of the French Jewish community,” he wrote. “Serge Klarsfeld, the famous French Nazi hunter … and founder of the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France, and Roger Cukierman, chairman of the French CRIF [the umbrella of French Jewish communities] have strongly endorsed the agreement.”
Eizenstat pointed out also that in all of the agreements he has negotiated with other countries in behalf of survivors “heirs of those killed in the camps have never been able to recover. In our agreement, it is not only survivors who will recover over $100,000 but the spouses of those who died in the camps.
“Moreover, we cover a category in no other Holocaust program: namely, heirs of those who survived or their spouses but who have since died between the end of the war and today. Those heirs could be children, grandchildren, siblings, etc.”
Eizenstat noted that the Orphans Program has already paid 1,093 American orphans more than $60 million. In addition, about 1,000 Israelis have received a similar amount.
“We believe with the publicity of our new agreement more will apply,” he said.
In addition, he noted that there is another children’s program that covers a limited number of minors whose parents survived the war but died later of deportation-related causes.
“Under our agreement, their heirs could recover [compensation],” Eizenstat said.
In addition to these payments — the U.S. has agreed to handle compensation to qualifying survivors and heirs living in most other countries — Eizenstat said SNCF said it would make a contribution of $4 million over five years; that money is to be divided equally between the U.S. and Israel/France, for museums, memorials and projects of Holocaust remembrance.
Between March 1942 and August 1944, 76,000 Jews — 11,000 of them children — were forcibly deported from France to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps on the French national railroad. Only an estimated 3,000 were still alive in 1945.
One of those who survived and was in the forefront of the effort to get SNCF to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust was Leo Bretholz. He testified at congressional hearings, providing an invoice to prove that SNCF was paid by the Nazis “per head and per kilometer” to deliver the Jews to their ultimate death. He said that during the trip, the railroad offered the Jews only “one piece of triangle cheese, one piece of bread and no water.”
Bretholz, who died in March at the age of 93, said he survived by bending the bars on the windows of the cattle car and jumping out.
The head of SNCF in America, Alain Leray, called the agreement a “welcome conclusion for all those who sought to win compensation for the victims and their families.”
Signing the agreement for France was its ambassador for human rights, Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay, who told reporters that the railroad was not part of the negotiations because it was France — not the railroad — that was responsible for the deportations. The railroad, she said, was only “an instrument of the deportations.”
SNCF’s chairman did, however, issue a formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011. And Eizenstat noted that in his meeting with Leray the SNCF America president “repeated the statements of ‘deep sorrow and regret’ for their role.”