ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As a French rail company seeks to work on Maryland transit projects, some lawmakers want to force the company to pay reparations to Holocaust victims who were taken on its trains to Nazi concentration camps — but a state official says the effort could jeopardize federal funds for a key state rail line.
James Knighton, director of governmental affairs for the Maryland Transit Administration, told the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday that the state needs federal funds for its Purple Line light rail project. The proposed light rail line would connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
SNCF, a rail company owned by the French government, is on one of four teams vying for the project.
Legislators are considering bills that would block SNCF from bidding until it compensates Holocaust victims who were carried to concentration camps on SNCF trains during World War II. The company would also have to pay families of deceased victims.
But Knighton said this requirement would jeopardize federal contributions for the rail project.
The committee hearing Monday started on a somber note. Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Pikesville, was set to testify in favor of the legislation. But Bretholz died unexpectedly on Saturday. Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, proposed renaming the bill in Bretholz’s honor.
Rosette Goldstein, a Holocaust survivor and friend of Bretholz’s, testified instead. She flew up from Florida after hearing of Bretholz’s death. She told lawmakers about an SNCF train that carried her father to Auschwitz.
The hearing alternated between harrowing Holocaust stories and arguments over legal complications and historical records. Knighton was the last person to testify.
Holocaust survivors have pushed for legislation in Maryland and other states to call SNCF to account for its World War II activities.
In 2010, the state passed a bill requiring SNCF to disclose its role in transporting Holocaust victims before SNCF could bid on Maryland projects. However, Knighton said the bill apparently violated federal competitive bidding requirements.
The MTA segregated its funding to avoid using federal dollars on a certain Maryland Area Regional Commuter contract, Knighton said.
The Purple Line’s $2.2 billion price tag renders this impossible, Knighton said. President Barack Obama’s new proposed budget includes $900 million for the Purple Line and another $900 million for the Red Line.
The MTA has not taken a position on the reparations bill. Knighton said he just wanted committee members to keep this issue in mind.
The U.S. government is taking its own steps toward securing reparations for Holocaust survivors. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month he had met with French officials to discuss it.
During Monday’s hearing, Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, asked whether there was any guarantee of the countries reaching a settlement.
Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, replied that French officials have said they want a settlement by this year’s end. However, Leray said he couldn’t comment on their behalf.
SNCF transported about 76,000 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps, though experts and advocates debated on Monday the company’s level of guilt. SNCF has argued that it had no effective control over operations when France was under Nazi occupation.
Nevertheless, the company has acknowledged guilt in France and paid out more than $6 billion in reparations. But these only apply to French citizens and certain deportees.
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