The French government has begun negotiating with the State Department over paying reparations to America’s Holocaust survivors who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains — a decades-old controversy now surrounding a French company bidding on Maryland’s $2.2 billion light-rail Purple Line project.
Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer serving as special adviser to Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Holocaust issues, confirmed Thursday that he and several State Department officials met with French officials Feb. 6 in Paris, an extension of informal discussions over the past year.
“To the great credit of the French, they came to us and said they’d recognized there were ‘holes in the blanket’ of their [Holocaust reparations] program that didn’t cover Americans” who were deported on French trains during World War II, he said. Eizenstat negotiated similar compensation agreements between the United States and Germany, Switzerland and Austria during the Clinton administration.
The question of how much the government-owned French railway owes to U.S. Holocaust survivors has come to a head in Maryland. Legislation introduced Jan. 31 in the state’s General Assembly would block a subsidiary of the French railway from winning a contract for the proposed 16-mile Purple Line until the railway compensates U.S. victims. If approved, it would be the first state law to ban companies with Holocaust ties from receiving U.S. government contracts until reparations are paid. The rail company subsidiary, Keolis, has already won nearly $3 billion in U.S. contracts.
Historians say Keolis’s parent company, known as SNCF — Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français — transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi death camps in packed, stifling cattle cars. All but about 2,000 were killed.
The push for European governments and companies with ties to the Nazis to compensate Holocaust victims in the United States has been underway since the 1990s.
The French government says it has paid more than $6 billion in reparations to survivors, including to people deported on SNCF trains and to their surviving spouses. But those payments, which began in 1948, cover only French citizens and deportees who ended up in the four countries that reached bilateral agreements with France: Poland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Belgium, a U.S. official said.
The United States didn’t reach such an agreement for Holocaust deportees who ended up living here, leaving them ineligible for the payments.
The focus on SNCF has intensified in recent years as the French railway and Keolis have sought lucrative rail contracts in the United States, including for high-speed systems proposed in California and Florida.
Keolis and SNCF came under criticism in Northern Virginia in 2010 after Virginia Railway Express awarded Keolis its first U.S. contract, an $85 million agreement to operate and maintain its commuter trains over five years. Keolis won its second rail contract — worth $2.68 billion — in January, to operate the Massachusetts commuter rail system for eight years. SNCF has no U.S. rail contracts, company officials have said.
Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in the Baltimore County community of Pikesville and escaped from an SNCF train in 1942 before it reached Auschwitz, said he doesn’t want any of his Maryland tax money going to SNCF or a subsidiary, even if SNCF pays reparations.
Bretholz said he would donate any SNCF payments he received to charity. Even so, he said, the railway must take financial responsibility for the prisoners it carried.
“It’s important for one reason: Justice should be done,” Bretholz said. “When they [pay reparations], they admit they did something wrong — terribly wrong — sending people to be murdered.”
In the late 1990s, the United States negotiated several agreements in which European governments, private companies and banks with Nazi ties during World War II agreed to pay reparations to U.S. Holocaust victims in exchange for protection from U.S. lawsuits.
Some French banks agreed to a legal settlement to reimburse victims for bank accounts seized during World War II, and French insurance companies have agreed to pay people for life insurance policies that covered Holocaust victims but weren’t honored.
Eizenstat said that French officials have said they would like to finalize a reparations agreement with the United States by this summer.
“I think the French really want to get this done quickly — and we do, too — because of the age and infirmity of the people involved,” Eizenstat said.
Survivors who rode the SNCF trains are in their mid-70s to late 90s.
Timing for a French-U.S. agreement within the next year also is critical for SNCF’s and Keolis’s business opportunities.
Keolis is part of one of four private consortiums recently chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation to bid on the Purple Line public-private partnership. Under the partnership, a private consortium would design, build, operate, maintain and help finance the light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
The Maryland legislation, if it passes, would take effect July 1. Bids on the Purple Line are due this fall, and a contract will be awarded by spring 2015, according to the state’s schedule.
The partnership, which state officials say would cover 35 to 40 years, has an estimated value of more than $6 billion, making it one of the largest government contracts ever in Maryland. The deal would be a first for a Maryland transit project and one of the most far-reaching public-private partnerships of any transit project in the United States.
The Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, which advocates for SNCF to pay reparations, represents about 250 people in the United States, a spokesman said. Those include people transported on SNCF trains and family members of deportees killed during the Holocaust. About 15 of those people live in Maryland, the District and Virginia, a coalition spokesman said.
When Keolis bid on a major contract with MARC, Maryland’s commuter rail system, in 2011, state lawmakers required SNCF to provide its World War II-era records before it could be eligible to win the five-year contract. Maryland transportation officials said that Keolis met the law by posting SNCF’s World War II archives online, but Keolis lost out to a lower bidder.
SNCF also has come under pressure in Congress, where legislation known as the Holocaust Rail Justice Act would allow Holocaust survivors to sue SNCF in U.S. courts. Previous lawsuits have been dismissed based on judges finding that SNCF, as a company owned by a foreign government, has immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts.
Keolis officials have previously said that the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had nothing to do with World War II. On Thursday, a spokesman for SNCF referred calls to the French Embassy.
Dana Purcarescu, an embassy spokeswoman, said that French authorities have realized that the current definition of a deportee eligible under the French reparations program — as someone who is a French citizen or who lived in France before September 1939 — “might not cover all potential victims.”
“The negotiations underway with the American authorities are meant to find ways to open the compensation procedures to those who were denied compensation because of nationality criteria,” Purcarescu wrote in an e-mail.
SNCF’s chairman issued a formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011. SNCF documents say that the railway was “requisitioned” by the Nazis and forced to transport Jews and other prisoners to internment camps.
SNCF officials have said that under French law, only the government, not the railway, can pay reparations for deportations that occurred under the Nazi-backed Vichy government.
The railway donates money to Holocaust memorial and education programs in France, officials have said.