The French parent company of a U.S.-based rail corporation bidding to build the Purple Line should pay Holocaust survivors reparations before it is allowed the state contract, according to a Baltimore man who escaped one of the company’s trains headed for Auschwitz.
Leo Bretholz, 92, launched a Change.org petition on the matter this week, the same week Baltimore State Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Montgomery Village Del. Kirill Reznik introduced a bill that would require companies such as the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais (SNCF) to disclose Holocaust ties and pay reparations to survivors.
SNCF is the parent company of Keolis, one of the companies in four groups bidding to build and operate the Purple Line that have been put on the Maryland Transit Administration’s short list.
Bretholz said he was on a train operated by SNCF headed toward the concentration camp in 1942 before escaping and hiding through the remainder of World War II. Of the 1,000 people on board the train, Bretholz said only five survived the Holocaust.
Those fighting Keolis’ numerous bids on high-speed rail projects throughout the U.S. claim the SNCF was paid by the Nazis per person and per kilometer. SNCF has not paid reparations to Holocaust survivors. The company offered a formal apology to victims in 2011.
“My life has been forever changed by the actions of SNCF,” Bretholtz said in a prepared release. “It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary is now competing to build and operate the Purple Line in my home state of Maryland — one of the single biggest contracts in state history — while refusing to be held accountable.”
Bretholz’s petition had more than 59,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Alain Leray, president of SNCF America (with headquarters in Rockville) told the Washington Post the company’s history during World War II should not be confused with its hopes for building the $2.2 billion light rail system from New Carrollton to Bethesda:
I understand their feelings, and I respect their feelings. It’s a highly emotional issue. . . . If it’s a historical issue, let’s deal with it. If it’s a commercial issue, let’s deal with it. But mixing one with the other doesn’t seem like a good idea.
“I am almost 93 years old now. If I hadn’t jumped off that SNCF train, I would have died when I was 21,” Bretholz said. “In whatever time I have left, I will keep telling my story, and keep fighting for what is right.”
The law introduced in Annapolis this week would tighten a 2011 state law written to address a Keolis bid to operate two MARC commuter rail lines.