It can take 70 years for some French trains to run on time. And even then, you can’t rely on them. In February, French author Alain Lipietz reacted with scorn to the announcement that the SNCF, the French national railroad, intends to open its archives for the period of 1939–1945. He declared that the SNCF “is computerizing [only] those archives which it can and wishes to.” Lipietz’s skepticism has been hard earned over many years, part of the dramatic story of a longtime cover-up, as he explains in his latest book.
Images of French trains taking Jews to concentration camps have seared historical memory since the 1955 French documentary “Night and Fog.” In the summer of 1942, Nazis began the systematic deportation of Jews from Drancy, the internment camp in Paris. The SNCF billed the price of a third-class ticket for each of the 76,000 Jews it transported to Auschwitz in cattle cars.
Last December, media reports announced that some Holocaust survivors in Florida had succeeded in getting the state’s education commission to refuse a donation of $80,000 from SNCF America, the railroad company’s U.S. subsidiary, for a program focusing on France’s role in the Holocaust. The survivors persuasively argued that the SNCF has refused to pay reparations to victims. They further alleged that the SNCF’s attempt at a donation was merely a public relations ploy in order to secure billion-dollar contracts to build rapid trains in America.
The lure of these high-speed rail links has brought the SNCF within reach of American law. Although Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, vetoed legislation sponsored by California Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield that would have required the SNCF to fully disclose its role in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps, Maryland has since signed a similar law into effect. It is the first such law in America. Somewhere, the ghost of Lipietz’s father, Georges, must be smiling.
It was Georges Lipietz, a French civil engineer who died in 2003, and his half-brother Guy who first sued the SNCF for damages. In 1944, Lipietz’s family was transported to Drancy from Toulouse. After this, it was onward to concentration camps, where some of them were murdered. Ironically, Lipietz, born in Gdansk, Poland, had immigrated to France with his family in the 1920s to escape Polish anti-Semitism. Lipietz’s son Alain, an economist and former European Parliament member who was born in 1947, recently produced a vivid anecdotal account, “The SNCF and the Holocaust: The G. Lipietz Trial Against the Government and the SNCF.” (Les Éditions les Petits Matins, 2011) In it, he provides a passionate account of the trial and its background and aftermath.
Before 2001, a legal loophole made the French government and its agencies (such as the SNCF) immune from prosecution because they could claim that the “illegal” Vichy government forced them to transport Jews to their deaths under horrific conditions. The French government lifted this immunity in 2001, opening a path for Lipietz’s lawsuit as well as providing the possibility of a closer look at the SNCF’s wartime actions. As Lipietz points out in the book, from 1942 to 1944, about 75 convoys deported many thousands of Jews from France to be murdered in Eastern European death camps. During this time, only one French railway worker, Léon Bronchart, refused to work on these convoys. Yad Vashem would later honor him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for this and for subsequent heroic Resistance activities.