France’s railroad system will have to fully disclose its role in transporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps during World War II if it wants a share of a lucrative contract to build California’s 800-mile bullet train line.
Under provisions of the state legislature’s Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act, companies submitting bids for the California project must disclose “whether they had a direct role in Holocaust transportation” and have subsequently provided remedial action or restitution to victims of wartime deportations.
The measure, Assembly Bill 619, passed in a unanimous bipartisan vote on June 29 by the assembly’s Housing and Transportation Committee.
Its language does not single out any company by name, but the bill’s chief sponsor, Woodland Hills Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, left no doubt that the main target is the French national railway, Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, known as SNCF.
The bill’s wording includes a vivid description of the inhumane conditions under which Jews and others were transported to concentration camps. Also included are charges that SNCF profited by participating in the deportations, and “has never admitted its actions, disclosed its records or been held accountable to victims.”
Blumenfield is optimistic that the bill will be approved by the full Assembly and state Senate, be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and go into effect by the beginning of next year.
The financial stakes are high in construction of the bullet-train system, which is expected to zip passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco or Sacramento at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour.
“This is a $43 billion project, with the actual cost probably much higher,” Blumenfield said. Construction is expected to start next year.
SNCF has considerable experience in operating a high-speed train system and is expected to seek a role as one of the three or four main contractors on the project, with likely earnings in the billions of dollars.
Even if SNCF does not acknowledge its part in wartime deportations, the company would not be automatically disqualified in bidding for the contract.
The California High-Speed Railroad Authority would take any testimony, or its lack, into account in its decision, and Blumenfield said he hoped that SNCF would be persuaded in the meanwhile to “make appropriate amends” for its wartime actions.
So far, SNCF spokesmen have expressed support for the bill, hoping to clarify the company’s record, according to news reports.
Denis Doute, head of SNCF’s North American operations, told the Blumenfield committee that the company was controlled by the Nazis during the German occupation of France.
He added that French railway workers and their families faced death if they refused to follow German orders.
David Martinon, the French consul general in Los Angeles, told The Journal that his government takes the accusations of wartime collaboration “very seriously” and was ready to fully disclose all information and open its archives to investigators and the press.
The bill is not entirely without critics, among them are two Republican assemblymen.
Bill Berryhill (Ceres) said California had no business penalizing companies for actions taken under different leadership in an earlier era.
“It’s crazy, just as it would be crazy to judge me on slavery when I had nothing to do with it,” Berryhill told the Sacramento Bee.
A second assemblyman, Roger Niello (Fair Oaks) warned the assembly that it was embarking on a slippery moral slope.
For instance, it raises the question of whether American railroad companies should be punished for transporting U.S. citizens of Japanese descent to World War II internment camps, he said.
But Mitchell Kamin, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which works closely with survivors, said California should not enrich companies that helped destroy victims of the Holocaust and have done nothing about it.
That the ripple effect of the Holocaust would impact the deliberations of a California legislative committee 65 years after the end of the war did not surprise Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University.
“You always have to bear in mind that the Holocaust and its after-effects are unique,” he said. “In a world of moral relativism, the Holocaust represents the negative absolute and stands for total evil.”
Before the vote approving the bill, committee members heard testimony from two Holocaust survivors, Bernard Caron, 83, who lost his family at Auschwitz, and Chasten Bowen, 86, a U.S. bomber pilot shot down over France and shipped to Buchenwald.
Both men testified that SNCF was paid to transport prisoners to concentration camps and that French workers loaded them into filthy, crowded boxcars.