ANNAPOLIS – Proposed legislation unfairly targets a French government-controlled rail company for acts committed by the Nazi government during World War II, said the president of SNCF America.
Some state lawmakers want a French government-controlled rail company to pay reparations to survivors of the Holocaust before it can bid on billions in contracts related to the Metro Purple Line.
Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, told lawmakers Monday that his company was not responsible for the deportation of 76,000 Jews and others to death camps in Europe.
“SNCF didn’t deport anyone,” Leray said. “The Nazis did.”
Leray said the parent company of Keolis, which is a finalist in the bidding to build the $2.2 billion Purple Line in Maryland, was “forced to be a cog in the Nazi extermination machine.”
House Bill 1326 sponsored by Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, would require any company that owned or operated trains that transported people to death camps between 1939 and 1945 to disclose their involvement and certify that they have made reparations to all identifiable victims.
The Monday hearing came just days after the death of Leo Bretholz, 93. The Holocaust survivor was an outspoken critic of the French rail company and leader of the effort to pass earlier state legislation forcing the company to open its war-era records.
Bretholz, who was to testify Monday, died unexpectedly on Saturday. Reznik offered an amendment in committee asking that the bill be renamed in honor of Bretholz.
The bill, if passed, could jeopardize as much as $900 million in federal funds for the 16-mile Line proposed for Montgomery County if Keolis, which is 70 percent owned by the French government-owned rail company SNCF, is the winning bidder.
Reznik said he does not want to stop construction of the Metro project.
“The idea that survivors of that ordeal, or even their descendants, would have to pay money to that company that has failed to live up to its responsibility is abhorrent,” Reznik said. “We have to make it right for them.”
SNCF was paid by the Nazi government in Germany to transport 76,000 Jews and others to death camps in Europe, according to an Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill.
Leray, however, said that claim is false.
“We disagree,” Leray said. “There is absolutely no proof we’ve ever been paid.”
In 2011, the chairman of the company apologized for its involvement, but the company has not paid reparations to any Holocaust survivor living in the United States. The company has paid reparations to some victims in France and Israel, and the French government has been in negotiations with the U.S. State Department over the issue since 2012.
In 2011, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation requiring the company to open its archives and disclose its involvement in the Holocaust.
The attorney general issued an opinion saying the law violated federal competitive bidding requirements and endangered federal funding for a MARC train project. That opinion resulted in the Maryland Transit Administration segregating operations and maintenance activities so that federal money was not used for commuter services covered by the new law.
But an analysis by the state Department of Legislative Services stated that such segregation of funds related to the proposed Purple Line may be more difficult, if not impossible.
Reznik said he does not wish to bar Keolis from bidding or even participating in the project nor does he wish to block construction of the transportation Line.
“This is not about the Purple Line,” Reznik said. “I’m a Montgomery County legislator. I love the Purple Line. I want the Purple Line to be built. There’s no question for me that the Purple Line must move forward one way or the other. This is not about delaying the Purple Line or doing anything of that nature. It’s about making sure that this company lives up to its responsibility.”
Rosette Goldstein flew to Maryland Sunday from her Florida home to testify on the bill in the place of her close friend of Bretholz. She carried with her a tattered book containing research related to the people deported via the French railway including Bretholz and her family.
“The reason I am here is because of Leo,” an emotional Goldstein said. “I didn’t want this to be canceled. This is Leo’s. This is Leo’s testimony.”
Goldstein, who was born in France. lost her father in a concentration camp. Her family managed to hide their young daughter for three years on a farm. Goldstein said she believes SCNF is trying to avoid their role in the Holocaust.
“We are people,” she said. “Those 76,000 need justice.”