Perhaps the darkest episode in human history, the Holocaust has been at the center of Jewish and world consciousness for over six decades. In the spring of 1940, France was invaded and occupied by Nazi troops. Both my parents and grandparents, who were living in Paris at the time, fled into hiding to survive.
During this time, SNCF, the company operating the French railroad system, and the parent company of my current employer, SNCF America, was placed under Nazi command according to Article 13 of the French-German Armistice agreement of June 1940. Thus, Senior Nazi Colonel Werner Goeritz took command of SNCF's operations and facilities. Nazi laws of war were applied, and even the slightest resistance was punishable by death.
Unfortunately, a gross misrepresentation of SNCF's history, claiming it willingly transported thousands to death camps, is being portrayed by outside groups to pressure the state lawmakers of Maryland. Bills currently pending in the Maryland House and Senate specifically target SNCF on the pretext of historical fallacies and would hinder the company's chances of winning a bid on a light rail project unless concerns over Holocaust reparations are addressed.
In response to this proposed legislation, the leading organization representing the French Jewish community (CRIF) stated in a letter to SNCF that "the bill submitted in the state of Maryland is discriminatory to the many SNCF workers who were members of resistance organizations. We do not support such discrimination of SNCF." Those resistors include more than 2,100 SNCF railroaders that were murdered for defying the Nazis.
The horrific transport conditions, which were the same throughout all of Europe, were centrally determined by the Nazi High Command in Berlin. For deportations from France, these conditions were executed by an SS officer named Theodor Dannecker. This order still exists today for all to see.
An invoice dated the first quarter of 1944 has been circulated to allege that SNCF received financial compensation for those tragic transports to the German border. Some even suggest that SNCF turned a profit. Upon review, the famous Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld determined that this invoice, the only document being used by some to support this accusation, is unrelated to Jewish deportation. Further, there has been zero documentation produced to support any notion that SNCF turned a profit. In fact, SNCF emerged from the war in ruins, having been looted and decimated by the Nazis.
The historical evidence proves SNCF was taken over as an instrument of the Nazi war machine. SNCF has been completely transparent about its role in World War II, releasing documentation to the Shoah Memorial, Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Maryland State Archives, while placing all its World War II archives online — more than 1.3 million documents. These archives were declared complete and compliant with a 2011 Maryland law. In Israel, SNCF partnered with Yad Vashem to support a Holocaust research program.
Today, SNCF and its subsidiaries provide mass transit solutions in the U.S. and across the globe. Just a few short months ago, SNCF and national transit provider Israeli State Railways signed a strategic cooperation agreement in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President François Hollande for the modernization of the Israeli rail network.
After World War II, France acknowledged the importance of compensating its deported citizens by enacting reparations laws in 1948. There are currently negotiations underway, initiated by the State of France, between the U.S. Department of State and the French Foreign Ministry with the goal of compensating American victims through the same reparations program.
We can never "unlive" the horrors of the Holocaust. We all hope for the rapid conclusion of these talks in order to bring long awaited and much deserved peace, compensation and closure for aging Holocaust survivors.
The proposal being debated in Annapolis is based on an inaccurate and incomplete review of the historical record. The Maryland legislature should offer its deepest respect for the tragedy lived by Leo Bretholz, a Pikesville Holocaust survivor who has fought for the bills, and the sacrifices of six million others, but reject this fundamentally flawed legislation.
Alain Leray is the president of SNCF America. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland and can be reached at email@example.com.
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