WASHINGTON — Leo Bretholz recalled some of the last words he heard on Nov. 6, 1942, before he squeezed through the window bars of a cattle car carrying 1,000 prisoners from France to Auschwitz.
“If you jump, maybe you’ll be able to tell the story,” said an elderly woman in the stifling crowd of Jews packed in so tightly that they were forced to stand for days — with little food, no water and an overflowing bucket for a toilet.
“Who else will tell this story?” she said.
Bretholz, 93, died Saturday, but in a recent interview with The Washington Post he talked about his Holocaust experience and his life since. The retired linen salesman, who lived in the Pikesville, Md., area, said he had grown weary of sharing the horrors he witnessed on the train operated by SNCF, the government-owned French railway. But he wanted SNCF held accountable for the 76,000 Jews and other prisoners it shipped to Nazi death camps. All but about 2,000 were killed.
“All I want is a declaration — a forceful declaration — of: ‘We did something very wrong, something inhumane. We sent people to their deaths,’” Bretholz said recently from a rose-colored armchair in his living room. “I want justice to be done.”
Bretholz said the need had grown more urgent since January, when a company majority-owned by SNCF was invited, among others, to bid on a contract valued at more than $6 billion to build and operate a light-rail line in an expansion of the Washington-area Metro system in Maryland.
Calls by Bretholz and other survivors to block the company from any Metro contract until SNCF pays reparations raise questions that victims of other historical injustices have pressed for years, including descendents of African and Caribbean slaves and Japanese Americans interned during World War II: How much are victims owed, who should pay for their suffering, and for how long are governments and companies morally and financially responsible for events that occurred decades or even a century ago?
Descendants of U.S. slaves have not received reparations. Survivors of the Japanese American internment camps received a formal apology and $20,000 each under legislation that President Reagan signed in 1988.
In the case of SNCF — formally known as Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais — another question has arisen: Does it matter if a company financially atones for its sins 70 years after the fact — and only after it stood to lose billions of dollars in U.S. business?
Maryland’s House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to consider legislation that would ban Keolis, the bidder majority-owned by SNCF, from winning the contract until SNCF pays reparations.
“SNCF is a real outlier,” said Rafi Prober, an Akin Gump attorney who said he is working pro bono for the advocacy group Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice. “Most companies involved in the Holocaust have paid reparations to their victims. Reparations mean accountability, and they mean justice.”
The State Department and the French foreign ministry recently began formal negotiations about incorporating Americans into the French Holocaust compensation program.
The French government has paid more than $6 billion in Holocaust reparations since 1948, including to people deported on SNCF trains, an embassy spokeswoman said. However, those payments cover only French citizens and those of four other countries that have bilateral agreements with France.
SNCF officials have acknowledged the company’s role in the Holocaust. They don’t dispute that the railway carried 76,000 people to Nazi camps. However, they also point to the billions in reparations paid by the French government — SNCF officials say French law permits only the government, not its rail company, to pay reparations — and to the company’s financial donations to Holocaust memorials, and research and education programs in France.
Company leaders draw a line between expressing regret and accepting blame. Alain Leray, president and chief executive of SNCF America, said he hopes the French-U.S. reparations talks “bring peace and closure to this tragic issue.”
But he said those fighting SNCF’s business interests in the United States ignore that the company was placed under German command by a 1940 armistice agreement after Germany occupied France.
“I understand their feelings. I understand their sadness. I understand their anger,” Leray said. “Of course they want SNCF to pay. But I ask them to consider that we were under inescapable duress, so their anger should be targeted at the Nazis, not SNCF.”
SNCF was not interested in discussing reparations, some advocates say, until it began losing a public relations battle over the past several years, as aging Holocaust survivors spoke out against SNCF’s expressed interest in high-speed rail proposals in California and Florida. The Florida rail plan has since been canceled. SNCF officials say the company remains interested in the California project.
In 2011, the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, which says it represents about 250 people in the United States, also pushed for a ban on Keolis winning Maryland MARC commuter rail contracts until SNCF disclosed its World War II ties. It passed the Maryland legislature unanimously. The group also protested Keolis winning an $85 million contract in 2010 to operate Virginia Railway Express trains.
Rosette Goldstein, 75, of Boca Raton, Fla., said her aunt, uncle and two teenage cousins were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and her father died of illness after several years in labor camps. All of them left France on SNCF trains.
“I feel they’re coming to the table because they realize (SNCF) did something wrong — that and (they want) billions of dollars in contracts,” Goldstein said.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said American survivors should be compensated, but he views SNCF as “one cog in this machine” that persecuted Jews in World War II. He said French Jews have told him they are satisfied that the railway has “confronted” its history.
How much blame?
Historians disagree about how much SNCF is to blame for its World War II history. Some agree with SNCF officials that the railway had no choice but to follow German orders to deport Jews and other prisoners. Others say France’s Vichy government willingly used the railway as part of its collaboration with the Nazis.
Regardless, Holocaust experts say the sense of who deserves compensation — and who should pay it — has expanded over the years. European governments began forming reparations programs in the late 1940s. In the late 1990s, the focus turned to the private sector. German companies such as Bayer and Volkswagen paid into a reparations fund for people used as forced labor during World War II. German and French banks and insurance companies also began to compensate survivors for stolen assets and unpaid life insurance policies. In exchange, companies were protected from lawsuits.
“Money is just a token of acknowledgment,” said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It represents something. It’s not to enrich. It’s of symbolic value.”
How much American deportees would receive is part of the negotiations, a U.S. official said. The French reparations program pays an average of 25,000 to 30,000 euros (about $35,000 to $42,000) annually to people who were deported on SNCF trains, and about 8,000 euros ($11,000) annually to surviving spouses and orphans, the official said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said SNCF has a “moral responsibility” to compensate the American deportees. Still, he said, he has been uncomfortable with the general idea of Holocaust reparations.
“You can’t buy justice,” said Foxman, who lost 14 family members in the Holocaust in Poland and Belarus. “Even talking about closure on something so horrific is offensive. … How do you quantify it?”
Michael Marrus, a professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto who is considered a leading expert on Vichy France, said trying to do so today is misguided.
“I don’t diminish the tragedy or the pain and suffering, but I think at the end of the day, there will never be justice in the sense that most of the perpetrators have died by now and most of the people who suffered directly have died by now,” Marrus said. “I just don’t see any merit in continuing this, especially when (there has been) open acknowledgment and contrition.”
He added: “I think these matters should be put to bed.”