Baltimore attorney Aaron Greenfield's work representing Holocaust survivors and their families earned him an invitation last month to join a special committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Greenfield, special counsel in the corporate practice group of Duane Morris LLP, was selected after he worked on state legislation requiring firms bidding on commuter rail contracts to disclose whether they had transported Holocaust victims to death camps during World War II. The measure was passed this year by the Maryland General Assembly and signed into law last month.
The legislation was proposed after a Rockville-based subsidiary of the French national railway, SNCF, bid on a contract to operate the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines. Historians say the French national railroad transported 76,000 Jews and others to death camps.
During a hearing in Annapolis in March, representatives of the subsidiary, Keolis America, and SNCF argued that the law would effectively bar Keolis from competing because of the costly and time-consuming documentation required. Last month, however, Keolis said it planned to submit a bid after all and hoped SNCF would provide the required documents.
The state Department of Transportation canceled its request for proposals last fall and has not yet issued a new one, but officials have said they expect to reopen the bidding process this summer.
Greenfield spoke with The Baltimore Sun about his work representing Holocaust survivors and his goals as a member of the lawyers' committee for the Washington-based museum, which is dedicated to documenting and studying the Holocaust.
How were you selected for the committee?
This all started based upon some work I've been doing over the past year in connection with representing 650 Holocaust survivors and family members from all over the world, including 11 in Maryland [along with law firm Akin Gump]. We were able to pass legislation in Maryland, the first [of its kind] in the country, that required [the] French national railroad to disclose its archives and post them online. This got some notice from folks on the lawyers' committee and they offered me a seat at the table.
What is the role of the committee and what will your role be?
It's to keep folks engaged in the cause … and [involved in] education related to the Holocaust and all the good work the Holocaust museum does. The lawyers' committee engages lawyers from a lot of different firms and [oversees] a number of continuing education programs. …
There have always been legal issues surrounding the Holocaust, whether it's human rights or property or social or economic injustice. The museum recognizes this and works hard with the legal community to understand those issues and the historical consequences that occurred.
My first objective is to attend these programs, listen and be an ambassador for the museum.
Tell me about your work representing survivors.
I read a year ago an article that struck me as problematic, a story about the French national railway's Keolis subsidiary [being] awarded a Virginia rail contract [with commuter rail Virginia Railway Express] and Holocaust survivors and family members were protesting the award. Maryland put out a MARC rail RFP [request for proposals] and Keolis was going to put out a bid. What I learned through reading and research is that SNCF took 76,000 Jews to death camps and was paid per head per kilometer. [The railroad] profited off the transportation of individuals and [has] never paid reparations, and now they were coming to us to pursue high-speed rail and commuter rail opportunities under the Obama stimulus.
I was so troubled by that story, and troubled that they would get taxpayers' dollars and that they had not apologized for their actions. I connected with folks at Akin Gump in D.C. who represented the 650 individuals [who were survivors or family members of people who had been transported]. I asked what can I do and got [the work] through my firm as [a] pro bono [case]. A group of us worked hard to get legislation introduced. It is the first passed to require a company to really work with [the] state archivist and post information online before they could be awarded a … contract. The state cannot award them a contract until they do what the law requires them to do.
What information would be posted online and why is that important to disclose?
We want the names of those 76,000 individuals and any data [showing confiscated property]. It's listed in the law now, what specifically — property, records. [The SNCF] may not have the property, but they have to have some documentation of jewelry, books, currency, precious metals, artifacts, records, any memos or receipts. This company — and we have records — invoiced the French government after [the war] for the per-head per-kilometer fee. They said [they] were coerced … but coercion is not a defense.
What purpose will this legislation ultimately serve?
I don't think this could bring closure to the family members of the 76,000 who perished and [the] only 2 percent who survived. Nothing can provide closure and complete justice, but what the new law does provide is some sense of accountability and transparency. This isn't just a Maryland issue. It's international. It will be posted and anybody will have access. It's landmark in many ways. The 650 [existing] survivors [and family members] have been in litigation with the company for 10 years, and the company has argued it is an arm of the French government and is immune from any lawsuits.
What will happen if the company resubmits a bid for the MARC contract?
If they do decide to bid they're required to have the archivist work with them. They've made a number of assurances that they were OK with what we set forth and what was passed.