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WWII role hampers French rail company

Rosette Goldstein says her father was taken to his death by trains run by SNCF. Rosette Goldstein says her father was taken to his death by trains run by SNCF.
By Antonio Gonzalez
Associated Press / September 5, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The French national railway’s hope to bid on the first high-speed tracks in the United States is running into resistance from Holocaust survivors because of the company’s role in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps.

One of those leading the charge against the railway is Florida resident Rosette Goldstein, who says her father was taken away by French authorities, shoved in a cattle train, and delivered to his death during World War II.

Goldstein voiced her opposition to the railway on behalf of many Holocaust survivors when the Florida Department of Transportation held a public meeting Thursday in Orlando on the $2.6 billion high-speed rail project, which would connect Tampa and Orlando.

Goldstein and others — including legislators — want the railway, known as the SNCF, to formally apologize for its role in the war, give full access to its records, and make reparations.

“Why does this company deserve my tax dollars when they cooperated with the Nazis and let their trains transport people to be murdered?’’ said Goldstein, 71, who lives in Boca Raton.

SNCF stands for Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais. The company has argued that it had no control over operations when France was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and was under orders to transport Jews to death camps. The firm also has said the French government has apologized and offered reparations, although survivors contend the company has never made such amends.

“We plan to have a full disclosure of our records and complete transparency,’’ said Peter Kelly, an American-based attorney for SNCF. “The fact is many railway workers were killed by Nazis, many were bullied, and the company was under control of an occupied government.’’

Not everybody accepts that explanation.

Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, vice president at the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center in South Florida, said corporations such as SNCF have long used coercion as an excuse. She said SNCF profited greatly from the transports, charging per person and kilometer.

“Being a collaborator and saying you were coerced is not acceptable,’’ she said. “Nobody bought that at the Nuremberg Trials, Rwanda, Darfur, and other genocides. You can’t help murder people and then just say, ‘Well, we were coerced.’ ’’

In California, lawmakers passed a bill last month that forces companies hoping to compete for a piece of California’s $45 billion high-speed rail project to disclose whether they transported Holocaust victims. SNCF said it has no problems with the bill.

Florida lawmakers are also stepping into the fray.

US Representative Ron Klein, a Democrat who represents portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have a high Jewish population, said he was writing a letter to Florida Governor Charlie Crist asking for some of the same things Goldstein wants.

SNCF employs 175,000 people and is generally respected as a heavyweight in French industry. But the company has had a hard time erasing its past.

Between 1941 and 1944, 3,000 rail wagons were used by the SNCF to transport Jews to Nazi death camps, according to a study by French historian Christian Bachelier, ordered by SNCF in 1996. The study points out that there were acts of resistance, but they were sparse, isolated, and mostly by workers — not SNCF administration.

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