ANNAPOLIS — Leo Bretholz wants the French national railroad SNCF to own up to its participation in the Holocaust if it is to win a lucrative state deal to run a pair of MARC commuter rail lines.
Bretholz escaped from an SNCF train on Nov. 6, 1942, as it carried him and 1,000 others on the first leg of the journey from the suburbs of Paris to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“They collaborated with the Germans. There’s no doubt,” Bretholz, of Pikesville, said Thursday. “They did it with cruelty and with precision.”
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is pushing legislation that would require the railroad — Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français — to fully disclose its activities between Jan. 1, 1942, and Dec. 31, 1944, before bidding on the MARC service.
“They need to come clean with their involvement in deporting French citizens, Jews and others to the camps,” said Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the House bill, HB 520. “They have a very lawyerly way — in a bad way — to avoid acknowledging their complicity.”
SNCF made its first public apology to Holocaust survivors in late January.
“In the name of the SNCF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives,” said Guillaume Pepy, the company’s chairman, according to the New York Times.
But Bretholz, Rosenberg and others want more.
“They built their business off those 76,000 people, off the backs of people like Leo Bretholz, and now they come to this country and want taxpayer dollars for high-speed rail,” said Aaron Greenfield, the head of the Duane Morris lobbying arm who is working pro bono on the case. “I find it ironic they suddenly apologize.”
Bretholz said the Germans packed 50 people into each SNCF cattle car on transport No. 42, and took them to the German border, where they were later to be shipped to Auschwitz. He pried aside the iron bars on a small window to escape during his journey.
“When they sent people to the death camps, they were paid per head, per kilometer, a lot of money,” Bretholz said. “Now they want to get contracts here from tax dollars, and some of those come from the survivors.”
Rosenberg’s bill and its twin, SB 479, would require the company to explain its involvement before submitting a bid for the MARC service through its subsidiary Keolis Rail Services America. SNCF would have to disclose whether it has records relating to the deportation of people to concentration camps, where the records are kept, what property it has that was taken during the deportation and how it disposed of the property.
The Maryland legislation is part of a national effort started in 2000 to extract disclosure and reparations from SNCF.
Federal legislation introduced in the last Congress would have given U.S. civil courts the purview to hear cases involving the railway’s role in the Holocaust, but it was defeated. California legislation required disclosure, too, but the bill was vetoed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in 2010, Keolis won the contract to run the Virginia Railway Express, a decision decried by Holocaust survivors after the deal was done.
Keolis bid on a contract to run the Camden and Brunswick MARC lines as state transportation officials sought a rail operator to take over for CSX Transportation Inc.
Keolis Vice President Steve Townsend did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
A Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman said Thursday the state scrapped the MARC bidding process in December because it wanted to rework the proposal and drum up more competition.
CSX is operating the lines on a two-year, $118 million contract.
The Maryland Transit Administration will publish the request for proposals in the spring or early summer and choose a winner late this year or in early 2012, said Jack Cahalan, the spokesman.
Cahalan would not speculate on what impact the legislation would have on the bidding process.
“The [Maryland Transit Administration] will operate in whatever environment it has to operate in when the RFP is reissued,” he said.
The House Health and Government Operations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday. Bretholz said he will testify.
“When they ask what I want, I want justice,” he said. “They have never come up with a contrite statement of responsibility.”