France and the United States have reached a $60 million agreement under which Holocaust victims who were transported to Germany by the French national railway will receive reparations, defusing a long-running dispute in Annapolis.
The State Department announced the agreement Friday. It said the agreement, which will be signed Monday, will benefit several thousand U.S. citizens as well as nationals of other countries who were deported from France.
A French Embassy spokesman confirmed that his country has agreed to compensate those who were deported to Nazi death camps in the 1940s, as well as their survivors. An estimated 76,000 Jews and other "undesirables" were sent to Germany by the Vichy regime installed by the Nazis after France surrendered in 1940.
Lawyers for Holocaust survivors said the actions of the Maryland General Assembly and the advocacy of Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz of Pikesville, who died this year, played a key role in bringing about what one attorney called "a great step."
"I know Leo is looking down on us and is very pleased that justice has been served," said attorney Aaron Greenfield. He called the accord an acknowledgment by France and its national railway that their "actions during this horrific time were wrong."
The embassy spokesman said that under the agreement, France will make a lump sum payment of $60 million to set up a fund that will be administered by the State Department to compensate victims — most of whom who were taken to Germany aboard the government-owned railway SNCF.
SNCF is not a party to the agreement, the spokesman said. The accord requires the ratification of the French parliament.
The agreement answers the demands of many Holocaust survivors in the United States, who have insisted that France had not properly compensated them for that country's role in the deportations. Over the past 14 years, they took their fight for compensation to the courts, Congress and state capitols to increase pressure on the French.
The fight found its way to Annapolis in the form of legislation in 2011 and 2014 that sought to put roadblocks in the way of an SNCF American affiliate's ability to compete for large Maryland transportation contracts.
That company, Rockville-based Keolis, was interested in bidding in 2011 on a contact to operate two MARC commuter train lines that previously had been run by CSX. The 2014 bill sought to block Keolis from competing for a contract to build the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.
The company's interest in the deal could soon be moot because Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has said Maryland cannot afford the $2.4 billion light rail line. Keolis was eventually able to bid on the MARC contract but lost to a rival firm.
As part of the agreement, the United States agreed to "recognize and affirmatively protect the immunity of France and its instrumentalities" from further Holocaust deportation claims. The State Department said SNCF is such an instrumentality and that the agreement is binding on the 50 states.
Greenfield said the contributions of Marylanders toward securing the agreement was "pretty impressive and powerful."
"I'm proud of my state that we played such a role," said Greenfield, who lives in Baltimore. He said he could not foresee circumstances under which the topic would return to Annapolis.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the 2011 bill, called the agreement "an extraordinary achievement."
Rosenberg said he wishes that Bretholz, the chief advocate for the legislation and a leader in the fight for reparations for many years, was here to learn of the agreement. Bretholz, who escaped from an SNCF cattle car on its way to Germany, died in March at age 93 just days before he was expected to testify in favor of this year's bill.
Rosenberg said he believes his bill and the one introduced this year by state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore and Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County, both Democrats, helped bring about the agreement.
"It was one of the things that got people to the table," he said. The 2011 bill passed in a watered-down form and the 2014 measure never emerged from committee, but both were the subject of well-publicized hearings that brought SNCF representatives to Annapolis to be chastised by lawmakers.
"Nothing concentrates the mind like a bill hearing," Rosenberg said.
The French Embassy released a statement expressing hope that the agreement brings closure to the victims. It said France and the United States would try to make sure payments are made "as quickly as possible and with as few formalities as possible."
The State Department said survivors themselves, except for French nationals and those from countries covered by existing agreements with France, will be eligible for payments of more than $100,000. It said the spouses of non-French Holocaust survivors will be able to apply for payments estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars
Representatives of the estates of qualified survivors and spouses also will be eligible to apply for compensation. The department said the amounts of the payments would vary depending on when the survivor or spouse died.
The department said that once French lawmakers approve the accord, the U.S. government will publish a notice spelling out the details of how to make claims. It said applicants will be given an adequate amount of time to make claims and that the procedure would be "fair and streamlined."
Rosette Goldstein, whose mother survived the Holocaust but whose father died in a camp near Buchenwald, plans to go to Washington for the signing ceremony. Goldstein, who traveled to Annapolis from her home in Boca Raton, Fla., in March to testify in favor of the Purple Line bill, said she has mixed feelings about the agreement because some who suffered losses in the Holocaust were not included. She said she is eligible for reparations because her mother survived the camps but that those who lost both parents won't receive compensation.
"It's a victory for some and not for others," she said. "It's bittersweet."