Holocaust survivors tell state legislators railway must atone

Bill would force French company to disclose Nazi ties before it can bid on MARC contract

March 03, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Questions of guilt and atonement that are usually the province of historians and moral philosophers arose in Annapolis during hearings Thursday on a bill that would hold a subsidiary of the French national railway responsible for the parent company's role in transporting deportees to death camps under Nazi occupation.

Holocaust survivors and their relatives asked Maryland legislators to impose broad disclosure requirements on Keolis America, a Rockville-based company controlled by the French company SNCF, before it can compete for a contract to operate the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines.

Emotional, gripping testimony came from witnesses such as Leo Bretholz of Pikesville, who chose to travel to Annapolis three days before his 90th birthday to recount his tale of being transported in a French-owned cattle car toward the German border before making his escape in 1943.

"I had the luxury of a choice, but those who didn't survive had no luxury of choosing, so I'm speaking for them," said Bretholz, one of about 2,000 survivors out of 76,000 transported to the German death camps aboard SNCF trains requisitioned after the fall of France in 1940.

Bretholz said French railway officials "knew what they were doing no matter what they say," describing an elaborate process of taking deportees' possessions and giving them receipts they were told they should keep to reclaim the goods. He said it was "unbelievable the cruelty with which it was executed, and the precision and deception."

The legislation, which had hearings in House and Senate committees Thursday, would require Keolis to make extensive disclosures about SNCF's role in the deportation of Jews and other Nazi victims during the war years — including inventories of the property confiscated from captives before they were loaded aboard trains to Germany.

Supporters insisted the measure is simply a disclosure bill, but representatives of Keolis and SNCF said the demand for documents would be so time-consuming and costly that its effect would be to exclude the company from competing for the Maryland contract.

"In essence, the bill is asking them to do the impossible. Therefore, they would be unable to bid," said Bill Pitcher, the Annapolis lobbyist who represents the two companies.

It was clear, however, that the sympathies of members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee lay with the Holocaust survivors and their advocates, who disputed the company's claims that it had been forthcoming in opening its archives and sincere in its apologies for the wartime actions of SNCF managers who did the Nazis' bidding.

Delegates peppered the railroad witnesses with skeptical questions about the extent to which it had made its archives accessible and the adequacy of the French government's compensation of victims.

Two of the four railroad witnesses who were French speakers clearly struggled to understand questions and be understood in English.

Jacques Fredj, director of the Shoah (Holocaust) Memorial in Paris, said SNCF has worked diligently with France's Jewish community — including death camp survivors — to disclose its wartime role. He said his institution, a counterpart to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, has no qualms about the "partnership" it has formed with the railroad to promote awareness of Holocaust history.

Dennis Douté, president of SNCF America, said the company does business all over the world without facing questions about its wartime role. Among the places it operates is Israel, he said.

Douté said the French government had assumed responsibility for payment of compensation to victims of actions by SNCF and other entities. He said France has paid out about $1.4 billion to victims of Nazi persecution.

But Harriet Tamen, a lawyer for Bretholz and other survivors and relatives, said neither France nor SNCF has provided reparations to people who were transported on the trains. In particular, she said, the railroad had never accepted financial responsibility for its actions.

"Until it does, it should never be allowed to receive taxpayers' money from the citizens of Maryland," Tamen said.

After the hearing, lead House sponsor Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg said it went "very well" for proponents of the bill.

"No one on the committee asked questions that were reflective of SNCF's viewpoint," he observed. The Baltimore Democrat hinted that the hearing could be a springboard for further discussions with SNCF.

"I would not object to there being talks between the companies and the appropriate representatives of the survivors and those who perished," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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