Jews being loaded onto trains during World War IIWikipedia

French state-owned railway Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) is to compensate Holocaust survivors three years after formally admitting it transported thousands of Jews to their deaths during the second world war. However, survivors believe the decision owes less to assuaging any guilt than to hard business.

SNCF subsidiary Keolis is hoping to secure a $6.5bn contract to construct a 16-mile railway link called the "Purple Line" connecting Maryland suburbs, but local Holocaust survivors have demanded SNCF make reparations for its actions in the war.

During the second world war the SNCF transported 76,000 French Jews to concentration camps. Only 3,000 survived. SNCF made a formal apology in 2011 but had avoided making reparations in the United States, insisting it was coerced by the Nazis and in any case was exempt because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Leo Bretholz, 92, who escaped from a train on its way to Auschwitz in 1942, moved to Maryland and was angered that a subsidiary of the company now stands to profit from revenue received from local tax-payers. Shortly before his death (on 8 March 2014) he organised a petition which has already attracted 150,000 signatures. He also wrote an editorial in the Baltimore Sun.

Leo Bretholz
The late campaigner and Holocaust survivor Leo BretholzWikipedia

"SNCF collaborated willingly with the Nazis," he wrote, "and was paid per head and per kilometre to transport 76,000 innocent victims — including American pilots shot down over France as well as 11,000 children — across France to death camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It's been more than 70 years since the war, and only now is the French government negotiating with the US to provide compensation for me and other victims of SNCF's deportation. Until they properly acknowledge their role in the Holocaust and take full responsibility, the people of Maryland should not allow their tax dollars to be used to help the company expand its business here."

SNCF's long-standing claim that it was coerced has also come under severe scrutiny. Bretholz claimed to have receipts issued by the company for transporting Jews even after the Nazis left France:

"They pursued payment on this after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone. They even charged interest for late payments. This was not coercion, this was business."

Senators within Maryland's General Assembly have now introduced legislation that would block any subsidiary of SNCF winning contracts until Holocaust survivors are compensated. Consequently, some are cynical about the real reason behind SNCF's apparent change of heart.

Manhattan attorney Harriet Tamen, who represents 600 Holocaust survivors, says: "The SNCF wants desperately to do business here. It wasn't an attack of morals that caused them to reach out now."