ANNAPOLIS — Seventy years after the Holocaust, Rosette Goldstein and many fellow Americans are still seeking reparations from French rail firm SNCF for transporting their loved ones to Nazi death camps.
Goldstein, now 75, was in Maryland on Monday to testify before state lawmakers, who have threatened to prevent SNCF bidding for a major public contract over its role in the World War II genocide.
Clutching a register of those transported by France’s state-owned rail company, a still emotional Goldstein showed where her father’s name was entered.
“My father was taken by truck to the railway station and put on an SNCF train and taken to Drancy,” Goldstein explained, with tears in her eyes.
“He was taken on Convoy 64, December the 7th, 1943 to Auschwitz.
“I really would like them to come forward and say, ‘I am so sorry for your loss,’” the petite woman said in a choked voice.
Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, who was deported on a French train, had also been set to testify at the hearing in Maryland, but he died on Saturday before he could give his account.
Bretholz, who escaped in October 1942 by jumping from a train headed for Auschwitz, had gathered 150,000 signatures for a petition asking SNCF to compensate victims and their families.
His campaign is supported by Maryland lawmaker Kirill Reznik, who says he holds the SNCF directly responsible for transporting Holocaust victims to the Nazi camps.
“We have an invoice issued by SNCF that required payment per head, per kilometer” for each prisoner transported, he said.
Reznik has proposed a law requiring the French rail company to compensate victims before they would be allowed to compete for state contracts in Maryland.
If the bill is approved, it would ban SNCF and its subsidiary, Keolis America, from bidding on a $6 billion public-private project to build and run a 16-mile (25-kilometer) light rail line in Maryland.
“We cannot have this company operating this purple line without (…) taking steps to close wounds that they have caused,” Reznik said.
“Yes, we were involved”
Under France’s Vichy Regime, the SNCF deported some 76,000 Jews to concentration camps in freight cars between 1942 and 1944. Only around 3,000 of them survived the war.
“They should finally have to pay reparation at least per person,” said Ellen Lightman, a 67-year-old grand-daughter of a Holocaust victim who attended the hearing at Maryland’s legislature.
“Otherwise, whatever they have done in words is just air,” she said.
SNCF does not deny it played a role in transporting Jews to their deaths, but the company says it had no choice.
“Yes, we were involved. No, we will never forget,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, as he testified on Monday.
Leray, who noted that his own parents had fled occupied France to Algeria to avoid the Holocaust, said the genocide was also “a part of my family heritage.”
But he denounced what he called a “misrepresentation of established historical facts.”
“SNCF didn’t deport anyone; the Nazis did,” he insisted, saying the company “was forced to be a cog in the extermination Nazi machine.”
By his side, Holocaust survivor Emil Levy, 92, testified on SNCF’s behalf, saying he doesn’t “believe in revenge” and that monetary compensation now would “do nothing for survivors.”
Leray also said responsibility — and any eventual compensation — should ultimately come from the French government.
In that vein, he expressed hope for negotiations launched in early February between Paris and Washington over compensation for US victims transported by SNCF during between 1942 and 1944.
The negotiations concern the cases of Americans who don’t meet current French criteria for compensation, covering citizens and residents of France only through September 1, 1939.
Around 250 Americans would be affected by the negotiations, according to the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.