Survivors face-off with French train company in Maryland

State bill would require disclosure of any participation in deportations to death camps.

SNCF 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
SNCF 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – In hearings in front of Maryland House and Senate committees last week, French train company executives faced emotional Holocaust survivor testimony, in the latest battle over mandatory disclosure of World War II history by applicants for municipal and state contracts.
Survivors and their families testified that Maryland legislators ought to impose broad disclosure requirements on Keolis America, a Rockville, Maryland- based company controlled by the French company SNCF, before it can bid for a contract to operate Maryland train lines. The legislature is considering such disclosure requirements.
“SNCF is responsible for transporting thousands of victims to concentration camps, and as a survivor, I am duty bound to speak out for those who were silenced,” said Leo Bretholz, who escaped an SNCF train bound for Auschwitz 68 years ago. “SNCF herded innocent victims into cattle cars, and the trip of several days duration in unspeakably deplorable conditions killed many innocent victims, including women and children.
The company responsible for such acts should not profit from my tax dollars without first taking responsibility for its participation in the Holocaust.”
The Maryland House Committee on Health and Government Operations and the Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs are holding separate hearings on the legislation, which would require any entity, and majority owners of any entity, that is pursuing a procurement contract with the Maryland Department of Transportation to provide MARC train service to disclose any participation in the deportation of individuals to death camps during World War II (Senate Bill 479, House Bill 520).
SNCF, France’s national railway, transported more than 75,000 people to such camps during the German occupation.
For over 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.
Supporters say the Maryland measure would simply be a disclosure bill, but SNCF and Keolis claim that document production required by the bill would be so expensive as to preclude the company from bidding on the contract.
“In essence, the bill is asking them to do the impossible.
Therefore, they would be unable to bid,” Bill Pitcher, the Annapolis lobbyist who represents the two companies, told The Baltimore Sun.
SNCF America President Dennis Douté testified that the company does business all over the world, including in Israel.
He said that the French government, not SNCF, has assumed responsibility for payment of compensation to victims of Holocaust transport by SNCF as well as other entities, paying out $1.4 billion to Nazi victims.
“After six long hours of detailed testimony, SNCF’s statements raised far more questions than answers,” Raphael Prober, an attorney spearheading efforts on the survivors’ behalf, told The Jerusalem Post. “On the one hand, SNCF says all of their historical records are open, available and able to be accessed, but on the other hand, the company opposes a simple disclosure statute which calls for information from their historical records. Their opposition to this statute, based on SNCF’s own statements, suggests to me that we have not heard the entire, nor the truthful, story.”
Prober noted that Douté, when pressed by Maryland Sen. Ronald Young, “was literally unable to utter the simple words ‘we apologize.’ “He spoke of sorrow and regret, but was quick to note the Nazis made them do it,” Prober said. “After Nuremberg and after the following orders defense was discredited, it is shocking and incredibly sad to hear statements like this.
Sixty-eight years later, if SNCF is truly sorry for its role in the Holocaust, it should be able to say so without any qualification.
“What is occurring in Maryland is part of a larger call for justice and accountability occurring in various state legislatures around the country and on Capitol Hill,” Prober said.
“Elected officials far and wide have made clear this company is going to have to finally come clean and provide justice to its victims, and until that happens, I am certain SNCF will remain embroiled in this public controversy.”