Florida fury over French railway's Holocaust role

The French national railway’s bid to win America’s first high-speed rail contract will face the fury of Holocaust survivors today over the company’s role in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps.

A leading opponent, Rosette Goldstein, will voice her opposition on behalf of many Holocaust survivors when the Florida Department of Transportation holds a public meeting in Orlando on the high-speed rail project, which would connect Tampa and Orlando.

Ms Goldstein, 71, of Boca Raton, Florida, and others – including some politicians – want the SNCF railway to formally apologise for its role in the war, give full access to its records and make reparations.

“Why does this company deserve my tax dollars when they co-operated with the Nazis and let their trains transport people to be murdered?” said Ms Goldstein, whose father was taken away by French authorities, bundled into a cattle truck and sent to his death.

SNCF – Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais – has said it had no control over operations when France was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and was under orders to transport Jews to death camps.

The firm said the French government had made an apology and offered reparations, although survivors say the company itself has never made such amends.

“We plan to have a full disclosure of our records and complete transparency,” said Peter Kelly, an American-based lawyer for SNCF.

“The fact is many railway workers were killed by Nazis, many were bullied and the company was under control of an occupied government.”

But Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, vice president at the Holocaust Documentation & Education Centre in South Florida, said corporations such as SNCF had long used coercion as an excuse.

She said SNCF profited greatly from the transports, charging per person and kilometre.

“Being a collaborator and saying you were coerced is not acceptable,” she said. “Nobody bought that at the Nuremberg Trials, Rwanda, Darfur and other genocides. You can’t help murder people and then just say, ’Well, we were coerced’.”

In California, politicians passed a bill last month that forces companies hoping to compete for a piece of the state’s high-speed rail project to disclose whether they transported Holocaust victims. SNCF, which is also bidding for that project, said it had no problems with the bill.

Rep Ron Klein, a Democrat who represents portions of Florida’s Broward and Palm Beach counties, a district with a high Jewish population, who backs the Holocaust survivors, said he was writing to Florida governor Charlie Crist.

“This was a company that was taken and used by the Nazis that profited from the deaths of tens of thousands of people,” said Mr Klein, who serves on the board at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

SNCF employs 175,000 people, operates 932 miles of high-speed lines in France, and is generally respected as a heavyweight in French industry. But the company has had a hard time erasing its past.

Between 1941 and 1944, 3,000 wagons – originally designed for the transportation of cattle – were used by the SNCF to transport Jews to Nazi death camps, according to a study by French historian Christian Bachelier, ordered by SNCF in 1996.

The study points out that there were acts of resistance, but they were sparse, isolated and mostly by workers – not SNCF administration.

SNCF is among about 30 companies hoping to bid for the Florida contract.

Ms Goldstein said she was four and hiding with another family on a farm outside Paris when her father was transported by an SNCF train – Convoy No 64 – to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Langenstein-Zwieberge, where he was killed by Nazis just five days before the camp was liberated.

“If SNCF had resisted even a little, more people could have been spared,” she said.

“What’s worse is the way they’ve ignored us. Is it so hard to say, ’I’m sorry?’ I’m one of the youngest survivors – soon there’s not going to be any. We have to make sure people don’t forget what happened.”

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