New Mass. Commuter Rail Operator Faces Maryland Opposition Due To Holocaust Link

In May 2011, Leo Bretholz, right, shows Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley a list of names of about 76,000 people who were transported to Nazi death camps during World War II by the French rail company Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF). SNCF is the parent company of Keolis, which was recently awarded the new commuter rail contract in Massachusetts. (Brian Witte/AP)

In May 2011, Leo Bretholz, right, shows Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley a list of names of about 76,000 people who were transported to Nazi death camps during World War II by the French rail company Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF). SNCF is the parent company of Keolis, which was recently awarded the new commuter rail contract in Massachusetts. (Brian Witte/AP)

BOSTON — Fresh off winning a contract to run Massachusetts’ commuter rail system, the French rail company Keolis is setting its sights on Maryland.

But lawmakers there are proposing new legislation that could ban the company from winning the contract because of its parent company’s role in the Holocaust.

Seventy-two years ago, Maryland resident Leo Bretholz was forced onto a train run by the French National Railway, or SNCF, bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp in present-day Poland.

“They confiscated our belongings, they gave us a slip, and those belongings were enumerated,” he said over the phone. “They told us, ‘You will get it back when you get there.’ But that never happened. They knew where we were going; we were going to be killed.”

The 92-year-old is one of 76,000 Jews deported from France on trains operated by SNCF during the German occupation. He managed to escape the train, something that likely saved his life. Of the 76,000 deported, only about 2,000 survived. Bretholz lost 20 family members.

“They did everything that’s necessary to help the German Nazis to send people to their death,” he said. “They offered the trains. They organized it, directed it, they enforced it.”

SNCF, Keolis’ parent company, is bidding for a $6 billion light rail project in Maryland. That prompted Bretholz to start an online petition accusing SNCF of willingly collaborating with the Nazis and calling on the company to pay reparations to Holocaust victims.

“I have a simple sentence: I want justice to be done,” he said. “To me justice means that they should openly declare that they did something wrong.”

Some Maryland lawmakers are joining Bretholz’s effort. A bill in the state legislature would require SNCF to compensate Holocaust victims before it can win a state contract. That comes three years after Maryland passed a law requiring SNCF to publicly acknowledge its actions during the German occupation.

The company complied, making 1.3 million documents from its World War II archives public.

“We were totally under German command,” said Alain Leray, the president of SNCF America. “There was absolutely no margin for maneuver. And those who disagreed with the Germans within my organizations, within SNCF, paid very dearly. More than 2,100 French railroaders were murdered by the Germans.”

Leray says he has two perspectives on the controversy over SNCF’s role in the Holocaust.

“As a French railroader, I’m completely outraged at all the misrepresentation, mischaracterizations that are being spread around right now against the company,” he said. “What’s being said right now is actually an insult. As a French Jew I am appalled because you’re taking away responsibility from the Nazis, and that’s the beginning of denial.”

The debate in Maryland did not surface in Massachusetts when Keolis was bidding for the MBTA commuter rail contract — the largest operating contract ever awarded in state history.

But that does not mean the MBTA or that local Jewish organizations were not aware of it.

“The reality is that there’s no way to adequately compensate for survivors,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

He said those responsible for the Holocaust need to be held accountable, but that SNCF’s actions don’t warrant legislative action.

“We felt that the appropriate approach here in Massachusetts was essentially that the MBTA should decide the contract based on what’s best for commuters and residents of Massachusetts,” Burton said.

Keolis is scheduled to take over commuter rail operations here on July 1.

Meanwhile, the French government, which owns SNCF, has paid reparations to some Jews who were deported. But there is no agreement in place for the country to compensate American victims.

That could soon change. Earlier this month, U.S. State Department officials held informal talks with the French government about restitution for Holocaust survivors here.

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  • J__o__h__n

    Can they make the trains run on time?

    • jefe68

      The ironic thing is the two nations with the best record for trains running on time are Japan and Germany. In Tokyo there are announcements that apologize for trains being 5 minutes late.

  • dust truck

    because the only honorable action the French railroaders could have done was to roll over and die. Otherwise they “helped” the Nazis. Seems like the witch hunt goes on long after the real criminals have been punished.

  • jefe68

    I’m not sure about this. I’m Jewish and have family members who were victims of the nazis. I grew up with being acutely aware of the holocaust and for a long time I never bought anything German.

    However over time this seemed to me to be an absurd way to voice any kind of protest towards the Germans as it was clear to me that over time they went to great lengths to deal with the atrocities they wreaked on the world.

    I.G. Farben and Daimler-Benz both used slave labor in WW2.
    In Israel people drive Mercedes Benz’s and VW’s.
    It’s not my place to tell Leo Bretholz what is right or wrong here.
    His pain and experience is all to real. But I’m wondering how long does a company have to deal with the legacy of WW2?

    I do think the French government and SNCF owes restitution to this man and all others who experienced such horrors.

  • Alice Boxstrom

    Since liberty begets courage and industry, people in free states have the opportunity to make the most of their talents and contributions.

  • Dan Zamoyski

    Remember – Auschwitz was in German-occupied Poland: Interesting discussion – but an error in description needs to be corrected, for the sake of historical accuracy, clarity and fairness. The term at the beginning of the article “Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland” needs to be changed to “German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland”. This is a very important fact to be made crystal clear. I am therefore requesting that the author of this article, Jack Lepiarz, amend this phrase as soon as possible, many thanks.

    • J__o__h__n

      This is quibbling. The Poles were hardly pro Jewish during and especially after the war.

      • jimprzedzienkowski

        Called keeping history correct without politics.

      • Dan Zamoyski

        I think that any well-read, rational, sensible and fair-minded person would never call the murder during WWII of 3 million non-Jewish Poles “quibbling”. That historically accurate figure gets far less press coverage than the 3 million Poland-resident Jews killed by the German Nazi’s in the same period (plus the 3 million more Jews brought in from other countries). And there are more Polish Righteous Gentiles proclaimed by Israel that all the others from other counties COMBINED. The Facts speak very loudly and clearly indeed, without needing to quibble.

  • jimprzedzienkowski

    The term ‘Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.’ is partially correct.
    Actually the German Nazis established the ‘concentration camps’ on
    occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as could be implied by
    the comment. Please clarify the error.

  • 4trooth

    There were no concentration camps in”Poland”. There were camps in “German occupied Poland”. Considering the 3 million Polish Slavs and 3 million Polish
    Jews killed, the millions of Poles forced into slave labor and the hundreds of
    thousands of children kidnapped from their Polish families in the name of “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and “Lebensraum” for Germans, by the barbaric German occupiers during the occupation of Poland by Germany, we ask that you be more precise with your wording. “Poland” and “German occupied Poland” are not interchangeable terms. Please change the text accordingly.
    FYI. The proper reference to the camps would be one of the following:
    - Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
    - Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN NAZI camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
    - GERMAN camp in occupied Poland
    - GERMAN Nazi camp in occupied Poland
    - GERMAN camp in Nazi occupied Poland
    - Nazi camp in GERMAN occupied Poland
    - GERMAN Nazi camp in German occupied Poland

  • crescentfang

    The irony is that the people involved are almost all dead but there is no lack of killing going on in the world today and little chance of holding anyone responsible for that. What is being proposed here is punishing the innocent for the acts of the guilty and that is fundamentally evil.

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