The French Railroad On Trial
By Symi Rom-Rymer
Reuters reported this week that 100 French and American plaintiffs are suing SNCF, the French national railroad company, for their role in transporting French Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The group, made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendents, insist that it’s not about the money, but rather about exposing the crimes in which the rail company participated. “‘It is about money but not in the way they mean,’” said William Wajnryb, whose father died at Auschwitz. “When people make accusations about money, they should look at the SNCF first of all,” he said. “The core of this story is that the SNCF got money for deporting Jews.’”
I certainly understand the motivation that is driving these plaintiffs to sue the SNCF. The trauma of the Holocaust coupled with the French government’s decades-long refusal to acknowledge its role in contributing to that trauma is enough to want to fight for whatever compensation might be available. That is logical. Just because it is logical however, doesn’t make it right. Had this case been brought to court 40 or 50 years ago, when the money would have made a tangible difference, I would be more sympathetic. But today, with most of the survivors gone and many of their children successful, they don’t need the money to help them survive.
If the money is meant to serve a purely symbolic purpose, then I look forward to reading that each of the plaintiffs is receiving a one dollar bill (or one euro coin) from the SNCF in recognition of their past. But in the absence of such a proposal, there are many other ways to draw attention to the SNCF’s crimes that could have a greater impact.
If the group insists on some sort of significant monetary compensation, they should use their winnings to set up a foundation to help victims of current genocides or donate it to other non-profit organizations that advocate for increased Holocaust education. Another alternative is for the SNCF to publically acknowledge their guilt, something it has already begun to do. In ‘The SNCF under the German Occupation,’ a self-commissioned study, it was revealed that during the war SNCF workers were, “quite willing to protest vigorously to the Germans about excessive demands in other areas, [they were] ready to pack thousands of Jews and others off to Eastern Europe in plainly inhuman conditions without any apparent qualms.” Reuters does not say how or if the report has been made public, but it is an important step forward.
Alain Lipietz, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, suggested that this trial serves a wider purpose by demonstrating that crimes such as those committed by the SNCF will never be forgotten until justice is served. But justice will not be served if its rewards help only a handful of people. Roughly 76,000 French Jews were persecuted and killed during the Holocaust with the help of the SNCF. No amount of money or admission of guilt can bring them back. So instead of making this trial about reparations for the past, it should be about working towards a future where such gestures will no longer be needed. Only then will it be worth it.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.