The French rail company, Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF), provided the cattle cars that transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Of the thousands who boarded, only 2000 survived. Today, SNCF’s subsidiary, the company Keolis, has to answer for these crimes.
The decades-old controversy reared its head when the French company put in a bid for Maryland’s $2.2 billion light-rail Purple Line project. Legislation introduced Jan. 31 in Maryland’s General Assembly would block the French railway from winning the bid–unless the company compensates American Holocaust survivors.
“To the great credit of the French, they came to us and said they’d recognized there were ‘holes in the blanket’ of their [Holocaust reparations] program that didn’t cover Americans,” Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer serving as special adviser on Holocaust issues, told The Washington Post.
While the French government has already paid more than $6 billion in reparations to survivors, these calculations do not include Holocaust deportees who ended up in the United States. Payments, which began in 1948, cover only French citizens and deportees who ended up in the four countries that reached bilateral agreements with France: Poland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Belgium, a U.S. official told the Post.
If the Maryland legislation is approved, it would be the first state law to ban companies from receiving U.S. government contracts because of unresolved ties to the Holocaust.
Leo Bretholz is a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who rode on a SNCF train to Auschwitz in 1942. Now a Baltimore resident, Bretholz does not want any of his tax money going to SNCF or a subsidiary, even if the company provides him with reparations. Nevertheless, he feels the reparations should be paid.
“It’s important for one reason: Justice should be done,” Bretholz said. “When they [pay reparations], they admit they did something wrong–terribly wrong–sending people to be murdered.”
With the recent anti-Semitic demonstrations that took place in Paris on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the question of French Holocaust reparations are of particular concern. The European Union’s own Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 40 percent of French Jews are afraid to publicly identify as Jewish, while 56 percent have heard someone say “the Jews have too much power” in the last 12 months.
Will French public sentiment affect legislation in the U.S.-France Holocaust-reparation talks? “I think the French really want to get this done quickly–and we do, too–because of the age and infirmity of the people involved,” Eizenstat said.
Hannah Dreyfus is an editorial intern at Tablet.