US considers legislation on railways’ Holocaust activities

Proposed act would enable lawsuits against French company that transported Jews to death camps.

SNCF 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
SNCF 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – The US House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing Wednesday on proposed legislation that would create a waiver to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which would allow survivors to sue foreign rail companies in federal court.
The proposed Holocaust Rail Justice Act relates in particular to the French rail company SNCF, whose trains deported 76,000 Jews, as well as thousands of others, to death camps during World War II. SNCF is among the contenders competing for various high-speed rail contracts in the US.
In ensuring full disclosure of all Holocaust- era activities, the legislation would allow lawsuits to go ahead against SNCF.
The French national railroad contends that the Nazis forced it to transport Holocaust victims and that it therefore should not be held responsible for its actions during the war.
The hearing on the Holocaust Rail Justice Act included testimony from Leo Bretholz, a survivor who escaped from a moving SNCF train bound for Auschwitz.
“SNCF willingly collaborated with the Nazis,” he told the committee.
“Had the company resisted, even to a small degree, the number of those killed from France would have been greatly reduced. Had SNCF not imposed those horrific conditions, many lives could have been saved.”
He asserted that “in the almost 70 years since the end of the war, SNCF has paid no reparations nor been held accountable. The company did not even publicly apologize for its role until last year, when SNCF was criticized for pursuing high-speed rail in the United States without fully accounting for its role in the Holocaust.
As it was during the Holocaust for SNCF, so it is now – all about money.”
Declared Bretholz, “I am honored to testify before the committee on behalf of my fellow survivors and the far too many who were not lucky enough to escape. I applaud the Committee on Foreign Affairs for allowing survivors to speak out against SNCF, which survived the war by shattering lives and trafficking in human suffering. This legislation will finally allow us to gain closure and justice.”
The proposed act, he said, “is the last opportunity many of us will have to see justice within our lifetimes. The survivors seek only to have an opportunity to have our day in court for the first time, to publicly hold SNCF accountable for its actions, and to finally allow justice to be done.”
Donald Shearer, a US Air Force member shot down over France and deported to Buchenwald via train, also attended the hearing.
“I am proud of the many legislators working to ensure the United States holds accountable the companies who contributed to the egregious acts against humanity witnessed during World War II,” said Shearer. “I look forward to the day when we can finally gain justice from SNCF for the wrongs it committed against so many.”
Another bill under House consideration would allow claimants to make their case against Holocaust-era insurers in US courts and to force discovery from insurance companies of their policies during WWII.
Many Jewish organizations, however, oppose this legislation. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti- Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization submitted testimony arguing against it, saying it would raise false hopes for survivors and compromise future negotiations for survivor benefits.