WWII controversy surfaces in Annapolis

Bill could thwart bid by Holocaust-linked firm to seek MARC contract

  • Holocaust survivor, Leo Bretholz, said he will testify in Annapolis in support of a bill tht could thwart a French railway's subsidiary's efforts to gain a service contract for the state's MARC lines.
Holocaust survivor, Leo Bretholz, said he will testify in Annapolis… (ALGERINA PERNA, Baltimore…)
February 19, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

A dispute with its roots in the Holocaust will receive a hearing in Annapolis next week as lawmakers consider legislation that could effectively bar an affiliate of the French national railway from bidding on a contract to operate two of the state's three MARC commuter lines.

Bills in the House of Delegates and Senate could require SNCF — Société Nationale des Chemins de fer — to make extensive disclosures of records chronicling its role in the transport of Jews and others from France to Nazi death camps during World War II in order for its subsidiary to bid on the contract.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for Maryland Department of Transportation, said the department will not discuss its position on the legislation until the hearing in the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

One of those planning to testify before the General Assembly is 89-year-old Leo Bretholz of Pikesville.

Bretholz escaped from a cattle car on a train operated by SNCF on Nov. 11, 1942. His destination, before he pried open a window and jumped from the train, had been Auschwitz. He was one of an estimated 76,000 people placed on SNCF transports to Nazi death camps. Only about 2,000 survived.

An SNCF subsidiary is considered one of the leading likely bidders for the multimillion-dollar contract to operate the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines. But Bretholz plans to do his part to pressure the company to make amends by traveling to Annapolis to speak before a House committee in favor of the bill that could stymie the railway's efforts to win the state's business.

"The SNCF has never come up with a clear statement of contrition and apologies," said Bretholz, whose 1999 book "Leap Into Darkness" chronicles his escape from the Nazis.

The legislation is part of a national effort by Holocaust survivors and their supporters to win reparations from the French company by persuading legislators to throw roadblocks in the way of its bidding on government contracts in the United States.

In Maryland, the survivors' group is attempting to reach SNCF through Keolis America, a bus and commuter train operations company in which the French railroad holds a 57 percent interest. But Steve Townsend, president of Keolis, insists the two firms have separate managements and distinctly different histories.

"We are not SNCF. We have no World War II history to disclose," he said.

According to Townsend, the French railway was a minority shareholder until about a year ago. He said that for the past two years the company has managed its operations through its headquarters in Rockville.

The effort opens doors on a painful chapter in French history after its defeat by Nazi Germany. After the Germans routed French troops in 1940 and forced the country's surrender, it installed a collaborationist government in Vichy and seized control of the French railway system while leaving many of its managers in place. When the Germans ordered the roundup and deportation of Jews in France, SCNF provided the transports.

Since the war ended, a historical debate has raged over the degree to which French authorities — including SNCF officials — were helpless pawns of the Nazis or willing collaborators.

For Bretholz, the answer is clear. "They were accomplices," he said. "It was done with deception and cruelty and precision."

A question of guilt

It has been more than 65 years since the last SNCF train carrying doomed victims reached the German border, but proponents of the legislation insist officials of the French company and its subsidiary must atone for their predecessors by paying restitution to the victims and their heirs.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the House version of the bill, said SNCF should still be held liable for the damage done to Holocaust victims.

"A corporation's legal liability does not end when those responsible for those decisions are no longer working for the company or no longer alive," he said.

But Peter Kelly, a Los Angeles-based attorney for SNCF, said the French government has legally assumed the responsibility for paying reparations claims. He said France has paid out more than $1.5 billion in SNCF-related damages since 1945 and is prepared to pay more. SNCF, he said, is prepared to help those who step forward to make claims.

Kelly said he's read the Nazi messages from that era to SNCF and found its officials were given an agonizing choice.

"You basically either did what they told you, or you were going to be shot and so was your family," he said. According to the railroad, more than 1,000 of its employees were executed for resisting the Nazis.

Late last year, SNCF issued a public apology for its conduct during the war. But the Holocaust survivors who brought suit against the company rejected the statement as inadequate.

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