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February 6, 2014 6:00 pm

Holocaust Survivor Sparks Maryland Legislation to Ban French Train Maker From Winning $6 Billion Contract

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Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor whose petition may bar France's SNCF from bidding on a $6 billion train contract in Maryland. Photo: Screenshot / Change.org.

Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor whose activism may bar France's SNCF from bidding on a $6 billion train contract in Maryland. Photo: Screenshot / Change.org.

Legislation in Maryland could ban French train manufacturer SNCF from bidding on a 35-year, $6 billion contract for a new commuter rail line because of its role in shuttling 76,000 people to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The issue was raised by Leo Bretholz, a 92 survivor, whose online petition supporting a new version of the bill quickly raised more than 60,000 signatures this week.

According to a statement from change.org, the online petition site, Maryland Senate Bill 754 was announced by State Sen. Joan Carter Conway and House Delegate Kirill Reznik. The legislation would require any entity that bids for a public-private partnership contract “to disclose any involvement it or its affiliated companies had in the deportation of individuals toward extermination camps or death camps during the Holocaust” and any reparations to the victims of such deportations it may  have paid. “Failure to make these certifications or to certify that reparations have been paid will disqualify the entity from entering into a public-private partnership,” it said.

House Delegate Reznik, a Ukrainian-born Jew, said, “SNCF’s actions during the Holocaust were a failure of humanity. It would be a further tragedy for the company or its affiliates to thrive in the very communities many Holocaust survivors call home without first owning up to its past and making things right.”

Three years ago, the two Maryland lawmakers, who had become friendly with constituent Bretholz, presented a similar bill that would hold SNCF accountable, but the company lost the bid for the state contract, so it became a moot point, according to Reznik’s office. With the French company now up for Maryland’s 35-year, $6 billion “Purple Line” commuter rail contract, the new bill, that specifically asks for reparations, became a priority, with Bretholtz’s online petition giving it more momentum by bringing the issue into the public eye this week.

In the statement, Bretholz said, “In 1942, after years of hiding from the Nazis because I am a Jew, I was put on a train bound for Auschwitz. That train was part of SNCF, the French railway company that transported 76,000 people — including 11,000 children and many American pilots shot down in France — toward Nazi death camps. SNCF was paid by the Nazis per person, and per kilometer. And as of today, SNCF has never paid one cent of reparations to Holocaust survivors like myself.”

Bretholz said he jumped from the train before it arrived at Auschwitz, first hiding in Europe before eventually fleeing to Maryland. Of the 1,000 people on board the train with Bretholz, only five survived the Holocaust.

“My life has been forever changed by the actions of SNCF,” Bretholtz said. “It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary is now competing to build and operate the Purple Line in my home state of Maryland—one of the single biggest contracts in state history—while refusing to be held accountable.”

“I am almost 93 years old now. If I hadn’t jumped off that SNCF train, I would have died when I was 21. In whatever time I have left, I will keep telling my story, and keep fighting for what is right.”

SNCF’s U.S.-based subsidiary, Keolis, has been bidding on numerous high speed rail projects in the U.S., in California and Florida, in addition to Bretholz’s state of Maryland. Change.org said the subsidiary has recently won a bid for commuter rail construction in Boston, though there was no word as to what impact the potential Maryland law could have on that deal.

On Wednesday, New York Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney said, “The bill introduced by State Senator Conway and Delegate Reznik would make it clear that Maryland does not contract with companies that have refused to own up to their involvement in the Holocaust and pay reparations.”

“I recently visited Auschwitz where I saw the rail lines that transported millions to their death. I saw the gas chambers and the killing machines. The Holocaust was a horror the world should never see again, and that is why we must continue to send the message that those responsible will be held to account regardless of how long it takes. SNCF must do the right thing before we award a single contract to any of its affiliate operations in the United States.”

Last year, Maloney and Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed forward the Holocaust Rail Justice Act (H.R. 1505), which would provide Holocaust survivors their day in court against SNCF, but the bill has not yet seen committee action.

Following her visit to Auschwitz, Maloney vowed to redouble her efforts to pass the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, saying: “Any promises of ‘never again’ and ‘never forget’ ring somewhat hollow, if we are willing to do business with a company that aided and abetted the Nazi killing machine. The world must not forget their collaboration with evil, even if they turn out to be the lowest bidder.”

A fact sheet about Maryland Senate Bill 754 from House Delegate Reznik relates the history of the many attempts over the past 70 years to compel SNCF to admit wrongdoing, and details 10 years of lawsuits against the French company and its diffident response.

The lawmaker points out that SNCF was a willing Nazi collaborator, reaching an agreement to retain control and responsibility for its trains, “the technical conditions of the deportations” and, indeed, to be incentivized by being paid per head, and per kilometer “to deliver thousands to their ultimate deaths.”

When sought out by lawmakers, SNCF has argued that it is “covered” by existing French reparations or restitution programs, though it was a separate company and none of those benefits accrued to the overwhelming majority of SNCF’s victims.

SNCF has said it has no intention of altering its position on reparations. In fact, according to Reznik, a SNCF representative went so far as to tell a member of the California Assembly that SNCF will never pay the survivors anything and that SNCF would rather not do business in California than take any such actions.

Litigation seeking to hold SNCF accountable went on for over 10 years and SNCF succeeded in evading jurisdiction in U.S. courts by hiding behind foreign sovereign immunity. Reznik said that while SNCF argues in U.S. courts that it is an arm of the French government to avoid jurisdiction, in French Administrative court it has actually advanced the opposite argument, that it was performing a private function, to avoid jurisdiction.

Further, SNCF earns millions of dollars from its commercial activities in the U.S. and is seeking to earn billions in high-speed and other rail contracts in the U.S. – funded through taxpayer dollars from some of the very same victims SNCF transported to death camps. This is not what foreign sovereign immunity was intended to cover, Reznik said.

At the federal level, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, first introduced in 2005, would simply provide a day in court for SNCF’s victims by precluding SNCF from raising the issue of foreign sovereign immunity. The bill sponsors are Reps. Maloney and Ros-Lehtinen, and New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer.

On the state level, there have been initiatives in California, Florida and Maryland to impose disclosure requirements on companies seeking rail contracts. The California legislation passed both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly but was vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger, for apparently unrelated reasons, according to Reznik.

The Maryland legislation passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law by Governor O’Malley in 2011, while it’s disputed that SNCF actually complied with the disclosure and related requirements in the original legislation. The 2011 legislation had to do with transparency, not accountability and reparations.

“It had to do simply with SNCF’s historical archives, requiring—among other things—that the company hire an objective historian to oversee the release of its Holocaust-era records. While we had hoped the 2011 legislation would have led SNCF to be held accountable and pay reparations, it did not.  That is why this legislation is so necessary,” Reznik said.

Reznik said there are at least 11 SNCF victims living in Maryland, and hundreds more around the country. He said, “This legislation is absolutely the right thing to be doing. Especially in a public private partnership, where a company is essentially standing in the shoes of the Government, it is absolutely the state’s role to demand that these be respectable and responsible companies, with clean hands.  We are very concerned that Maryland’s hard earned tax dollars only go to responsible companies, and at this time we don’t believe SNCF or Keolis to be such companies.”

In France, he said  the existing programs for survivors do not cover the deportations, do not provide reparations to the majority of the SNCF’s victims, and SNCF has no connection with these programs. The French government has established an Orphans Fund, which provides for those whose parents were killed in the camps and were under 21 at the time, and a Fund for Veterans, which provides a monthly pension for those who served in the French military. There is also the Commission for the Indemnification of Victims of Spoliation (CIVS), which provides indemnification for assets such as businesses and apartments that were seized by reason of anti-Semitic laws. CIVS does not cover any property taken on the trains or by SNCF.

“No compensation has ever been made by SNCF, and no mechanism exists to pay any reparations to SNCF’s victims specifically for the deportations. That some SNCF victims may receive indemnification for an apartment or a business, or for the loss of a parent, does not absolve SNCF of its responsibility.   These programs have nothing to do with SNCF and should in no way preclude these victims from receiving justice from SNCF,” Reznik said.

He said that more than 6,000 German companies have accepted responsibility for their actions and paid into reparations funds established as a result of post-war treaties, along with Swiss and Austrian companies also paying reparations. Following a lawsuit in the U.S., French banks have made restitution, he said.

SNCF, one of the world’s 250 largest companies, “stands apart in its refusal to take responsibility and pay reparations,” Reznik said.

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