It's the image of the train. Holocaust museums and memorials are filled with pictures of cattle cars and passenger cars, packed with hundreds of human bodies, a single, meager waste bucket in the corner. It's impossible to separate the memory of Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen from the image of trains, carrying millions of people across the borders of Europe to the camps where they would die.
This is probably part of the reason why, 70 years after the Holocaust, survivors and their family members are still fighting for reparations from SNCF, a French train company that worked with the Nazis to transport Jews from southern France to the border of German-occupied territory, en route to death camps.
The battle is now playing out in a rather unlikely arena: the Maryland General Assembly. Keolis, a company that's mostly owned by SNCF, was recently invited to bid on a public contract to build a new metro line, the Purple Line, in the Washington, D.C., area. But legislators and lawyers say that the company needs to pay reparations for its conduct during the Holocaust if it's going to compete for a contract funded by tax dollars, particularly because a number of survivors and their family members live in the parts of Maryland where the line is being built. A bill being debated in the Maryland state house would require all companies that bid on public contracts in the state to report whether they were involved with Holocaust deportations; if they have not made reparations, they would be disqualified from bidding.
"If [survivors and their families] were to ride the Purple Line, their tolls and fees and the cost of ridership is going to go directly to this company," Kirill Reznick, a sponsor of the bill who represents about 12 percent of Montgomery County, Maryland, said to me. "Before [Keolis is] allowed to run this line, they have to do right by the people they have wronged." This isn't the first time that people have called for reparations from SNCF, either; this issue came up during previous contract bids in California, Florida, and Maryland.
SNCF doesn't deny its role in the deportations—on the contrary, it released a 914-page report on its involvement with the Nazis in 1996. Here's what is known about the company's actions: Between 1942 and 1944, it transported some 76,000 Jews and other "undesirables" on different routes through France, all headed toward labor or extermination camps. Fewer than 3 percent of those deported on SNCF trains survived the Holocaust, says the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, an organization that is representing several of the survivors in their efforts to secure reparations. SNCF's 1996 report clarifies that "the services carried out for the German authorities were subject to payment, although the SNCF often considered it insufficient." And although "some railroaders showed solidarity with the persecuted through individual and isolated acts ... there is no record, neither in the archives nor in testimony, of any official protest by the SNCF."
Alain Leray, the president and CEO of SNCF America, said the company deeply regrets what happened during the Holocaust, but that doesn't mean it's responsible for making reparations. "It's the French state that failed to protest the Nazis in the 1940s," he said to me. "The actions of SNCF are actions taken under total duress because we were under a Nazi regime." In other words: Because the management of SNCF was partially controlled by the Vichy and Nazi regimes, the company itself is not responsible for the deportations. After the war concluded, it was decided that "all acts of deportations are compensated by the government," Leray said.
Of the $6 billion the French government says it has paid in reparations to Holocaust survivors since 1948, none has gone to victims who settled in the United States. This is because the American government never reached a bilateral agreement with France allowing for the distributions of these funds. New negotiations aimed at creating such an agreement began in February and are expected to conclude by the summer.