Time to Come Clean on Shoah Role

French Train Company Faces Pressure To Open WW II Archive

Burden of History: French rail company SNCF ferried Jews to their death during the Holocaust. It faces new pressure to open its archives.
getty images
Burden of History: French rail company SNCF ferried Jews to their death during the Holocaust. It faces new pressure to open its archives.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published March 13, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.