David McCormack — Daily Mail March 9, 2014
A major French railway company has been forced to begin negotiations with the U.S. State Department about making payments to Holocaust survivors or risk losing out on a billion dollar contract.
The state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) runs some of the fastest and most efficient lines in the world but has a dark history which saw it transport thousands of Jews to their deaths in German concentration camps.
The company transported some 76,000 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the wartime occupation – of which only about 3,000 survived.
SNCF formally apologized for its role in 2011, but claimed that it acted under coercion from the Nazis and has – until now – always sought to avoid making reparations.
Only now that subsidiary Keolis is attempting to secure a $6.5 billion contract to build a 16 mile light-rail network connecting Maryland’s suburbs has the company decided that it might have to reconsider its previous position.
The 35-year contract for the Purple Line project is one of the biggest government contracts in the state’s history, but opposition from Holocaust survivors has left the Kelois bid hanging in the balance.
Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Maryland, doesn’t believe that local tax dollars should go toward SNCF or its subsidiaries.
The 92-year-old has gathered more than 150,000 signatures on a petition that blasts the ‘unconscionable’ possibility that the company could now reap profits from its taxpaying victims.
‘Until they properly acknowledge their role in the Holocaust and take full responsibility, the people of Maryland should not allow their tax dollars to be used to help the company expand its business here,’ he wrote in an editorial for the Baltimore Sun last month.
Bretholz escaped from an SNCF train headed for the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, and he believes the company actively collaborated with the Nazis, claiming that its workers earned profits from the deportations and played a direct role in implementing them.
‘They pursued payment on this after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone,’ he wrote, citing an invoice that SNCF sent to the French government. ‘They even charged interest for late payments. This was not coercion, this was business.’
The bad-feeling against SNCF has prompted senators in the state to propose a bill which would make it illegal for the French to apply for prestige projects
The Holocaust Rail Justice Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, would prohibit Maryland from entering public-private partnerships with any company that deported Nazi prisoners during the Holocaust without paying restitution to ‘all identifiable victims of the deportations or to their families.’
That would also include foreign companies with Holocaust ties and any entities they partially or completely own. The Maryland state legislature is to debate the bill this month.
When the bill was first announced in January, Alain Leray, head of SNCF in America, said his company would analyze the proposed bill for ‘possible discrimination’.
He insisted that his company had as much right as any other to operate as a successful business in the U.S., but now with a billion dollar contract at stake SNCF is reconsidering its position.
‘The SNCF wants desperately to do business here,’ Harriet Tamen, a Manhattan attorney representing some 600 U.S., Israeli and French Jews, told the New York Daily News.
‘It wasn’t an attack of morals that caused them to reach out now.’
She said she has communicated her clients’ expectations to SNCF, and is now awaiting an offer.
Keolis also recently won a $2.7 billion contract from Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
Four years ago, SNCF issued a public apology in Florida over its wartime conduct after bidding for a rail contract to connect the cities of Orlando and Tampa.
And last August Senator Chuck Schumer introducing a measure that opened SNCF up to compensation suits in U.S. courts.
SNCF has continually argued that it is immune to legal action over the Holocaust thanks to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Mr Schumer said: ‘Survivors and family members of those who perished have long attempted to hold SNCF accountable for its active role during the Holocaust, but so far the company has succeeded in cloaking itself in foreign sovereign immunity, evading jurisdiction in United States courts.’
Mr Schumer added: ‘The Holocaust Rail Justice Act would finally enable survivors and family members to hold this French rail company accountable in a court of law for sending thousands to their death during World War II, and allow survivors and family members an opportunity for justice.