Purple Line Under Scrutiny

February 20, 2014
BY Suzanne Pollak
General Assembly considering Holocaust reparations mandate that could prevent French company’s affiliate from participating in transit project
Purple Line Preferred Alternative map (Provided)

Purple Line Preferred Alternative map (Provided)

One of the four teams invited to submit a bid to operate Maryland’s proposed Purple Line will be prohibited from winning the contract under a bill introduced in the state’s General Assembly unless its parent company pays reparations to those it transported to Nazi death camps during World War II.

Keolis America, a U.S. affiliate of the French rail company Society Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (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. SCNF has a 70 percent stake in Keolis, according to a 2012 news release.

According to the bill, a public entity would not be considered a qualified bidder unless it disclosed its involvement in transporting Nazi prisoners and paid reparations to them or their families. The Senate version of the bill will have a hearing March 7 before the Budget and Taxation Committee. The House version will be heard March 10 before the Ways and Means Committee.

SNCF transported 76,000 Jews and thousands of others to the death camps, according to Baltimore resident Leo Bretholz, who worked for days to free himself and jump out a train window before ending up in Auschwitz. These trains traveled from the suburbs of Paris to Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1944. SCNF was paid per person per kilometer to provide the trains, cars and manpower.

However, a spokesman for SNCF denied that his company acted on its own, calling the allegations “patently false and misleading.”

According to a statement from SCNF, “On July 24, 1940, senior Nazi Col. Werner Goeritz seized control of SNCF operations and facilities and posted a grave notice to all employees in work sites across occupied France that all SNCF employees were subject to the Nazi laws of war. Execution was ordered for anyone deemed in ‘non-compliance’ with requests by the Third Reich. More than 800 SNCF employees who resisted Nazi orders were executed — by axe — and more than 1,200 additional SNCF railroaders were sent off to death camps and murdered.

“SNCF employees who operated deportee trains in occupied France did so under the orders of Nazi Col. Goeritz and under the guard of an average of 41 Nazi SS soldiers, knowing that any disobedience would result in the murder of themselves and their families,” according to the company statement.

However, Delegate Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County disagreed, stating, “The reality is this company was responsible for transporting 72,000 people. They took the property off them. They made the decision on their own to use cattle cars.”

The Nazis didn’t dictate how the transport was to be done, said Reznik.

“The money [SNCF] made laid the way for them to grow” into the large company it is now, argued Reznik, who along with state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore, introduced the bill. Maryland residents should not have to pay taxes or tolls to this company, he stressed.

“It was 70 years ago, but they were very much complicit in the Holocaust,” he said. “All we are asking for is a little compensation from a company that has benefited greatly from the Holocaust.”

Conway added: “SNCF’s continued refusal to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust remains insulting to its victims and deeply troubling.”

Two members of Congress last month sent a letter to the Maryland Department of Transportation, urging it “to take into consideration the relationship between Keolis and SNCF as it reviews finalists for the Purple Line and to not ignore its moral obligation to the Holocaust survivors who proudly call Maryland home.”

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) wrote in their letter that “if awarded, the state of Maryland’s contract with SNCF for the Purple Line may be paid out of the very pockets of taxpayers who the company once willingly transported to the death camps. While we look forward to the innovative Purple Line, we do not believe that it should be done through the partnership of Keolis as an entity of SNCF until its victims are awarded their long overdue justice.”

Bretholz, who is 92 years old, posted a petition on change.org asking for help to “hold SNCF accountable and support justice for myself and hundreds of similarly situated Holocaust survivors.” As of Tuesday, more than 106,000 had signed the online petition.

Bretholz was 21 when he was forced into a crowded train that had only one small bucket to be used as a common toilet. He and a friend painstakingly worked at the two bars across a small opening until they broke away. Then they jumped from the moving train, he recalled.

While he worked at those two bars, most of the people in the train “tried to talk us out of it. They said, ‘Don’t do it. They will punish us,’ “ Bretholz said in April 2013 as he spoke on Capitol Hill in favor of a federal Holocaust Rail Justice Act that currently sits in committee with no vote scheduled.

In 2012, Keolis was in line to be awarded a $200 million state contract for passenger railroad service on the Camden and Brunswick lines of the MARC commuter rail system. The state passed a similar law in 2011 to hold SCNF accountable. But Keolis was not the lowest bidder and did not obtain the contract.

If enough funding is provided through a combination of federal, state, local and private funds, construction on the Purple Line is expected to begin in 2015; the line would begin running in 2020.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

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