Holocaust group faults VRE contract

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B01

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."

He added, "We believe that the record of SNCF, when it's fully disclosed, will result in SNCF being a welcomed partner in America."

Michael R. Marrus, a University of Toronto law and history professor who has written extensively about Jewish persecution in Vichy France, said SNCF "became part of the Nazi war machine" after Germany defeated France in 1940.

Marrus said the French government took responsibility for the crimes of its World War II-era Vichy government in the mid-1990s and has paid reparations to survivors and victims' families. Those payments have been slow to come and in many cases had to be forced by lawsuits, Marrus said. However, he said, he believes continuing to "stigmatize" SNCF more than 60 years after the atrocities were committed is "nonsensical."

"No one in the SNCF now was making decisions back then," Marrus said.

He said the controversy raises the same complicated historical questions as those surrounding whether the U.S. government owes reparations to African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.

"At what point should one say there's been an appropriate recognition of historical responsibility?" Marrus said. "There has to be a turning of the page at some point. I think we've reached that with SNCF."

VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the commuter rail system was unaware of any Holocaust connection before awarding the contract to Keolis. However, he said the information would have had little impact because Keolis's bid was "head and shoulders above the others" in providing the best value under Virginia and federal procurement laws. He noted that Keolis is also owned by two other companies, a Canadian asset management company and a Paris-based private equity firm.

'It's a stretch'

"We're doing business with a multinational corporation, not one just owned by the French" railway, Roeber said. Though Holocaust survivors "may have a legitimate beef with the French government," he said, Keolis "has a proven record in public transportation. . . . I think it's a stretch to say Keolis has some tie-in to what the French railroad may have done in World War II."

Keolis began maintaining VRE trains June 26. Its conductors and engineers will take over July 12. VRE trains were previously operated and maintained for 17 years by Amtrak, which placed third in the bid competition, Roeber said.

The contract is renewable for two additional five-year terms if both VRE and Keolis choose to extend it, he added.

Maryland Transit spokesman Terry Owens said procurement law prohibits him from discussing the MARC contract or any possible bidders while the contract is pending.

But Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) said she has asked Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley to consider SNCF's record when the state evaluates Keolis's MARC bid.

"I don't think we in good conscience can have Maryland survivors of this tragedy subsidizing their prosecutors, which would be the case if this contract were awarded," Mizeur said. "I get that Keolis itself was not involved in World War II activities, but its 60 percent majority owner was."

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