Californian TGV hangs on holocaust record

French efforts to win a share of California’s planned $45bn, 800-mile TGV, or high-speed, rail project are bumping up against some potentially embarrassing historic buffers.

WWII trains

Controversy over the use of SNCF trains during the deportation of Jews to German concentration camps in World War II

Bob Blumenfield, a Democratic assemblyman in that US state, has pushed through a measure requiring firms seeking contracts with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to “make full disclosure of any involvement in transporting people to concentration, prisoner-of-war, labour or extermination camps between 1942 and 1944 and on any remedial steps taken or restitutions paid to victims”.

Guillaume Pepy chairman of the French national railway operator SNCF- Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, told Europe 1’s Grande Rendez-Vous programme, the company’s World War ll records “will be open to US inspection”. He said: “Twenty years ago we opened up our archives, and we have held seminars and done lots of work on this issue”. He said SNCF was “at their (US) disposal and we take this issue very seriously. But we must not forget one thing: SNCF, and its rail staff, were under the yoke of the occupying Nazis, under threat of death and 2000 employees were executed by Nazi occupiers,” he said.

The Blumenfield proposal while specifically aimed at SNCF, will impact equally on rail firms from Germany, Japan, Spain, and Italy which were involved in transporting prisoners during World War II. Japanese bidders are said to be concerned about public backlash if they are forced to unveil details of their treatment of US prisoners of war.

“SNCF has for years, refused to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust” Bob Blumenfield said in early August. “Now, this company is in California and wants a share of the largest contract in the history of our state. I think if a company wants our tax money then it must assume responsibility for its past actions.”

SNCF has been involved in studies for a Californian TGV since 1984 and along with French manufacturer Alstom, is bidding against Japanese and German companies for a bite at the Californian cherry, a train service due to come on stream in 2020. Under the Blumenfield proposal, still to be ratified by Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, all those involved in the train project will be required to make full disclosure .

For Denis Douté, chairman of SNCF America, the proposal is an opportunity to “establish the truth”. He told Le Parisien that to maintain that SNCF organised the transport of Jews and the murder of people is totally false. “The transportation was organised by the Germans, who supplied the carriages. SNCF provided train drivers whose role was limited to driving the SNCF train to the French border, not to the concentration camps, as I understand it,” he said. He went on: “There is a board, extremely active in France, Israel and the United States, which has handled some 24,000 cases and paid compensation of more than $550 million. But this is not the role of the SNCF, it is handled by the French government, which owned SNCF at the time”.

(SNCF was created by the short-lived left-wing coalition led by Léon Blum which nationalised the railways in 1936.)

The role played by SNCF and the French state in deporting Jews during World War II is both troubled and controversial. SNCF was, for the first time in 2006, found guilty by a Toulouse Civil Court on such counts, but that decision was later overturned on appeal.

According to the Hague Justice Portal In Lipietz et al. v. Préfet de la Haute-Garonne and SNCF FR: “The Lipietz case was brought to Court by relatives of George Lipietz, who was deported to the Drancy camp (near Paris) in 1944, from where he would have been transported to death camps if the Allies had not freed Drancy. The Lipietz family argued that the SNCF … was responsible of complicity in the deportation of detainees, as it actively helped the Nazis in their deportation plan…The SNCF argued that at the moment of the events, French railways had no choice but to accept the orders of the Vichy government. On 6 June 2006, the Administrative Court in Toulouse … held both the state and the SNCF responsible and ordered them to pay a €61,000 indemnity to the Lipietz family. Since then SNCF has received 1,800 further requests for compensation.”

SNCF appealed the Toulouse finding and on 27 March 2007, the Administrative Court of Appeal in Bordeaux overturned the ruling. The case then went to the Conseil d’État, the highest level of appeal in the French legal system, which on 22 December 2007 effectively ruled it had no jurisdiction in the matter saying, “the merits of the case fall within the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts”.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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