Maryland wants to create a public-private partnership (P3) to build and operate the Purple Line. Keolis North America, 70% owned by La Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) is one of the finalists selected by the State.
Keolis’s proposal has run into trouble because of SNCF’s role in transporting Jews from France to Nazi death camps. Lea Lieberman who lost her father in the Holocaust gave moving testimony yesterday to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday:
When the Nazis occupied Paris, my parents fled to Vichy France. Subsequently, the Gestapo arrested my father and left my mother to tend to a three year old child alone. . . .
Shortly after his arrest in Vichy France, he was taken to Drancy (the notorious holding camp in the outskirts of Paris) and subsequently shipped to Sobibor concentration camp via the French National Railroad, where he was murdered. . . .
Three days ago, a representative for SNCF, the French National Railroad, shirked any moral or legal responsibility by stating and I am paraphrasing, we were an occupied country, the trains were operated under Nazi command, there was nothing we could do except to obey our Nazi occupiers.
Ironically, this is similar to what the German soldiers stated in the Nuremburg trials after the War. Following orders is not a moral excuse to murder. I find that prototypical statement of helplessness to be even in and of itself. SNCF was complicit with the Nazi regime in the murder of innocent Jews, including my father. Indeed, it has been reported that the company has acknowledged guilt in France and paid out for than $6 billion in reparations, but only to French citizens and certain deportees.
Holocaust Survivor Leo Bretholz vociferously disputed SNCF’s rationale that it had no choice but to obey he occupiers in a commentary in the Baltimore Sun:
SNCF carried out its transports with precision, cruelty and deception. On each convoy, we were packed into 20 cattle cars, 50 people each. For the entire multi-day trip, we were given only one piece of triangular cheese, one stale piece of bread and no water. There was hardly room to stand or sit, and in the middle of the train was a single bucket to relieve ourselves. . . .
I even have a copy of an invoice SNCF sent the French government, seeking payment for the services it provided. They pursued payment on this after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone. They even charged interest for late payments. This was not coercion, this was business.
SNCF was not coerced into using cattle cars. It was not coerced into sending bills after the war. It was not coerced into serving no water on the trains. Had SNCF resisted, the number of those killed from France would have been greatly reduced. Had SNCF not imposed horrific conditions on its trains, many additional lives could have been saved.
Instead of taking responsibility for its actions during the past 70-plus years, the company has spent millions of dollars on a lobbying and public relations campaign to rewrite history and avoid accountability for its pivotal role in one of history’s greatest atrocities.
Leo Bretholz died earlier this month before he could testify on the bill.
Regardless of one’s views on SNCF’s guilt, one need not wrestle with SNCF’s excuse of having to comply with the Nazi German occupiers for the simple reason that SNCF has already admitted guilt and paid reparations in France.
If that’s the case in France, it ought to be the case in Maryland. There is something deeply grotesque about a willingness to pay lobbyists to avoid accountability here when it has already admitted liability in its home country.
In response to SNCF’s refusal to pay reparations to American survivors of the Holocaust, Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43, Baltimore City) and Del. Kirill Reznick (D-39, Montgomery) have filed legislation to require SNCF to pay reparations if it wants to bid for the project.
The bill has been complicated by claims that any interference with the bidding process could derail federal funding. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sent a letter to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) stating that the bills “raise legal concerns regarding the ability of MTA to comply with federal full and open competition requirements” and thus “jeopardize federal funding” for the Purple and the Red Line.
MTA and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) have unsurprisingly lobbied hard against the bills. However, the letter from FTA was unusually artful and carefully couched to avoid any firm determination of the impact of the bills on federal funding.
Presumably, the State of Maryland could request a more definitive answer from FTA. Is the Obama Administration really not going to fund transportation projects because the State wants to use its leverage from this $6 billion contract–one of the largest it has ever awarded–to aid Holocaust victims?
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) has testified in favor of the bill. And some legislators have stated that they feel more strongly about the principle than the $900 million in funding recommended by FTA. As the Washington Post reported:
“We want the Purple Line, but is this the price we pay — to do business with these guys?” Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery) said Thursday after a Budget and Taxation Committee hearing. “Maybe if that’s the case, maybe we can’t build it.”
Others feel differently. Del. Kirill Reznick is willing to modify his legislation to avoid the loss of federal funds.
It’s in SNCF’s power to resolve this issue and bid for the project. Doing so would bring honor to SNCF and to France.