New Maryland Rail Line Stirs Up Holocaust Reparations Debate
March 27, 2014

During World War II, France’s state-run railway the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, or SNCF, transported thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi prison camps.  Today, the same rail company is the majority stockholder bidding on a light rail project in the U.S. state of Maryland.  Some Maryland lawmakers are pushing for SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims and their families before participating in the project.

The proposed rail line, called the Purple Line, would run through here and connect to the Silver Spring stop on its path through the Maryland suburbs. But 70-year-old actions are affecting today’s decisions, and it’s anything but business as usual.

“The suffering didn’t end in the gas chambers and the crematoria of Auschwitz," said Ellen Lightman.

Maryland resident Ellen Lightman cherishes keepsakes of her family lost in the Holocaust.

“And there was always this hole about what were they really like," she wonders.

During World War II, France was overrun by German troops, and French trains and rail employees were placed under Nazi control.

Lightman's family members were among 76,000 people - mostly Jews - transported by SNCF rail to Nazi death camps.

“They were paid per head, per kilometer to transport people. Human beings! They were complicit and they need to be held accountable," she said.

“SNCF did not do it. The Nazis did it," said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America

Alain Leray is the president of SNCF America and says the company also paid a heavy toll.

“Eight hundred were executed because they had disobeyed orders," he said. "Another 1,200 were deported and murdered in deportation, so when I hear that we were somehow complicit, were we really complicit with more than 2,100 of our employees being murdered by the Nazis?”

International agreements between France, which controls SNCF, and other countries have already provided remedies for Holocaust victims.

“It is actually the French government that needs to get off the dime and provide for the U.S. what it has for four other countries," said international law professor Mark Lagon.

Some worry that pushing SNCF to pay reparations now could damage current French-American negotiations.

“I feel the opposite. It’s, in a sense, the bad cop that allows negotiations to take place successfully with a good cop in the executive branch," said Lagon.

For SNCF, billions are at stake ahead of fast approaching bidding deadlines.

For Lightman, justice has no expiration date.

“It went back to them-“return to sender” because they were transported out of there already," she said.

She vows to fight on, continuing to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

“There is no cut off for forgetting or not remembering," said Lightman.

Officials involved in the negotiations say they hope to settle the dispute on Holocaust reparations for U.S. citizens by the end of summer.  That is well within the timeframe for building the new line here, since the winning bid will be selected in 2015.