PARIS (Jun. 13)
A court decision to force the French national railroad to compensate descendants of French Jews deported during World War II has drawn criticism from the French Jewish community. A court in Toulouse ordered the SNCF and the state last week to pay about $77,000 to Alain Lipietz, a European Parliament deputy from the Green Party.
But French Jewish officials criticized the decision, apparently because of their belief that since the railroad has owned up to its wartime activities, the decision could open up a slew of lawsuits and could result in a backlash against the French Jewish community.
Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld said the SNCF simply had been requisitioned by the Germans during the war and had had no room to maneuver.
“Many people had their houses and businesses and cars requisitioned,” said Klarsfeld, president of the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France. “Should they be charged today? The answer is no. Only the really top decision makers should ever have been sought out.”
Lipietz’ father and uncle were denounced by neighbors in the town of Pau and transported by train on May 8, 1944, to Drancy, the infamous internment camp north of Paris.
They stayed there until Aug. 17, 1944, when the camp was liberated, and thus were never deported to Auschwitz, the fate of thousands of other internees in Drancy.
The judge wrote that the state had done nothing to help liberate the internees, and that the SNCF had never protested against the deportations to Auschwitz. The decision marks the first time a state-run company in France has been convicted of a Holocaust-related crime.
The judge threw out other charges brought by the plaintiffs accusing the SNCF of complicity in crimes against humanity.
Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular French Jews, said that attacking the SNCF was “very severe,” adding, “the SNCF today has nothing to do with the SNCF during World War II. The group has shown a great deal of transparency about its wartime activities and has participated in educational programs for young people.”
Exhibits on the Holocaust, coordinated with CRIF, have been set up at various times in major train stations across the country.
Cukierman added that Lipietz “has never done much to fight anti-Semitism in France.”
The loudest criticism of the court’s decision came from lawyer Arno Klarsfeld, Serge Klarsfeld’s son, who is representing the SNCF in a similar case in New York.
“If the railway workers are guilty, than so are the bakers who sold Germans bread in Paris and elsewhere in France,” Arno Klarsfeld said. “That means that everyone is guilty, and if everyone is guilty, than no one is guilty. Limits have to be set on this.”
Klarsfeld explained that the judge may have thought railway workers stripped the Jews of their valuables and pushed them into the cattle cars, when in fact it was policemen and other security forces who did that.
“This decision was not based on equity,” he said, “and when the public finds out that lies were told, they might say, ‘well, if there were lies told about this, maybe some of the other details on the Holocaust are lies also.’
“This could damage the credibility of the Jewish community in France,” he added.
Meir Waintrater, editor in chief and publisher of L’Arche, a French Jewish monthly magazine, said it makes sense that the Jewish community opposes the ruling.
Alain Lipietz “does not identify with the Jewish community and the community does not identify with him,” Waintrater said. “Community members see very quickly that the French public could develop a type of caricature image of Jews here based on this ruling, an image that is totally false since nobody supports the ruling. That is the danger involved here.”
Waintrater said the list of institutions that collaborated with Nazi Germany is very long, including, for example, the Paris bus and train network, which were forced to provide buses for the wartime roundups of Jews.
“Newspapers published restrictions against Jews, lawyers and doctors associations forced Jews to stop working, and even the legal aid groups for artists kept Jewish musicians from collecting copyright fees during the war years,” Waintrater said. “The list of groups in the public and private sectors that voluntarily collaborated or were forced to do so is endless.”
Arno Klarsfeld is representing the SNCF in a class-action suit filed by 20 or 30 people in a New York district court, concerning Holocaust and deportation-linked activity in wartime France.
He said that a first case already had been dismissed, and that a decision on the pending case should be reached in October.