Holocaust group faults VRE contract

VRE passengers board a train.
VRE passengers board a train. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Some Holocaust survivors are criticizing Virginia Railway Express for awarding an $85 million contract to operate and maintain its trains to a company partly owned by the French railway that transported people to Nazi concentration camps.

The company, Keolis Rail Services America, also has submitted a bid to the Maryland Transit Administration to operate the MARC Brunswick and Camden lines now under CSX control, a Keolis official said. The five-year contract is pending, a MARC spokesman said.

A group of 269 American Holocaust survivors objects to Keolis and its majority owner, the French railway company SNCF, seeking public rail service contracts across the country, said Dale Leibach of Washington-based Prism Public Affairs, which he said is doing pro bono public relations for the group. SNCF, which has been partly owned by the French government since 1938, transported nearly 77,000 Jews and other Holocaust victims from France to Nazi camps, according to historians.

Leibach said the group wants SNCF to describe, and apologize for, its role in the Holocaust and pay reparations to survivors and victims' families before it or any of its subsidiaries receive U.S. government contracts. The group formed in 2000 via word of mouth as part of a class-action lawsuit filed against SNCF in New York. The lawsuit, which was refiled in 2006 and is pending, seeks reparations for property taken from Holocaust victims when they boarded SNCF trains.

VRE is the first U.S. rail system Keolis would operate, but the company is seeking to run commuter rail systems in California, in addition to the two MARC lines, according to Steve Townsend, president of Keolis Rail Services Virginia.

Townsend said he has never heard complaints that Keolis, which was founded in the late 1990s, is too closely connected to the Holocaust via SNCF.

"It's quite a reach for someone to say Keolis has anything to do with World War II," Townsend said. "It's just not the nature of this company."

'Adds insult to injury'

But Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, 89, a Baltimore resident in the group, said Keolis remains tainted by SNCF's part ownership until the French railway apologizes for the kind of stifling, packed freight car he escaped from as a 21-year-old. Bretholz, who lost 20 relatives in the Holocaust, said the SNCF train he and a friend jumped from after they pried apart rusty window bars in 1942 carried 1,000 people to Auschwitz. Keolis shouldn't be granted any MARC contract until its parent company takes responsibility, he said.

"The survivors are taxpayers," Bretholz said. "Why should we subsidize a company that has done us wrong? This adds insult to injury."

Leibach said the survivors group didn't discover the SNCF connection with VRE until after the VRE contract was awarded in October.

Peter Kelly, a Los Angeles lawyer hired by SNCF to help it pursue high-speed rail business in California, said the French government "has been very transparent" about its role in World War II. In response to legislation proposed in California that would require SNCF to disclose its Holocaust activities, Kelly said, the railway is having translated from French to English a 1,200-page report that it commissioned from an independent historian in the 1990s to detail its wartime work. He said SNCF will release that report online in about a month.

Kelly declined to give specifics of the report beyond saying, "SNCF's assets were completely controlled by the Germans during World War II."

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