Testimony both for and against was heard in Annapolis Monday on a bill that would prohibit a firm from winning a contract to build the Purple Line unless its parent company pays reparations to those it transported to Nazi death camps during World War II.
Members of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Delegates met for two hours listening to vivid accounts from people whose parents had been forced onto trains owned by the French rail company Society Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF) and taken to their death in cattle cars.
Also testifying was a representative from the state Department of Transportation who expressed concern that the proposed bill could jeopardize federal funds needed for construction of the Purple Line.
But officials from SNCF testified that they were forced by the Germans to run the trains and it is the responsibility of the French government to pay reparations, not their company.
A Senate committee was to meet Wednesday on the matter, but it postponed its hearing by one day because of the funeral of Pikesville resident Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from an SNCF train. Bretholz, who had planned to testify at the hearings, died March 8 at the age of 93.
Keolis America, a U.S. affiliate of SNCF, is part of Maryland Purple Line Partners, which hopes to be awarded the 35-year, $6 billion contract to operate the proposed 16-mile transit line between New Carrollton and Bethesda. There are a total of four teams bidding for the job.
Martin Goldman, a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Holocaust Commission, testified in support of requiring reparations for survivors and their families, noting, “It took 68 years for SNCF just to apologize for its role in the deportation of 76,000 innocent victims. But SNCF has never paid any reparations to the victims it wronged and has never fully disclosed the role it played in these horrific events.
“SNCF was responsible for providing the employees, trains and logistics necessary, and received compensation for the deportations,” he added. “The train cars were packed as tightly as possible, with no food or water, and no sanitary facilities.”
SNCF officials have been on a public relations mission of late to clear the company’s name. Alain Leray, president of the company, told Washington Jewish Week that the company was placed under the command of the Nazi army and its employees were threatened with execution if they resisted.
Leray said there was “a campaign of misrepresentations [and] inaccuracies” being spread about SNCF’s role during World War II.
While some historians state SNCF was paid per person, per kilometer to transport Jews, Leray said, “We didn’t get paid.”
Del. Kirill Reznik (D-District 39), the bill’s sponsor, disagreed. “They have a different perspective on the facts,” he said. “We have the documents we have. It’s been verified by numerous historians.”
“All we are asking is they pay reparations,” he said, noting that SNCF has paid money to survivors in France. “They just don’t want to pay Americans.”
U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who introduced the Holocaust Rail Justice Act in Congress, also is working for reparations for survivors.
“While the SNCF is attempting to obfuscate events of the past, we all know the truth about its sordid history,” she said in a statement. “Now SNCF is trying to whitewash its past for a shot at taxpayer money, but coercion is not a defense to their culpability in the deaths of thousands.”