Essentially targeting a French rail operator, a key state Senate committee Tuesday advanced legislation that would require companies interested in working on the California high-speed train project to admit whether they transported people to concentration camps during World War II.
The Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) would force companies to disclose their role in wartime atrocities if they submit bids to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is planning to build an 800-mile system from San Diego to San Francisco.
"There should be some accountability for survivors who were transported against their will to their deaths," Blumenfield said. "I have no dog in the fight in terms of who wins contracts, but I want companies with enough moral character to admit their involvement in the Holocaust."
If enacted by the full Legislature and signed by the governor, bidders for high-speed rail contracts would have to disclose their roles in transporting people to work, concentration, prisoner of war and extermination camps or similar facilities between January 1942 and December 1944.
Companies would have to provide records they kept of their involvement and disclose whether they took remedial steps for their actions or paid reparations to victims after the war. The measure also gives companies the chance to explain any mitigating circumstances.
The board of the high-speed rail authority would acknowledge the information when evaluating and awarding contracts.
Though the legislation mentions no company by name, Blumenfield said he hoped that the bill would pressure SNCF, the French national railway, to take responsibility for its role in shipping people to Nazi concentration camps and to pay restitution.
SNCF, which is an abbreviation for Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, operates most of France's railroads, which includes the TGV high-speed train service. The company has been interested in participating in California's bullet train project.
Before voting 8 to 0 in favor of the measure, members of the housing and transportation committee heard testimony from two concentration camp survivors and a high-ranking SNCF official, who testified that the company supported the bill's provisions for full disclosure.
The survivors were Bernard Caron, 83, of Murrieta, who lost his family at Auschwitz, and Chasten Bowen, 86, of Anaheim, a U.S. bomber pilot who was shot down over France and ended up in Buchenwald, the largest concentration camp in Germany. Both testified that SNCF was paid to transport prisoners and that French workers loaded them into dirty, crowded boxcars.
"They shipped us under the filthiest conditions with only one pot of water" per rail car, Caron testified. "For the last 65 years, SNCF has never denied it, but won't accept responsibility for it."
Denis Doute, head of SNCF's North American operations, said the bill would give the company a chance to explain the context of its actions. SNCF, he said, was taken over and controlled by the Nazis during the German occupation of France from May 1940 to December 1944. French railway workers and their families, he said, faced death sentences if they failed to follow German orders.