The specter of the Holocaust came to Annapolis on Monday as survivors and their descendants sought what they view as justice in memory of a witness who couldn't be there.
Leo Bretholz of Pikesville had been scheduled to testify on behalf of a bill to prohibit an American subsidiary of the French national railway from building a light rail line in the Washington suburbs unless it pays reparations for its role in transporting Nazi victims to European death camps.
Bretholz, who escaped from a cattle car carrying Jews and other Nazi victims to Auschwitz in 1942, died in his sleep Saturday, a few days after his 93rd birthday.
Rosette Goldstein, a Holocaust survivor born in France in 1938, came from Florida to testify when she heard her old friend could no longer speak on a cause he had pursued for decades.
"Leo, I will keep on fighting. I know that's why we were allowed to survive," she said as she delivered emotional testimony about her father's deportation and eventual murder by the Nazis.
In a way, Bretholz did make his scheduled appearance. Del. Kirill Reznick, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill, played a video of Bretholz telling the story of his deportation and escape.
The legislation is aimed at Keolis, a subsidiary of the French company SNCF — Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais.. Rockville-based Keolis is part of one of the four teams competing to help build and operate the $2.4 billion Purple Line between New Carrollton and Bethesda.
After the French surrender to Germany in 1940, SNCF was absorbed into the Nazi war effort. Under orders from the Germans and the Vichy French government, SNCF transported an estimated 76,000 Jews and other victims to Germany, of whom only about 2,000 survived. The degree of complicity of France and the government-owned SNCF has been the subject of historical debate.
In 2011, the General Assembly considered similar legislation attempting to block Keolis from bidding on a large MARC train contract. After hearing testimony from Bretholz, the legislature enacted a watered-down bill that required SNCF to prove that it had sufficiently opened up its archives to allow research of its record. SNCF was found to have satisfied the law and Keolis was allowed to bid, but it did not get the contract.
Now Keolis is back as a bidder for the Purple Line partnership.
The company's critics want to use the legislation as leverage in negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the French government over reparations to Americans who have not received payment for their treatment on SNCF trains, where deportees were crowded into filthy cars under appalling conditions. While the French government has paid reparations to its citizens who were deported, it has not paid citizens of some other countries caught in the Nazi net in France.
Harriet Tamen, who was Bretholz's lawyer, said SNCF had shown "absolute indifference" to the plight of the deportees. Without the threat of the legislation, she said, "we are concerned that the talks will not be successful and the victims will be victimized again."
According to Aaron Greenfield, another lawyer for survivors, only 10 remain alive in Maryland after Bretholz's death. He said there are about 600 in the United States.
Gilbert J. Genn, a lobbyist for Keolis, told the committee the legislation is "unworkable" and can't be fixed. He said the U.S. Constitution puts negotiations with foreign governments in the hands of the president and Congress, not the states.
Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, said the railroad was forced "to be a cog in the Nazi extermination machine."
"All SNCF employees, every one of them, were under the control of the Nazi war machine," he said. "Even the slightest resistance was punishable by death."
The Maryland Department of Transportation warned the legislation could put the Purple Line project in jeopardy. Assistant Secretary Beth Nachreiner told delegates it would violate Federal Transit Administration requirements for competitive bidding on projects it helps to finance. Last week the federal agency said it would allocate $900 million to the project. Nachreiner said that without the money, the project couldn't be built.
Reznick, who called on the committee to name the measure after Bretholz, said he believes the department is wrong in its interpretation of the rules. "I don't believe it puts the Purple Line in jeopardy, and I would not have sponsored the bill if I did," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun