France Takes the High Road for Jewish Survivors

Once again, France has illuminated what Abraham Lincoln called “the moral lights around us.” On December 8, 2014 in Washington, D.C. the French Human Rights ambassador, Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay, signed an agreement with Stuart Eizenstat, Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues. As a result, survivors deported by the French railroad system, and their families living outside France, will obtain compensation for being deported by the trains of the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) to Nazi concentration and death camps during World War II.

By this new arrangement, France has faced up to its historic responsibilities and agreed to render belated, if imperfect, justice. It supplements the French pension programs by which French citizens in France since 1948 have been paid, but not those who left France after World War II. The agreement will cover not only Americans but also citizens of other countries, including Israel. The French government will pay the U.S. government 49 million euros ($60 million). The compensation fund will be administered by the U.S. In signing the December 8, 2014 agreement, the French ambassador said that France was mending “the hole in the blanket.”

The agreement is welcome, even 70 years after the bitter events of the deportations and the Holocaust. The agreement, still to be approved by the French parliament, will entail that survivors would receive about 81,000 euros each, while their heirs and spouses would get tens of thousands.

The question of responsibility and accountability for the deportation of 76,000 Jews in France, of whom only 2000 survived, to their deaths has long haunted the country and its people. Questions of conscience and memory dwell on the fact that during the French State Vichy regime in France, 76 convoys of SNCF trains from March 27, 1942, first from Drancy and Compiègne, until August 17, 1944, a week before the liberation of Paris, not only carried passengers but did so in an inhumane fashion.

Each convoy contained 20 cattle cars that held 50 people each. The passengers were given one piece of cheese and one slice of stale bread but no water. The cars contained one bucket in which people relieved themselves. The convoys took several days, resulting in considerable numbers dying on the journey. The SNCF was paid per head of the passengers carried, and per kilometer.

French official authorities for some time have acknowledged the role of the Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain in participating in some ways in the Holocaust. President Jacques Chirac on July 16, 1995 spoke of the criminal insanity of Nazi Germany that was assisted by the French, by the French state (Vichy). Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on July 21, 2002, referring to the incident, the roundup and mass arrest of 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16, 1942, held that this act of the Holocaust was done with the complicity of the French State (Vichy). The Conseil d’État on February 16, 2009 held the French State was responsible for and facilitated the deportation of Jews.

The actions of SNCF during World War II were clear. The SNCF made the necessary rolling stock available, it scheduled the convoys, it cleaned and disinfected the cars after each trip. The essential question has always been, did the SNCF have any choice or discretion in what it did, was it forced to carry out the deportations or could it have resisted German commands from 1940 on? Significantly, no deportation train was ever sabotaged in any real way. SNCF was under French civilian control during the whole Vichy period.

In 2011, Guillaume Pepy, at the Paris suburb of Bobigny, notorious as the place from where 22,000 Jews were sent to their death, formally apologized “in the name of the SNCF.” His expression of sorrow may have been sincere, but he maintained the SNCF was operating under duress, and was forced to take part “as a cog in the Nazi extermination machine.” However, in spite of the apology SNCF refused to pay compensation to the victims, arguing that it was the Vichy regime, the government, and not SNCF, that collaborated with the Nazis. Legally, it argued that it could not be sued in France because it was a private company, and not in the U.S. because, on the basis of the U.S. Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act of 1976, it was immune from litigation in the U.S.

Whatever the meaningfulness of the professions of sincere regrets by its leaders, the mercenary interests of SNCF seem more paramount than moral confessions. The company has been interested in bidding in a number of lucrative rail contracts in the U.S., especially in Boston, Virginia, and in Maryland.  The SNCF subsidiary company Keolis had already won a $2.7 billion contract from Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. It operates the Virginia Rail Express commuter trains in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is interested in bidding for the $6.5 billion, public-private 35-year contract to build a 16-mile light rail network, the so called Purple Line, connecting the suburbs of Maryland to D.C.

That bid encountered opposition from Holocaust survivors living in Maryland, particularly a man named Leo Bretholz who had escaped in 1942 from a train going to Auschwitz and who obtained 150,000 signatures against the bid. Ironically, he died on March 8, 2014, a few months before the success of his cause for reparations to the survivors.

 Bretholz and his supporters had an impact on policy by influencing the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, cosponsored by New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney together with Charles Schumer, by which Maryland would not enter into partnership with any company that had deported victims and had not paid restitution to the victims or their families. The December 8 agreement will in effect nullify state and federal legislation that would ban foreign companies from winning contracts in the U.S.

The SNCF is not a party to the agreement but it has voluntarily promised to make a contribution, some $4 million, to Holocaust museums, memorials, and educational programs. It is a gesture, but a feeble one compared with the just and moral stance of the present French Government illustrating the imperatives of humanity.

If you experience technical problems, please write to