Washington — The United States and France have tentatively arrived at a $60 million lump sum agreement to settle claims by survivors deported to Nazi camps via the French rail system.
The agreement, announced Friday in a conference call with reporters by Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s envoy on Holocaust compensation issues, will be signed Monday, but still needs to be ratified by the French legislature.
The SNCF, which is owned by the French government, transported Jews to the death camps during the Holocaust.
The agreement redresses longstanding claims by survivors who were otherwise unable to obtain reparations limited to French nationals through the French pension system.
The agreement will guarantee France “and its instrumentalities” like SNCF “legal peace,” or freedom from legal actions. SNCF has until now used diplomatic immunities to resist lawsuits brought by American survivors.
The French embassy in Washington said in an email to JTA that the agreement reflected the closeness of U.S.-French ties and pledged that those seeking compensation would be unburdened by bureaucracy.
“Both sides will do everything possible to ensure that compensation is paid as quickly as possible and with as few formalities as possible,” a spokesman said.
The fund, with moneys from France but administered by the U.S. government, will be available to non-French nationals who are citizens of the United States and any other country that does not have a bilateral reparations agreement with France. (Belgium, Poland, Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are subject to such agreements.)
Funds will also be available to their surviving spouses, and – in what Eizenstat said was unprecedented in the history of reparations – to the estates of survivors.
A fact sheet estimated that “several thousand” claims will be eligible. It said that survivors will likely be entitled to over $100,000 each, their widowed spouses to amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars and estates would be assessed according to how long the survivor lived after the war; because it is a pension plan, the longer one survived, the more the estate would receive.
Under the agreement, SNCF, separately, will re-issue a statement of “sorrow and regret” for its role in the deportations, and will contribute $4 million to Holocaust education and commemoration in the United States and in France and Israel, Eizenstat said.
Additionally, the U.S. government will issue guidelines to people who were orphaned by the deportations to apply for separate compensation available to them under French laws since 2000.
A lawyer for Akin Gump, the major law firm representing pro bono about 650 survivors, called the settlement “incredibly significant.”
“We are very pleased with both what this agreement means and what it means for the survivors, many of whome who would be greatly benefitted by this agreement,” Rafi Prober told JTA after attending a briefing by Eizenstat. “For the individuals who are covered by this agreement, they would view this as a significant and positive development. It has come after many many years of hard work and unwavering and zealous advocacy.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) had earlier this year introduced legislation that would have granted courts jurisdiction to hear lawsuits against SNCF. Maloney in a statement welcomed Eizenstat’s deal, although she did not say whether she would withdraw the legislation.
“This is a breakthrough in a decades-long struggle for justice waged by Holocaust survivors who were brought to death camps on SNCF trains hired by the Nazis,” she said. “This settlement will deliver fair compensation to these victims and to the loved ones of those who did not live to see this deal finalized.” Ros-Lehtinen also welcomed the settlement in a statement, but did not indicate if she would no longer pursue legislation.
It is not clear yet how the deal would affect bills under consideration in a number of state legislatures that would ban any dealings with SNCF, a major exporter of rail cars, until it agreed to address lawsuits.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director and himself a Holocaust survivor, welcomed the agreement.
“There is no amount of money that could ever make up for the horrific injustice done to these victims and their families,” he 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.”