WASHINGTON – Seventy-two years after Nazis began deporting French Jews to concentration camps, the French government is negotiating to pay reparations for the first time to several hundred Holocaust survivors now living in the U.S. who survived unspeakable conditions while being transported in government-owned rail cars and in the death camps at the end of the line.
Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer who advises the State Department on Holocaust issues, said the French government entered into formal talks Feb. 6 and appeared to be intent on wrapping up negotiations by the end of the year.
The French, who previously resisted paying reparations to U.S.-based survivors of the rail deportation, appear to have been influenced by legislation pending in Congress to make it easier for victims to sue in U.S. courts, and also by efforts in California, Maryland and Florida to block Keolis, a subsidiary of the French national railroad SNCF, from winning contracts to build or operate high-speed rail systems.
The company operates commuter rail, bus and taxi systems around the country.
The SNCF – the Societe Nationales des Chemins de fer Francais – allegedly carried 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi concentration camps in stifling cattle cars. Survivors said the railroad workers often refused to provide any water for the days-long trips because they didn’t want to slow down the trains. Of the 76,000, only 2,000 survived the war.
Holocaust survivor Rosette Goldstein, of Boca Raton, Fla., still chokes with emotion when recalling her father’s deportation. She escaped Nazis by hiding at the farm of a non-Jewish French family, but her father, uncle, aunt and two cousins were killed.
She blamed the French railroad workers who crammed her father and other Jews into airless, packed cars.
“They are the ones who locked the doors,” she said. “And they knew where they were going.”
She said she wants to live to hear the SNCF admit “what their role was in the Holocaust. We have so little time left. I’m 75, but most of the people on those railroads either didn’t come back or are in their 90s.”
The French government is paying reparations averaging about $45,000 per person a year to rail deportees who are citizens of France and several other European countries, plus smaller amounts to widows and orphans of survivors.