French Shoah Case May Get New Push

By Marc Perelman

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Representatives of about 600 Holocaust survivors are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their complaint accusing France’s national railroad company of aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by knowingly deporting tens of thousands of Jews.

The five-year-old case, Abrams v. Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, is one of the few recent Holocaust-related cases that remains unsettled. The train company has consistently refused to settle, and the French government has refrained from intervening directly in the case.

France has been careful to avoid any Holocaust-related controversy over the pat years, notably by negotiating in 2001 an agreement with the American government to put in place a compensation mechanism for wartime spoils.

The survivors could be getting a boost, after lawmakers in Congress Tuesday reintroduced a legislative proposal that would preclude railroad companies from using sovereign immunity to escape war crimes prosecution.

According to the complaint against the railroad company, about 76,000 Jews and thousands of non-Jews were deported in 72 convoys between March 1942 and August 1944. The company operated the trains and charged standard commercial rates to the German authorities, the suit claims.

Harriet Tamen, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, said the railroad company provided trains and employees and herded as many people as possible in the convoys, charging an ordinary coach fare calculated per person and per kilometer.

One of the main pieces of evidence, made available to the Forward, is an August 12, 1944 unpaid bill of 210,385 francs for the transportation of prisoners and the “expelled” — those destined for concentration camps in Germany — during the first part of 1944, which the railroad company sent to the French authorities. The bill was duly paid.

The railroad company has argued in court that it was a state-controlled entity merely following orders from the French Vichy authorities, and is thus protected by the immunity granted to governments under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.

On those grounds, in November 2001, the district court of Eastern New York accepted the train company’s motion to dismiss the suit filed a year earlier on behalf of mostly American survivors. An appeals court overturned the decision in June 2003 by stating that the 1976 act was not retroactive, but then reversed itself this past November after the Supreme Court ruled in June in another Holocaust-related case that the act was in fact retroactive.

The plaintiffs’ legal team is expected to file the appeal with the Supreme Court either February 4 or February 7. The company has one month to submit counterarguments.

The plaintiffs argue that the June 2004 Supreme Court ruling granting sovereign immunity to an Austrian government-owned museum in an art expropriation case should not apply to the French railroad because it was not state-owned during World War II.

Andreas Lowenfeld, a lawyer for the French railroad, countered that the company has always been state controlled. And the appeals court ruled in November that the only company status that mattered was the one at the time the complaint was filed — in 2000. “The Supreme Court has ruled that sovereign immunity applies in a case like this,” Lowenfeld, a professor at New York University, said.

In order to bolster the survivors’ case, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York sponsored a bill this week, first introduced in 2003, aimed at overcoming the railroad company’s case.

The bill would grant federal courts jurisdiction over any civil claim arising from the deportation to Nazi concentration camps between January 1942 and December 1944, and brought by or on behalf of victims against a railroad organized as a separate legal entity that owned or operated the trains on which they were deported.






Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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.