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.
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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.
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What punishment did Bronchart receive from his bosses for his rejecting the assignment of transporting Jews to death camps? He was given a brief suspension and was docked his Christmas bonus. In short, it would have been relatively painless for SNCF employees to refuse to collaborate in the murder of Jews had any others so desired. Instead, as the elder Lipietz noted, they went out of their way to help the Nazis with sudden and, in some cases, unprecedented “misplaced relentless professionalism.” He added that in wartime, despite shortages of everything, “there were always trains available in France to deport Jews who had been arrested.”

Alain Lipietz echoes his father’s view, ascribing the SNCF’s actions to “inhumanity, opportunism, and misplaced professional devotion.” He cites a document from the winter of 1942–1943 in which a German railway official, noting that trains are in such short supply, orders deportations of Jews to be temporarily halted. An SNCF civil servant writes back that “local arrangements” can be made so that the all-important removal of the Jews can continue at the usual rapid pace. Lipietz also points to a plaque installed at the railway station of Clermont-Ferrand to commemorate the last convoy, on August 20, 1944, reminding posterity that even so late in the war, more than two months after D-Day, French railway personnel were still hurrying Jews out of the country when German troops no longer guarded railway stops to enforce such deportations.

The conditions of these transports were gruesome, in jam-packed wagons usually employed for livestock. From Toulouse, the elder Lipietz and his family were shunted to the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, a trip of 36 hours, without any food or water, an experience he later described as “how the SNCF turned us into cattle.” In June 2006, a French court ordered that the SNCF pay 61,000 euros to the Lipietz family, but this was dismissed on appeal in 2007 due to a technicality. In 2010, the SNCF bid for a $45 million contract to consult and advise on the construction of a new 800-mile high-speed railway in California. The same year, a self-serving, timely public apology for the SNCF’s wartime deeds was made by company chairman Guillaume Pepy, who made another such apology in early 2011.

Yet last year Blumenfield, the California lawmaker, reported that an SNCF representative told him firmly:

that ‘SNCF will never pay the survivors anything’ and that that (sic) the company ‘would rather not do business in California’ than take any such actions.

Blumenfield continued:

Rather than finally take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust and in the death of tens of thousands of people, and to finally pay the reparations it owes its victims, it appears SNCF has decided to do just the opposite. This type of conduct… is shocking and alarming.

Equally shocking is that in 2001, when the elder Lipietz finally filed suit, Guy insisted on being identified anonymously as “Guy S.” so that his family in today’s France would not be exposed to current Gallic anti-Semitism. As the lawsuits against the SNCF multiply, it is telling to recall the words of Georges Lipietz’s epitaph, which he wrote himself: “Having miraculously escaped from the claws of SS gangsters, [George Lipietz] never forgot the hundreds of little children who he saw disappearing towards a horrific death. He never forgave their Nazi executioners and especially not their heinous Vichy cohorts, whose zeal made such infamy happen.”

Now it seems as if much of the rest of the world, cannot forget. For years, as Alain Lipietz explains, many French people felt a kind of “filial piety” toward the SNCF, although that has been fading recently, after a series of strikes and related service problems. American Jews never felt any such devotion toward the SNCF, and they, much like Georges Lipietz, are persistently urging the French agency toward more transparency, against all the odds.

Watch Georges Lipietz discussing his deportation by French Nazi collaborators.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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