French rail co. apologizes for collaborating with Nazis

PARIS (JTA) — The head of state-owned French railway company SNCF made an unprecedented show of regret for the company’s responsibility in sending some 76,000 Jews in France to Nazi death camps.

The apology came as part of a bid to assuage American and Jewish community reticence about working with a company that notoriously collaborated with Nazi occupiers.

SNCF chairman Guillaume Pepy told American lawmakers and Jewish community leaders in Florida earlier this month that the company “wants to convey its profound sorrow and regret” for being “part of” the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews, according to an English-language statement by the company dated Nov. 4. “SNCF was part of this plan – it carried the trains of deportees to the French border with Germany,” the statement said.

SNCF hopes to secure a $2.6 billion bid for a high-speed rail project in Florida and another $45 billion project in California, but it has met with opposition from lawmakers and members of the Jewish community in both states, some of whom want the company to clarify its role during World War II before any sale is considered.

The Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Florida did not accept the SNCF apology, the French news agency AFP reported. "If they want to issue an apology, they should issue an apology directly to the survivors. Who are they issuing the apology to?" said Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust organization. "They are spending so much money coming here, paying a PR campaign, they are talking with everybody except the people directly involved. I don’t understand,” she told AFP.

In the past, the company insisted it acted under the “yoke” of Nazi occupiers – an idea that it did not fully disavow in the Nov. 4 statement. In 2007, the SNCF won an appeal in France freeing the company from taking individual responsibility for shipping Jews to Germany during WWII.

A formal apology issued in person, and similar to what was said in Florida, has not been given in France.

The company said it hopes to “reach out” to American Jewish leaders to better explain the SNCF’s actions during the war. For more than a decade, it has made its historical archives available to American and other researchers.

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