France has agreed to pay reparations to American survivors of the Holocaust who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains, after a year of negotiations with the Obama administration.
The agreement, a bilateral accord with the U.S. government to be signed Monday, includes a $60 million lump-sum payment to be distributed among eligible survivors, their spouses and, if applicable, their heirs.
Stuart Eizenstat, who is the State Department’s special adviser for Holocaust issues and negotiated the agreement, said that it was uncertain how many would apply for the compensation. But on the basis of estimates and amounts paid in existing French government programs, survivors “could receive payment well over $100,000,” with “tens of thousands of dollars” for spouses of those who died in the camps or since World War II.
Amounts for heirs of camp survivors who have since died are to be determined on the basis of the number of years those survivors lived after their liberation. Eligible claimants can choose annuities rather than lump sums.
The agreement closes a loophole that has prevented some citizens of the United States and a number of other countries from receiving French compensation.
The agreement also is intended to close the door on pending state and federal legislation that would ban France’s state-owned SNCF railway or its foreign subsidiaries from winning contracts in the United States.
A Maryland-based subsidiary of SNCF is part of a consortium of private companies bidding to build and operate the $2.45 billion light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The 35-year contract, which eventually could total $6 billion, is scheduled to be awarded by the Maryland Transit Administration in the spring, unless it is canceled by Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R).
The SNCF subsidiary, Keolis North America, also operates Virginia Railway Express commuter trains.
The French government recognized “the pressing nature” of the issue and “indicated a desire to reach an agreement this year,” Eizenstat said in an interview, but he declined to tie the urgency to the awarding of a Purple Line contract.
“I don’t know their motives,” he said of the French government.
The French Embassy said in a statement that the agreement was made possible by “the spirit of friendship and cooperation between our two countries” and that “both sides will do everything possible to ensure that compensation is paid as quickly as possible and with as few formalities as possible.”
SNCF officials have formally expressed regret on a number of occasions for the company’s role in carrying as many as 76,000 people from France to the Nazi camps elsewhere in conquered Europe. But SNCF has consistently denied cooperating voluntarily with the Nazis, noting that it was placed under German command in 1940 after the fall of France.
Holocaust survivors in this country had pursued compensation via class-action lawsuits for more than a decade. After those cases were dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity for government-owned companies, survivors and their backers pressed for legislation banning SNCF and its subsidiaries from receiving contracts in the United States.
In an indirect reference to any future lawsuits and legislation, the French Embassy statement said that “the two governments consider this agreement to be the comprehensive and exclusive mechanism for responding to requests relating to Holocaust-era deportations from France, or any actions initiated in this regard, notably in the United States.”
Eizenstat said that members of Congress and Holocaust groups have been briefed on the terms of the agreement and that “we have reason to believe they’re all supportive.”
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who authored legislation that would allow Holocaust victims in the United States to sue SNCF and led opposition to public rail contracts with the company, called the agreement “a breakthrough in a decades-long struggle for justice waged by Holocaust survivors who were brought to death camps on SNCF trains hired by the Nazis. This settlement will deliver fair compensation to these victims and to the loved ones of those who did not live to see this deal finalized.”
Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, welcomed the agreement, which needs ratification by the French Parliament. In a statement, he called it “an important recognition by the Government of France of the suffering of those who have been excluded for decades from the French Holocaust victims compensation program.”
Anyone who applies for the compensation program will have to sign a waiver agreeing not to pursue any lawsuit, Eizenstat said. As part of the accord, he said, the United States agrees to support French sovereign immunity in any future lawsuit.
Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. government will administer the program and distribute awards. Those eligible, Eizenstat said, will be able to apply online and at U.S. consulates in Israel, Canada and other countries. The United States will waive a 1.5 percent administrative fee for processing the benefit.
Although SNCF is not a party to the government-to-government agreement, Eizenstat said, the state-owned company has said it will voluntarily make a $4 million contribution over the next five years to Holocaust museums, memorials and education programs. One-quarter of that money, he said, is to be distributed to groups in the United States in 2015.