Md. Holocaust survivors take rail fight to Congress

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.

The company's $80,000 donation to a Holocaust education program in Florida brought accusations that it was trying to buy support for its bid. The company has honored its commitment to the program even though the rail project was shelved.

The Maryland General Assembly picked up the issue after an SNCF subsidiary, Keolis America, became a top bidder for a multimillion-dollar contract to operate the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines. The original bill, crafted by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, required the company to provide extensive documentation about the property seized from prisoners as well as payments received to transport them.

An amended bill, which Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law in May, requires the company to speed the digitization of its archives, which include documents from the period. The law directs the Maryland State Archivist, an independent official, to verify whether the company is complying with the requirements.

The law's provisions take effect only if the company wants to do business with the state.

Maryland officials canceled the bidding process last year, and the state issued a new request for proposals. New bids are now due at the end of next month. It is not clear whether Keolis will compete for the contract. The company did not return a call seeking comment.

Earlier this year, a company executive told The Baltimore Sun that Keolis was "not SNCF" and that it had no World War II history to disclose.

Though the state law was not as comprehensive as Rosenberg originally intended, it has nevertheless given a boost to advocates in Washington. A bipartisan group of eight lawmakers — including Maryland Reps. John Sarbanes, Elijah E. Cummings and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, all Democrats — wrote to O'Malley praising the measure shortly after it reached his desk this year.

The federal legislation is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Sen. Chuck Schumer, both New York Democrats. It also has support from GOP lawmakers, including Florida Rep. Allen West, a tea party favorite.

"Maryland stood up and made clear that transparency and disclosure are critical when dealing with a company that continues to spin the history of the Holocaust," said Aaron J. Greenfield, part of the team of lawyers representing survivors and a leader of the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.

"Telling that story to folks [in Washington] has been very, very helpful."

Leo Bretholz, a 90-year-old Pikesville man, is one of the survivors who has spoken to lawmakers in both Annapolis and Washington about the abuses that took place. Bretholz was 17 when he fled his native Austria.

He was eventually caught, and in November 1942 was shoved aboard a train bound for Auschwitz. He escaped by dipping his sweater in human waste so that it would have better traction as he pried loose the bars of the rail car.

If he had stayed on the train, he said, he would have been sent to the gas chambers within 72 hours.

Bretholz tells his story frequently but said he is reluctant about the exposure it has brought him recently. He said he has received threats and angry letters from people who say he is fighting the company for the money.

"It is not important to me, frankly," he said in an interview. "It is important for justice."

Lightman agrees.

"No amount of money is ever going to make up for what happened to my family members and many others," she said. "But we want some measure of justice. We want to have our day in court, to be heard."