Survivors seek justice against French railroad

Holocaust survivors met with officials on Capitol Hill to discuss legislation that will help them pursue a lawsuit against a French railroad company.

Leo Bretholz and Mathilde Freund were refugees from Austria living in Vichy, France, during World War II.

Between March 1942 and August 1944, 75,000 Jews and undesirables, along with U.S. citizens and soldiers, were deported to concentration camps from France aboard trains run by the Societe Nationale des Chermins de Fers Francais, or SNCF. The Nazis paid the company for the deportations per head, per kilometer.

Bretholz escaped on a train to Auschwitz, but Freund’s husband was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald, where he died on Jan. 31, 1945.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) would allow survivors, family members and veterans a chance to sue SNCF in the United States. Bretholz and Freund met last week with staff for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SNCF has never denied its actions, but has been able to claim immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. The company claims it cannot be sued for its activities during the war even though it is a commercial entity because its shares are owned by the government.

The new legislation would ensure that a lawsuit could be brought by tailoring a narrow exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The scope of the exception would be narrowed to railroads that are separate commercial corporations and engaged in deportations from 1942 to 1944.  — jta