Doing Business With a Company That Took Jews to Their Deaths
French train company SNCF helped transport Jews to camps during the Holocaust. Now, survivors are fighting to make it pay reparations before it can bid on contracts in America.
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.
Reznick, the delegate sponsoring the Maryland legislation, doesn't think this should stop SNCF from making contributions toward reparations payments. "There are over 6,000 companies that have been directly implicated in the Holocaust that have done right by their victims: They have ... participated in reparations to Holocaust victims," he said. Many of these payments happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s after several companies started getting pressured by survivor groups to apologize for assisting the Nazi regime with various aspects of deportation, including BMW, Deutsche Bank, and Siemens. In each of those cases, the company contributed to a fund set up by the German government to disburse reparations to survivors.
But in this case, the question of fault and guilt seems to be tangled up in politics. Federal officials recently said that the Maryland bill would jeopardize federal funds for Purple Line construction, because the law requires that all bidding processes have to be "full and open competitions." This would be a big blow for the project, which has received a significant amount of federal support.
Reznik and other lawmakers who sponsored the bill have balked at this prospect. "I don't support moving forward without the Purple Line," he told me. The Washington Post editorial board recently came out against the lawmakers' efforts to require reparations, saying that this issue should be resolved through the diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and France. And Reznik himself agrees. "The best possible of all solutions is for the State Department and French government to finish negotiations as quickly as possible," he said. Rafi Prober, one of the lawyers working on behalf of the Coalition for Holocaust Justice, agreed that the organization would be happy with a deal between the two governments, as long as "it is reasonable and fair to the survivors."
So where does that leave the ethical claims of this debate? The lawyers and legislators who are involved seem genuinely passionate about advocating for Holocaust victims, but only insofar as it won't jeopardize a major transportation project. And they're specifically assigning blame to SNCF, but only so long as the French government doesn't step in to pick up the tab.
Perhaps this is indicative of the broader ethical complexity of making reparations for decades-old crimes. SNCF has passed through several generations of leadership since the Holocaust—today's executives were barely born when their predecessors committed these atrocities. As the company's 1996 report outlines, some of the SNCF's employees were murdered or deported for their resistance efforts against the Nazis, especially toward the end of the war. And most importantly, all parties feel pressure to resolve this quickly, before the last of the Holocaust's survivors pass away.
The issue is also complicated by the fact that SNCF isn't actually making the bids—Keolis isn't even its daughter company or subsidiary, technically. But Prober says this shouldn't matter. "Given what we understand SNCF’s role to be in the process of Keolis pursuing business in the U.S., we do not believe that it makes sense to look at SNCF and Keolis through two different lenses," he said. As the majority owner of the company, SNCF would benefit from any profits Keolis will make from the construction of the Purple Line if it wins the bid.
Yet, even if SNCF isn't legally connected to the bid or responsible for making payments to Holocaust victims and their families, why doesn't it make some sort of symbolic donation? Can't the company trade the idea of technical "fault" for the idea of making amends, as so many other companies have done?
When I asked Leray whether it seems fair to hold Keolis accountable for SNCF's actions and offer some sort of reparations payment, he pushed back. "How can we transfer guilt to Keolis when there is no guilt?" he asked.