GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY (D) signed a bill the other day whose effect may be to exclude a company from competing to operate commuter trains in Maryland because it is partly owned by SNCF, the French government-owned railroad. The bill is bizarre, illogical and possibly self-defeating; it is testament to the absence of rational discourse in public disputes related to the Holocaust.
The legislation is the first such measure to become law in the country. Its impetus is SNCF’s unquestioned wartime role in transporting more than 75,000 Jews from France to Germany, where most of them were murdered in Nazi death camps. The bill’s advocates included Leo Bretholz, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who escaped from a French train bound for Germany. He argued that SNCF has not fully disclosed its historical records or made adequate reparations to those deported.
Inspired by Mr. Bretholz’s emotionally compelling testimony, state lawmakers outdid themselves abusing executives of SNCF and its American offshoot, Keolis America, whose parent firm is 57 percent owned by the French government.
Keolis, based in Rockville, is bidding to operate two Maryland commuter rail lines, including MARC’s Camden line running between Washington and Baltimore. Those lines are now run by CSX, which wants out of the passenger rail business. One possibly relevant aside: CSX, which owns rail lines originally built by slaves, was itself sued a decade ago for having allegedly profited from slave labor.
In the case of SNCF, as with other corporations and government agencies under effective Nazi control, there is little doubt about its complicity in sending Jews to their deaths. It’s also a fact that few if any SNCF workers raised a hand to stop the deportations of what turned out to be a quarter of all French Jews.
SNCF, which opened its archives 15 years ago and commissioned a comprehensive historical study of its role under German occupation, has acknowledged its responsibility and apologized for it in sweeping, penitent terms. So has the French government, in the person of then-President Jacques Chirac, who in 1995 cited France’s role in abetting the Nazis during the Holocaust. At the same time, SNCF has pointed out, accurately, that to defy Nazi commands would have meant death, as it did for thousands of Frenchmen.
None of that satisfied Maryland lawmakers, whose legislation demands an accounting by the railway — including of “each piece of property taken” from all 76,000 Jews transported to Germany. They say that SNCF has failed to index its massive collection of archival documents. In fact, that work is underway. They say that SNCF has refused to pay reparations. But the French government, which owns the railway, has paid more than $1 billion in reparations to Holocaust victims and their families.
It’s certainly possible that SNCF could do better, both in deed and in gesture. It could, on its own, make reparation payments to a victims’ fund, as other European companies have. It could make its archives more user-friendly. Nonetheless, it’s notable that its actions and apologies to date have apparently satisfied the state of Israel, where SNCF has major contracts with Israel Railways.
Maryland has bitten off more than it can chew. The new law, a blunt instrument, expropriates the role of the federal government in making foreign policy. It invites retribution against Maryland firms or other American companies seeking to bid on contracts in France. And if it excludes SNCF, which already runs commuter lines in Virginia, Maryland may be hurting only itself. After all, the state had to cancel the bidding once already last year, citing a lack of competition. It seems SNCF was the only game in town.