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Editorial

Echoes of the Holocaust

France's national railway delivered Jews to the Nazis. It's apologized, and now wants to bid on a high-speed rail project in California.

November 20, 2010

The recent apology by SNCF, the French national railway, for transporting 76,000 Jews to Germany, where they were sent on to the Nazi death camps, doesn't save any lives or compensate any survivors. What's more, it comes about 65 years late, at a time when most of those with firsthand memories of the Holocaust have died.

Particularly distressing is the fact that the apology was apparently not prompted by regret. Rather, it seems to have been spurred by the company's desire to win multibillion-dollar high-speed rail contracts in California and Florida, contracts that were in jeopardy because of stiff resistance from survivors of the deportations and the families of those who died.

In short, it's not the ideal apology. Nevertheless, it's a significant concession from a company that has been accused over the years of failing to take full responsibility for its behavior. The reference by SNCF Chief Executive Guillaume Pepy to France's "dark hours," his blunt acknowledgment that the company's trains carried Jews and other detainees toward their deaths, and his expression of the company's "profound sorrow and regret for the consequences of its acts" can't help but feel like a victory of sorts.

That said, there's more to be done. SNCF — short for Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais — has pledged to help victims and their families seek restitution, yet there's still confusion and disagreement over whether the French government's existing reparations programs will cover all the people deported on SNCF trains. There's clearly a need for more direct and candid communication between the families and the company, which continue to talk past each other and remain bitterly at odds over a number of issues. SNCF has taken substantial steps toward disclosing its history and acknowledging the full extent of its behavior, but it may have more to reveal.

SNCF's role in the deportations emerged as an issue in California when the company expressed interest in bidding for work on the state's planned 800-mile high-speed rail system from San Diego to San Francisco. Soon after, Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) introduced, and got passed, a bill aimed targeted at SNCF that required companies to disclose their role in wartime atrocities if they submitted bids for the project. SNCF, to its credit, quickly promised to comply with the requirements of the bill, and stuck by that promise even after AB 619 was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September. This month, SNCF issued its public apology.

The company insists that it has been both fair and forthcoming. It also argues, as it has for many years, that the question of moral responsibility for the wartime deportations is muddied by the fact that they occurred during the German occupation of France. SNCF officials don't deny the company's role in carrying the deportees to the French border with Germany, but they say it was acting as an arm of the government and under direct orders from both the Nazi occupiers and the collaborationist Vichy government. Trains were requisitioned by the Nazis as soon as the occupation began in 1940, the company says. Railway employees who resisted wartime orders could have been shot.

The company's critics remain un?satisfied. Survivors and relatives of ?the deportees say they wish the apology? had been addressed directly to them, ?and that it had not relied on the argument that the company was under orders. They want to know whether SNCF intends to? pay restitution of its own — separate ?from that provided by the government of France — and some are engaged in a law?suit to force it to do so. Many see the ?company's apology as a transparent public relations ploy.

Clearly, the two sides are a long way from reconciliation. And to be honest, apologies of this sort (and even monetary reparations) are never fully satisfying. They tend to come many years too late and often under legal or political pressure.

Thousands of German companies, for instance — among them Daimler Chrysler, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen — participated in the German Foundation, a multibillion-dollar fund established in 2000 to make amends for actions during World War II, including the use of slave labor. The fund was established in? response to multiple lawsuits. In 2005, ?JP Morgan Chase and Wachovia Corp. apologized for their ties to slavery in the United States. (In both cases, predecessor banks that ultimately became part of the modern-day companies had accepted slaves as collateral for loans, and ended up owning hundreds of slaves.) Wachovia and JP Morgan Chase didn't reveal their histories out? of a belated sense of shame but because a Chicago law required the disclosure if they wanted to participate in a lucrative redevelopment project.

Those who have been wronged by history understandably want a frank acknowledgement of what was done to them and a heartfelt apology, at the very least. Needless to say, they're disinclined to accept double-talk or blame-shifting. If SNCF wants to be considered seriously for a high-speed rail contract in California, the company must continue to reach out and work closely with survivors and families on this issue, to convince them that its remorse is sincere rather than cynical.

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