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French rail firm must pay for digitization of Holocaust records

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers and representatives of the French national railroad say they’ve reached a deal that would force a greater accounting of the railroad’s role in the Holocaust and allow its subsidiary to seek a lucrative MARC train contract.

The compromise legislation targets SNCF, the French national railroad. From 1942 to 1944, some 76,000 people were herded into SNCF cattle cars and shipped to 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.

The bill, HB 520, would require SNCF to pay for a team of archivists to comb through the company’s war-era records for those relevant to the deportations, catalog them, digitize them and post them online in a “searchable and analyzable” format. The records would have to be made available before Keolis could be awarded a MARC contract.

“I think it brings us one step closer to transparency and disclosure of the documents my clients have been seeking for years,” said Aaron J. Greenfield, a Duane Morris LLP lobbyist working pro bono on behalf of Holocaust victims and their families.

J. William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the rail companies, said the amended bill brought to the House floor Friday “will allow [Keolis] to rebid on the MARC contract.”

SNCF officials said at House hearing in early March that the disclosure required in the original bill would have taken years to complete, effectively eliminating Keolis from the MARC process, which is slated to begin this year. They insisted the archives, scattered at more than 50 sites around France, are open to the public.

“The archives are there, from nine to five, five days a week,” Pitcher said Friday. “They’re not indexed. They’re not on a computer. It’s boxes of documents.”

Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore City Democrat who chairs the House Government and Operations Committee, said the company has told lawmakers it can get its documents in order in “four to six months.”

Before the compromise can take effect, the House version of the legislation would have to be adopted by the Senate. The upper chamber moved quickly on its version of the bill, holding a hearing, committee vote and full chamber vote all between March 3 and March 7. It passed 45-0.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, sponsor of SB 479 and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said the House changes “strengthen the bill.” The House expanded the scope of the bill to cover records from 1939 to 1945 and would require Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse to oversee the teams combing through the SNCF records.

Papenfuse said based on his understanding of the amount of surviving records — the boxes would stretch one-third of a mile if lined up end to end — digitization could take four to five months, with documents being put online throughout the process.

“You have access almost from the day you begin scanning,” Papenfuse said.

The archivist oversaw the digitization of 190 million pages of Maryland land records dating to 1637, a three-year process, and also consulted on a similar project with Serbian military records in Bosnia.

Greenfield called Maryland “a laboratory” for the SNCF disclosure measure, which comes more than a decade after a national effort began to force transparency and reparations from the company.

Federal legislation was introduced in the last Congress that would have given U.S. civil courts the purview to hear cases involving the railway’s role in the Holocaust, but did not pass. 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.

“This issue is not going away for this company,” Greenfield said. “Wherever they go in this country, this issue will be there.”