French railway working to clear Holocaust image

A state-owned French railway company is trying to clear its tarnished reputation, marked for delivering thousands of Jews into the hands of the Nazis.

Guillaume Pepy, president of the SNCF national railway, officially ceded a former industrial train station and patch of muddy rail lines to the northern Paris suburb of Bobigny, so the area can be made into a memorial for the 22,407 Jews who were deported to Nazi concentration camps from there.

The gesture is one of many similar efforts recently by the company—and at least one government diplomat—since it has been under increased scrutiny following a bid last year for two multibillion-dollar contracts to build high-speed trains in Florida and California.

SNCF has had to face threats from some American lawmakers and groups apparently unhappy with the railway’s past and who have pushed to block a deal without further explanation, and possibly an apology, from the company.

In response, Pepy has met with Jewish groups and politicians in the United States to express his “regret” and “pain” on behalf of SNCF. The company says those statements fall short of an apology but express its feelings of sorrow.

Between 1942 and 1944, the company sent trains loaded with French and foreign Jews from all over the country to Drancy and then to Bobigny, which are now low-income suburbs north of Paris. German trains made the final trip from both places to Auschwitz and other death camps. Some 75,720 Jews from France were deported; approximately 2,500 survived the Holocaust.

Though the SNCF has initiated seminars and historical research on the company’s actions during the war, many claim the group never apologized or recognized the extent of its cooperation with Nazi rulers. The company traditionally has defended itself by saying its employees were under the occupier’s control.

French railway lawsuits divide plaintiffs and country’s Jewish groups

Mayer Grosman thinks back to Feb. 2, 1944, all the time.

French policemen and militia members came to his parents’ apartment in Paris with orders to take two Grosman males — Grosman, age 6, and his father.

But Grosman’s grandfather, whose name was not on the paper, insisted on going in place of 6-year-old Mayer. After jewelry and money exchanged hands, the police and militia agreed.

Grosman’s father and grandfather, both Polish-born Jews, were taken on a train of the SNCF, the French national railway, to the Drancy internment camp north of Paris. From there, another SNCF train took them to Auschwitz, where they were gassed.

Grosman’s mother took him and his sister and fled, hiding in French homes and churches. They survived the war.

Grosman, along with other deportees’ families, received a settlement worth about $24,000 from the French government in 2000. But when Alain Lipietz, a French deputy in the European Parliament whose father and uncle were rounded up and sent to a holding area during the war, won a cash indemnity worth about $77,000 from the SNCF — the railway is appealing the case — Grosman decided he’d also sue.

“I’ve never forgotten and never forgiven,” said Grosman, 68. “I want recognition, and if my children and grandchildren can receive financial compensation, all the better.”

More than 1,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, have filed similar claim letters since the Lipietz case in Toulouse last summer. Under French law, the SNCF must respond to each letter individually within two months, or legal proceedings begin automatically.

Jewish community leaders in France have come out against the claims against SNCF. They argue that of all the state-run institutions active during World War II — including banks, insurance companies, the education system and many others run by high-level civil servants in prestigious posts — SNCF officials have made the greatest effort to be transparent and truthful in explaining their wartime activities to the French public.

“I understand the families,” said Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. “I can feel their pain, but the SNCF has really made an effort to put together exhibits in train stations and other educational tools. If people take the SNCF to court, they could begin doing the same with other state-run groups, such as the police, and then why not private companies? I understand the claims, but is this the right path to take?”

CRIF officials and community leaders — such as Serge Klarsfeld, the well-known Nazi-hunter, lawyer and head of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France — have criticized the lawsuits, but CRIF has taken no official position.

The story gets more complicated. Klarsfeld’s son, Arno, was highly praised in 1998 for representing plaintiffs in the trial against Maurice Papon, a Vichy police boss who directed deportations from Bordeaux and went on to a decorated civil service career.

Arno Klarsfeld now represents the SNCF in New York, where deportees’ families filed a class-action suit against the French railway. He also works closely with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on providing legal papers to certain illegal immigrants in France, leading some to charge that his SNCF work is politically motivated.

Neither Serge nor Arno Klarsfeld returned phone calls for this article.

Historians consider the Holocaust the industrialization of mass murder on an unprecedented scale. In France, that industrialization is represented by the SNCF’s efficiency in deporting mostly Jews, but also Resistance fighters and even railway workers who joined the Resistance.

“Right after the war, De Gaulle did a brilliant thing,” said Corinne Hershkovitch, a lawyer representing about 500 families who have filed claims against the SNCF. “All the major institutions, the banks, insurance companies, construction companies and so on, were issued a presidential pardon for collaborating with the Nazi regime, in the interest of French national unity. He managed to convince the French people that France had won the war.”

Among the groups receiving the pardon, which was political and not judicial, was SNCF. But now, the railway has a dilemma on its hands: There are no class-action suits in France, so each of those 1,000 letters could lead to a hearing or trial. An SNCF official said the letters were being answered individually and not with a form response.

However, SNCF General Director Guillaume Pepy told a Paris TV station earlier this year that “the SNCF board has decided to reject the requests by plaintiffs for cash indemnities to be paid by the railway. The SNCF was requisitioned and was acting under constraints from the Nazi regime. We think it would be unfair and a historical error to find the SNCF guilty for the deportations.”

Hershkovitch disagrees.

“This is the continuation of the Papon trial. Papon was the first individual to take the stand, and the SNCF may be the first company,” she said.

The SNCF officially opened its wartime archives in 1992. The Bachelier Report, commissioned by the SNCF and written by a private French institute, was issued in 1996 and made available to the public in 1998, revealing some ugly details.

For example, the report noted that the Nazis asked for big barrels of water to be placed in each train car so people could quench their thirst on the trip to Auschwitz.

“French SNCF officials at the time refused to do so,” Hershkovitch said. “They said putting barrels of water in each car could easily delay the trains and upset the schedule. They said that their job was to keep the trains rolling on time.”

Another lawyer handling more than 400 claims, Avi Bitton, said it was normal to ask for financial reparations, “even though the French quickly link the money with the claimants being mostly Jews, and that is negative.

“The SNCF role was about money from the very beginning,” Bitton said. “According to the Bachelier Report, the French railway billed the Vichy government for every person who was deported. And they billed Vichy for the use of third-class cars but put the deportees in cattle wagons.”