Ellen Lightman

Ellen Lightman has lobbied for legislation that requires a French rail company to divulge its involvement in transporting Jews to concentration camps during WWII. She is pictured with pictures and artifacts from her relatives who perished in WWII concentration camps. Lightman's grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt were killed in concentration camps. (Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun / September 20, 2011)

It wasn't until Ellen Lightman began to take care of her mother in her final years that she learned that the frail woman used her nightly prayers to whisper words of their family's painful past.

"Every night, she prayed that the last few seconds of her parents' life went quickly," said the Baltimore County woman, whose grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt were killed in the Holocaust. "Those last few seconds were in the gas chambers."

"They never would have gotten there had they not been transported by the railroad," she adds, wihout pause.

More than six decades after World War II, survivors of the Holocaust and descendants of its victims are waging a battle with the French railroad over history and fairness.

At issue is whether the rail company — the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, or SNCF — can be held liable for transporting some 76,000 Jews and others to Nazi death camps.

Lightman and others who are fighting SNCF are now hopeful they can leverage a legislative victory in the Maryland General Assembly this year into momentum for a stalled bill in Congress that would open the company to reparation lawsuits.

Though the legislation has failed in the past, advocates are citing Maryland's new law as they search for new co-sponsors on Capitol Hill to help push the measure forward.

Two lawmakers, including Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican, signed on last week to bring the number of supporters to 43.

"We're trying to bring closure," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who has backed the bill in the past and is doing so again this year. "Those who are victims have the right to get information made available so that we can bring closure to that chapter in history."

But the debate has raised difficult-to-answer questions about French culpability for the crimes of the Nazis. After the Germans invaded France in 1940, they installed a collaborationist government in Vichy and seized the rail system. Holocaust survivors and SNCF have argued fiercely over whether rail officials were coerced by the Nazis or were willing partners.

For the past decade, 650 Holocaust survivors, including 11 in Maryland, have pursued the company in federal court. The group sued SNCF in 2001, arguing that the company knew of the packed and squalid conditions Jews were forced to endure in the rail cars.

The lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court but was dismissed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which limits plaintiffs' ability to sue foreign governments. The company has argued in U.S. courts that it is an arm of the French government; its critics have maintained it is a separate entity.

The legislation pending in Congress would end that debate by lifting the protection from the company.

Jerry Ray, a spokesman for SNCF America, said the Nazis had seized the country, and SNCF employees — none of whom work at the railroad today — were forced to take the actions they did.

Ray said the French government, which owns the company, began reparation programs soon after France was liberated in 1944, and paid out more than $1.4 billion in claims to date.

"This bill, directed exclusively at France — our oldest ally — invites foreign countries to open up their courts to allow retaliatory lawsuits against the United States and its entities from any corner of the globe," Ray said.

The legislation, he said, "serves no public purpose since non-litigious reparations programs … have long been available to residents of France during World War II and their children, including U.S. citizens."

While the fight over SNCF has raged for years in Washington, it has cropped up more recently at the state level as the company's U.S. subsidiaries have bid on rail projects paid for with economic stimulus money.

California's legislature approved a bill last year that required companies bidding on rail projects to acknowledge whether they transported victims during the war, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. In Florida, SNCF put in for a $2.6 billion rail project that was ultimately canceled.