Survivors request reparations from French railways

Nat'l French railways' apology to survivors "insult to victims and memory of Holocaust"; website demands familial compensation.

By JORDANA HORN
February 15, 2011 18:20
3 minute read.
Auschwitz train tracks

auschwitz train tracks 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

NEW YORK – A new website, holocaustrailvictims.org, is the latest line of attack in a longstanding quest of a group of Holocaust survivors to get reparations from the French national railway company that transported people to concentration and death camps during World War II.

SNCF transported over 75,000 people to such camps.

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For more than 10 years, survivors living in the US have tried to force SNCF to pay reparations for its actions.

SNCF has acknowledged its role in the Holocaust and has posted information relating to its WWII history on its own website, issuing its first formal apology for its role in the Holocaust in January, but has made no effort to pay reparations.

The new website is constructed by an Ad Hoc Coalition, consisting of survivors, family members, historians, and volunteers, as well as the survivors’ attorneys at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which has represented over 600 survivors for five years in courts, state and federal legislatures.

The site, which went online Monday, aims to inform the public of survivors’ claims against the railway company and to garner support for its stance that SNCF’s measures thus far are insufficient.

“SNCF’s recent decision to issue its first ‘apology’ for its role in the Holocaust was a calculated gesture to ensure the company’s ability to compete for billions of American taxpayer dollars,” the website reads. “This ‘apology’ has been recognized by legislators, survivors, Holocaust experts, editorial boards and the press in the United States and France as such. SNCF’s recent actions are an insult to its victims and to the memory of the Holocaust.

If SNCF’s regret is sincere, it must reach out to victims and their families and provide reparations.

“Until SNCF provides full disclosure and reparations to its victims and their families, we will continue to seek justice for SNCF’s victims,” the website states.

Thus far, however, SNCF has not been found liable for reparations in US courts due to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which sets limits on whether a foreign state can be sued in a US court. As SNCF, a French national entity, has recently begun to bid for highspeed rail contracts in American states including California, Maryland and Florida, survivors have tried to pursue redress through legislative channels instead.

Recent developments include a bill introduced last week by Maryland state lawmakers, which would require companies bidding on mass transit rail contracts to disclose whether or not they were involved in transporting victims to German concentration camps.

The survivors’ website itself has met with resistance from SNCF, which sent a cease-anddesist letter from its Paris office ordering the survivors’ lawyers to turn over registered domain names because they contained “SNCF,” said Raphael Prober, the Akin Gump attorney heading the firm’s legal efforts.

Prober told The Washington Post that the letter showed “a total disconnect between what SNCF is doing and saying publicly and what they’re doing privately.”

SNCF’s US counsel, Peter Kelly, told The Washington Post that the railway company’s letter had been sent in error and that the company welcomed Akin Gump’s efforts to inform the public.

Federal legislation that would give US courts jurisdiction to hear civil claims against SNCF over its role in the Holocaust will be reintroduced soon, according to New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, whose first attempt to pass such a law never reached a vote.

“The legislation would simply preclude SNCF from raising the defense of foreign sovereign immunity and allow the survivors’ suit... to go forward,” Prober said. “This is not what the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act was intended to cover.”


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