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January 26, 2011 3:35 pm

French Railway Formally Apologizes to Holocaust Victims

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PARIS — The head of France‘s national railway company, known as the S.N.C.F., on Tuesday made the company’s first formal public apology directly to Holocaust victims. The regrets came just a few months after American lawmakers, survivors and their descendants moved to block the company from winning contracts in the United States if it did not acknowledge its role in the shipping of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps and make amends.

“In the name of the S.N.C.F., I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives,” said Guillaume Pepy, the company’s chairman, during a ceremony at a railway station in Bobigny, a Paris suburb. The company is handing the station to local authorities to create a memorial to the 20,000 Jews shipped from there to Nazi camps, mostly in 1943 and ’44.

Mr. Pepy spoke before an audience of officials and Jewish dignitaries, including Simone Veil, a French survivor of the Holocaust

Mr. Pepy was responding to years of litigation brought by lawmakers, survivors, their descendants and some American Jewish organizations. They say the company never formally apologized for shipping 76,000 European Jews to the Franco-German border in 76 cattle cars between 1941 and 1944. (German trains later took the deportees to Nazi death camps.)

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They tried to bar the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, or S.N.C.F., which produces the TGV, one of the fastest and most advanced trains in the world, from two major projects: high-speed railways connecting Orlando to Tampa, Fla., and San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The company has never been awarded construction business in the United States. The two projects would be among the largest in the company’s history.

The immediate reaction was cautious praise. “We are pleased that S.N.C.F. has taken the first step,” said Harriet Tamen, a lawyer for more than 600 Holocaust victims and survivors who filed a class-action lawsuit against S.N.C.F. in 2006.

“Now they should take the next step and pay reparations to the victims,” Ms. Tamen said.

In September, Ron Klein, then a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Florida, introduced a bill seeking to require all companies competing for Americanhigh-speed rail contracts to disclose any participation in deporting Jews and others to Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

“No company whose trains carried innocent victims to death camps should have the right to lay the first inch of track in this country,” Mr. Klein said in a statement. He lost re-election in November.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pepy made no statement about the legal pressure his company had been subjected to in the United States. “For a long time we have often been asked questions here, elsewhere, even in the United States,” he said. He denied that his comments were prompted by the company’s American ambitions.

Mr. Pepy also said official apologies by the S.N.C.F. were part of the company’s longtime effort to examine its past. Fifteen years ago, it opened an archive center in Le Mans and commissioned an independent 900-page report, which resulted in a conference at the National Assembly in 2000. In December, the company signed a partnership with the Holocaust memorial based in Paris to develop joint school programs about World War II.

Mr. Pepy himself issued a statement in November to express the company’s “regrets” and “sorrow” for its involvement during the Holocaust.

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