While it was many years ago, the horrific injustices I experienced during the Holocaust are seared in my brain. I can still recall in explicit detail the atrocities I saw as I was placed in a cattle car bound for a Nazi death camp and as I watched families being separated and possessions taken away.
And I cannot forget who was responsible. The train company that tried to send me to Auschwitz was owned and operated by SNCF, a French company that still exists today. SNCF collaborated willingly with the Nazis and was paid per head and per kilometer to transport 76,000 innocent victims — including American pilots shot down over France as well as 11,000 children — across France to death camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
It's been more than 70 years since the war, and only now is the French government negotiating with the U.S. to provide compensation for me and other victims of SNCF's deportation. Until they properly acknowledge their role in the Holocaust and take full responsibility, the people of Maryland should not allow their tax dollars to be used to help the company expand its business here.
SNCF's affiliate, Keolis America, is among the finalists bidding for a 35-year public-private partnership to operate the Purple Line, a planned mass rail project in Maryland, estimated at $6 billion. We cannot allow this to happen until reparations are made.
SNCF carried out its transports with precision, cruelty and deception. On each convoy, we were packed into 20 cattle cars, 50 people each. For the entire multi-day trip, we were given only one piece of triangular cheese, one stale piece of bread and no water. There was hardly room to stand or sit, and in the middle of the train was a single bucket to relieve ourselves.
Of the 1,000 people on my train, only five survived the war. I was one of the lucky ones. I jumped out of the moving train, managing to pry open the bars on the window just enough to slip through.
I even have a copy of an invoice SNCF sent the French government, seeking payment for the services it provided. They pursued payment on this after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone. They even charged interest for late payments. This was not coercion, this was business.
SNCF was not coerced into using cattle cars. It was not coerced into sending bills after the war. It was not coerced into serving no water on the trains. Had SNCF resisted, the number of those killed from France would have been greatly reduced. Had SNCF not imposed horrific conditions on its trains, many additional lives could have been saved.
Instead of taking responsibility for its actions during the past 70-plus years, the company has spent millions of dollars on a lobbying and public relations campaign to rewrite history and avoid accountability for its pivotal role in one of history's greatest atrocities.
While the recent talks are a step in the right direction, it is critical that any agreement must be reasonable and fair for the survivors and the families of those who have perished around the world.
Maryland State Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Kirill Reznik, Democrats from Baltimore City and Montgomery County, respectively, have introduced legislation requiring that such companies with a relation to those responsible for Holocaust atrocities pay reparations before being eligible to participate in state public-private partnerships.
This would not be the first time that lawmakers in Maryland have taken a stand for what's just. A law was passed in 2011, with unanimous support, requiring companies to disclose their Holocaust-era ties before pursuing a contract to provide MARC train service. I hope the representatives of my home state will continue to ensure that only companies with clean hands receive our tax dollars.
I am overwhelmed by the support I have received. As of Friday, more than 128,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org urging SNCF to finally pay reparations. That is more than one signature for every man, woman and child sent on SNCF trains toward Nazi death camps.
I hope my fellow Maryland citizens will support these courageous legislators and also my petition at change.org/SNCF. All I am asking, all anyone is asking, is that SNCF finally take responsibility for its willing and deliberate participation in the Holocaust.
Until that happens, we will not forget and we will not be silent.
Leo Bretholz is a Holocaust survivor and the co-author of "Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe" with Michael Olesker. He resides in Pikesville, Md. His email is email@example.com.
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