The State Department began accepting applications Tuesday from Holocaust survivors, their spouses and heirs seeking compensation from the French government for the deportations of Jews and other prisoners to Nazi death camps aboard French trains.
Under an agreement reached between U.S. and French officials in December, the State Department will dole out $60 million paid by the French government. Holocaust survivors could receive more than $100,000 each, while spouses of deceased survivors could receive in the “tens of thousands,” depending on the number of claims filed, said Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s special assistant on Holocaust issues.
The amount paid to the estates of deceased survivors and their spouses will depend on how long the survivor lived after 1948, when France began paying World War II reparations to its own citizens, officials said.
In exchange, the U.S. government agreed to ensure “legal peace” for the French government against U.S. lawsuits related to World War II deportations.
“We consider this a very important day,” Eizenstat said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “People have waited 70 years for this.”
The payments will be the first paid by the French government to Holocaust deportees who later settled in the United States, Israel, Canada and other countries that haven’t had a reparations agreement with France.
The agreement also represents a victory for U.S. Holocaust survivors and their families, who have protested a French railroad’s attempts to secure lucrative U.S. government rail contracts through a subsidiary. Keolis, the subsidiary of the government-owned railway known as SNCF, operates Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter trains and the Massachusetts commuter rail system. Keolis also is part of a team of private companies competing for a 30-year contract to build and operate a light-rail Purple Line in the Maryland suburbs.
Eizenstat credited the advocacy of the late Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who lived in Baltimore County and protested Keolis rail bids in Maryland until he died last year at 93. Bretholz’s book, “Leap Into Darkness,” described his harrowing escape from a packed SNCF cattle car bound for Auschwitz in 1942, when he was 21.
In interviews with The Washington Post, Bretholz said the railroad needed to take financial responsibility for transporting prisoners under inhumane conditions.
“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.”
Eizenstat noted that the reparations will be paid by the French government, not SNCF. The railway has pledged to donate $4 million over five years to Holocaust remembrance, education and research programs in the United States, France and Israel, an SNCF official said.
“He deserves an enormous amount of credit,” Eizenstat said of Bretholz. “He pursued this doggedly. . . . His family will have some comfort and will be able to get quite a substantial amount. It’s delayed justice, but it’s justice nonetheless for Leo Bretholz and thousands of others in this situation.”
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said the reparations are important, even 70 years after the Holocaust.
“This is a concrete way to recognize their suffering,” Greenblatt said. “The money will never compensate for the suffering the Jewish people went through or the families in France went through. But it’s an important, concrete measure, an act of acknowledgment.”
Claims are due by May 31. Eizenstat said he expects “up to several thousand” claims, including about 100 directly from Holocaust deportees.
Historians say SNCF transported 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi internment camps in stifling cattle cars with little food or water. All but 2,000 were killed.
SNCF officials have apologized to Holocaust victims but have said the Nazis forced the railway to transport Jews and other prisoners to internment camps under France’s collaborationist Vichy government.
Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, said the railway isn’t part of the reparations agreement but added that “SNCF is satisfied that those who have suffered so much have finally gotten a measure of justice.”
The French reparations program covers only French citizens and those of four countries — Belgium, Poland, the United Kingdom and the former Czechoslovakia — that reached their own bilateral agreements.
The U.S. agreement is unusual, Eizenstat said, because it’s the first in which a U.S. ally during World War II will make Holocaust reparations payments beyond its own citizens and is one of the only to cover survivors’ estates. Unlike the reparations program for French citizens, survivors and their families will not have to show any Holocaust-related disability to qualify.