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SNCF execs pressed for answers

Denis Doute, President of SNCF America

ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers skewered rail executives Thursday while debating legislation that would require a railroad seeking to run MARC passenger train service to disclose its role in transporting Jews and other prisoners during the Holocaust.

The bills, HB 520 and SB 479, target SNCF, the French national railroad that loaded 76,000 people into cattle cars from 1942 to 1944 and took them from the French border, where German engineers drove the last leg of the trip to concentration camps.

SNCF owns a majority of Keolis America, which, through subsidiary Keolis Rail Services America, is seeking the contract to run MARC’s Camden and Brunswick lines.

A coalition of Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors and their families have lined up in opposition, seeking a full accounting of and an apology for SNCF’s actions during the Holocaust.

“I want to hear a … statement of ‘Yes we did wrong, and we got paid for it,’” said Leo Bretholz, who escaped from an SNCF train in 1942. “This was all done with deliberation, with deception, and with cruelty.”

Watch video from the committee hearing

SNCF America President Denis Doute acknowledged Thursday that SNCF trains were used during the war, but offered an array of reasons for not providing the information sought in the bill, including that SNCF was coerced by German occupiers. The company’s “assets were plundered and destroyed, its employees and their families threatened, and hundreds of them executed,” he said.

But many delegates on the House Health and Government Operations Committee didn’t buy it.

“It doesn’t really connect with me that if you were coerced, that the German Nazis would later pay you,” said Del. Peter F. Murphy, D-Charles, referring to an SNCF invoice dated after the liberation of Paris. “It sounds more like it was cooperative. Whether you make a profit or not is irrelevant.”

Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George’s, asked, “Why would a company bill for the transportation of interned persons, when it was supposedly taken over by the Nazis?”

The rail executives said the layers of corporate separation between Keolis Rail Services and SNCF – Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français – should shield Keolis from the requests directed at SNCF.

“Keolis America and SNCF are not the same,” Keolis President Steve Townsend said. “They have very different and distinct histories.”

Townsend said the requirements of the bill would effectively bar Keolis from winning the MARC business. Doute added that SNCF would not be able to meet the demands

The bills, which carry 45 sponsors in the Senate and House of Delegates, would require SNCF 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.

Jacque Fredj, the director of the Shoah Memorial in Paris who testified with the rail executives, said the records are open to the public but are not indexed and are spread among archives kept by 50 national and provincial French agencies.

“To me this suggests SNCF has thrown open the doors of the archives and said we have no responsibility to categorize and sort it,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, the committee chairman said the company should “simply make the investment and provide the information.”

Fredj said a project is underway to index the rail records, among many others, but that it won’t be complete for “a few years.”

Keolis bid on a contract last year to run the Camden and Brunswick MARC lines as state transportation officials sought a rail operator to take over for CSX Transportation Inc. But, 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 plans to publish the request for proposals in the spring or early summer and choose a winner late this year or in early 2012.