SNCF airs Holocaust regret as it bids for Florida rail

Nov 15, 2010
Jack Bremer

Critics denounce French railway’s cynical ploy to win US rail contract

After years of prevaricating, the French rail company SNCF has expressed "sorrow and regret" for its role in transporting thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War Two. But Holocaust survivors believe it is a cynical ploy to help the company win a $2.6bn high-speed rail contract in Florida.

What is more, they say, the statement from SNCF still refuses to acknowledge that the company was in any way culpable. The railway continues to insist it was following orders and was powerless to protest.

Approximately 76,000 French Jews were transported by SNCF to German-run hubs from where they were sent on to Auschwitz and other death camps. Only about 2,500 survived.

According to SNCF chairman Guillaume Pepy's statement, the railway was requisitioned by the Germans. The Nazis, along with the collaborationist French Vichy government, were responsible for "determining the composition of the trains, the types of wagons, and even the train schedules".

Pepy's statement, issued earlier this month, was clearly timed to try to clear the air ahead of the decision on Florida's high-speed link from Orlando to Tampa.

There's also a much bigger contract in the pipeline - a high-speed link from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That contract could be worth as much as $50bn.

Here SNCF faces an uphill struggle because the state of California has passed a law which forces any competing company to disclose whether it transported Holocaust victims.

Without its contentious role under the German occupation, SNCF would be a natural contender for these contracts. Its high-speed TGV service, which criss-crosses France, is much admired.

But US Holocaust survivors - and descendants of survivors - are particularly upset at SNCF since the company lost an historic test case brought in June 2006, but then had the ruling overturned nine months later.

The test case was brought by Euro MP Alain Lipietz, who successfully argued that the railway company was complicit in the transporting of members of his family to a German-run camp at Drancy outside Paris, from where they would be sent to their deaths.

In the event, the family were freed by the Allies. But Lipietz and his sister were determined to prove SNCF's culpability.

The judges held that SNCF administrators not only failed to protest at the time against the transports - they also failed to prove in court that they had been under duress not to protest.

The ruling also addressed the manner of SNCF's collaboration. The railway had transported Lipietz's relatives in a cattle car - and yet billed for passengers at third-class rates - and provided them with no food or water. In short, it had moved the family in a manner "incompatible with human dignity".

The judges ordered SNCF and the state to pay a €61,000 indemnity to the Lipietz family - and their ruling looked like opening the floodgates.

Lawyers quickly had hundreds of other cases prepared, half of them from survivors' families now living in the United States.

But the following March, arguing once again that it had had no choice but to obey orders, SNCF had the Toulouse ruling overturned on appeal. Those campaigning for the Holocaust survivors were furious.

The railway has recently created an English-language "heritage" site, aimed at Americans, where it seeks to explain the circumstances surrounding its actions in World War II.

But with the words of those Toulouse judges still ringing in many ears, it looks unlikely to cut much ice.

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