California bill: Disclose Holocaust ties

French company vying for rail contract transported people to camps.

yellow stars 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yellow stars 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – A bill under consideration in the California state legislature would require companies trying to obtain high-speed rail contracts in the state to publicly disclose their role in transporting people to concentration camps during World War II.
The Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act would also require companies to disclose whether any restitution had been made to survivors or victims’ families. The bill mandates that WWII-disclosure be part of the contract award process.RELATED:Opinion: ‘Those who neglect their past have no future’'Bulgaria did not bow to Nazi pressure'
Next year, the state’s High Speed Rail Authority will award contracts for the design, construction and operation of a high-speed system connecting northern and southern California in under three hours. The French rail company Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF) is among the bidders.
SNCF provided trains, personnel and logistics that sent thousands of Jews, American soldiers and others to concentration camps.
The bill’s author, State Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, said that although SNCF was the impetus for his bill, the legislation would apply to any company that transported persons to concentration camps from 1942 to 1944.
“In awarding contracts for the largest public works project in California history, we should look at the entire history and experience of companies vying for our tax dollars. Any company that has failed to take responsibility for its participation in mass genocide should be made to disclose this fact before being considered for these lucrative contracts,” Blumenfield said in a statement.
SNCF was paid per head and per kilometer by Germany for the deportations. The company has never made restitution to survivors or been held accountable in a court of law. Lawsuits have been filed in US courts seeking restitution of property taken from Jews on SNCF trains bound for the camps.
The company, however, has been protected by the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which shields it from lawsuits because its shares are owned by a foreign government.
Legislation to amend the act is under discussion in Congress in order to allow specific exceptions for lawsuits against corporations that collaborated with the Nazis. The issue has recently come to a head, both with SNCF’s California bid and with Keolis Rail Services America, whose majority owner is SNCF and which submitted a bid to the Maryland Transit Administration to operate certain Maryland Area Regional Commuter train lines.
“Holocaust survivors, and family members of victims who perished due to the actions of SNCF living in California today, deserve to see SNCF and other companies guilty of participating in genocide take responsibility for their actions, in their lifetimes, before we give record amounts of their tax dollars to these same companies,” Blumenfield said. “My bill is an effort to encourage SNCF and others to make amends and to ensure that our tax dollars are spent by companies that can meet the most minimum threshold of corporate responsibility.”
While expressing sympathy for Holocaust survivors, University of Toronto law professor Michael Marrus told The Jerusalem Post that the California bill was “a misguided effort in the generally admirable quest for justice for historic wrongs.”
Consistent application of such a law would require universal disclosure before any contract involving public funds could be signed, Marrus said.
“How does one draw the line?” he asked. “What about American companies or institutions that profited from slavery?” Additionally, Marrus said, the question of proper apportionment for blame is not addressed by the legislation.
“To what degree is the SNCF in 2011 the company that committed wrongs or crimes in 1942-45?” he asked. “All, or almost all, of the wrongdoers have now died. Should the present-day company pay? And who should be paid? French courts have, after lengthy litigation, decided no.”
Marrus said SNCF had made “extraordinary efforts” to come to terms with its past, holding both a symposium and commission of inquiry into its wartime role.
“When is full disclosure and acknowledgement of responsibility enough?” he asked.