SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND— During World War II, France’s state-run railway, the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, or SNCF, transported thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Today, the same rail company is the majority stockholder bidding on a light rail project in the U.S. state of Maryland. Some Maryland lawmakers are pushing for SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims and their families before participating in the project.
“The suffering didn’t end in the gas chambers and the crematoria of Auschwitz,” said Maryland resident Ellen Lightman. Her aunt, two grandparents and two great-grandparents were among 76,000 people - mostly Jews - transported by SNCF trains to Nazi death camps.
“And there was always this hole about what were they really like," she wonders.
During World War II, France was overrun by German troops, and French trains and rail employees were placed under Nazi control.
“They were paid per head, per kilometer to transport people. Human beings! They were complicit and they need to be held accountable," she said.
“SNCF did not do it. The Nazis did it," said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America
“Eight hundred [SNCF employees] were executed because they had disobeyed orders," he said. "Another 1,200 were deported and murdered in deportation. So when I hear that we were somehow complicit, were we really complicit with more than 2,100 of our employees being murdered by the Nazis?”
International agreements between France, which controls SNCF, and other countries have already provided remedies for Holocaust victims.
“It is actually the French government that needs to get off the dime and provide for the U.S. what it has for four other countries," said international law professor Mark Lagon.
Some worry that pushing SNCF to pay reparations now could damage current French-American negotiations.
“I feel the opposite,"said Lagon. "It’s, in a sense, the bad cop that allows negotiations to take place successfully with a good cop in the executive branch."
For SNCF, billions of dollars are at stake ahead of fast approaching bidding deadlines.
For Lightman, justice has no expiration date. Holding a letter marked “return to sender” sent to her grandfather after he was transported out of a Nazi concentration camp for Jews in Gurs, France, she vows to fight on, continuing to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
“There is no cutoff for forgetting or not remembering," said Lightman.
Officials involved in the negotiations say they hope to settle the dispute on Holocaust reparations for U.S. citizens by the end of summer. That is well within the timeframe for building the new line here, since the winning bid will be selected in 2015.