Leo Bretholtz was among more than 1,000 Jews shoved onto a train bound for Auschwitz on November 6, 1942, leaving from a suburb of Paris. Bretholtz and a friend managed to squeeze through the barred window and escape from the train car, but 773 of the Jews on that train were gassed to death by the Nazis upon arrival at Auschwitz.
Now 89, Bretholtz lives in Baltimore and is still fighting for justice. He is one of 269 American Holocaust survivors suing SNCF, the French national railway company, for what they argue was voluntary collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
But Bretholtz and his co-plaintiffs have learned in several proceedings over the past decade that their legal path is blocked. Due to immunity provisions in U.S. law, the corporation that enabled the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to the death camps cannot be touched. So they are turning to Congress for help.
“For them it was a business,” Bretholtz said of the train company, “but it was in fact de-humanization to its extreme.”
Mathilde Freund, a Holocaust survivor who says she witnessed the French trains leaving from the station in Lyon, said, “What I saw there I will never forget my whole life. I saw the French employees push all the men into the cars…I heard screaming and crying, there were bloody corpses on the ground. They were pushed like animals.”
On May 12 and 13, Bretholtz, Freund and their attorneys met on Capitol Hill with staffers for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a campaign to convince the Senate to support new legislation that would allow them to sue SNCF.
SNCF’s transportation pact with the Nazis was, in fact, a profitable business, claim the plaintiffs. German payments to SNCF were calculated by the number of passengers multiplied by the number of kilometers traveled. Crowded trainloads made for bigger profits. The company does not contest that it received payments for these transports.
Bretholtz vividly remembers SNCF employees pushing Jews into the train cars, making sure they were crowded in as tightly as possible. He and his co-plaintiffs argue that SNCF’s policies and actions constituted voluntary collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
Freund, who now lives in New York, fled her hometown of Vienna, along with her husband and family, following Germany’s takeover of Austria. The men in the family volunteered to join the French army, and after France’s defeat they went into hiding in the woods near Lyon. On September 17, 1943, her husband, Fritz, was arrested by the Gestapo while looking for food and was taken to a deportation point at the railroad station. Mathilde, searching for her missing husband, came to the station, where she witnessed the deportation of Jews to Buchenwald.
Freund could not see her husband in the crowd. She later learned he was killed in Buchenwald, days before the camp was liberated. The Red Cross document she was handed stated that Fritz, who had served in the French army, “died for France.”
As lead plaintiff, Freund’s name is on the class action lawsuit — Freund v. SNCF — which seeks restitution of property taken from Jews on SNCF trains bound for the Nazi camps.
A previous attempt to sue the French railroad in 2000 was dismissed in a federal court, which cited the protections SNCF has from lawsuits in the U.S. under the Foreign Sovereignty Immunity Act of 1976 (FSIA). While the law was meant to block suits against sovereign governments and officials, it also includes protection for corporations, such as SNCF, whose shares are owned by a foreign government.
“There were other companies that committed war crimes, but they atoned for their actions,” said Harriet Tamen, an attorney representing the group. “SNCF is the last company that did not do so.”
SNCF did not respond to several efforts to obtain comment on this issue.
The survivors are now looking to Congress to take action and amend FSIA in order to allow lawsuits against separate corporations that willingly collaborated with the Nazi regime. Bills have been introduced in both houses (by New York Democrats Charles Schumer in the Senate and Carolyn Maloney in the House), and survivors are asking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to co-sponsor the legislation and provide for its quick approval.
A congressional staff member said he had not encountered any resistance to the proposed legislation, but added that discussions are only at an early stage. The administration has not yet expressed its view on the proposed legislation.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs stressed the uniqueness of this legislation, arguing that it is tailored for a specific case and will not open the door to a wave of lawsuits against foreign companies. “It will not change sovereign immunity,” said Raphael Prober, another attorney working with the survivors. “The bill will only carve out a needed exception.”
Attempts to take legal action in France have thus far failed, leaving U.S. courts as the only avenue for Holocaust survivors going after the French railroad company.
SNCF, facing renewed scrutiny for its actions during the Nazi occupation, commissioned a historical study into its wartime operations and in 2000 made the results public. Historian Christian Bachelier found that SNCF was not coerced into cooperating with the Nazis. According to the study, in many cases the railroad operator protested German demands for trains that the company saw as excessive. But it never disputed orders for trains used to deport Jews to death camps.
Many SNCF employees took an active role in helping the French resistance. But court filings submitted by the plaintiffs cite documents obtained from SNCF company archives that, the plaintiffs say, show that even after the Nazi defeat, SNCF demanded payment from the French government for outstanding invoices for transporting the Jews to their doom. The post-war French government declined to pay. The company documents are also said to show the rail company put in place special practices to allow the deportations, which included instructing employees on how to fill and lock train cars and choosing routes that avoided main train stations, where French activists opposing the deportations could delay the transports.
As with most current lawsuits seeking Holocaust-era compensations, survivors are in a race against time. Congressional action, if adopted, could take months and might spill over to the next Congress. And even if legislation were approved, the lawsuit would need to go back to New York courts for debate, decisions and appeals.
“We have no qualms with present day French people,” said Bretholtz as he left for another meeting at a Senate office. “We are only looking for justice, and we want to see it in our time.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.