Lawmakers in Maryland are considering a bill that would block one of the firms seeking to bid on a multibillion-dollar light rail project from winning its bid unless its majority stockholder agrees to pay reparations to Holocaust victims.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Maryland Delegate Kirill Reznik, would block a consortium including Paris-based rail company Keolis from winning a public-private partnership for the state's Purple Line project, a 35-year contract worth more than $6 billion.
Keolis is a subsidiary of the government-owned French railway SNCF, which has admitted that it transported about 76,000 Holocaust victims to concentration camps in Nazi-occupied France.
But the company's U.S. executives say neither the bill nor a growing Internet petition on Change.org are based on facts. The petition suggests that SNCF willingly collaborated with the Nazis, an accusation the firm denies.
"These trains were operated under Nazi command. Those who resisted paid very dearly," says Alain Leray, president and CEO of SNCF America.
The company never invoiced or profited from the transports, and SNCF is not responsible for paying reparations, he says. Leray also points out that Keolis did not even exist during World War II.
However, reparations would mean something significant to 92-year-old Baltimore resident Leo Bretholz. When he speaks about what he hopes will come from his Change.org petition, his determination is evident.
"The reparations means a recognition by them an admission by them that they did wrong. And then, the final result is justice," says Bretholz, who says he escaped from an SNCF rail car in 1942.
More than 107,000 people have signed the petition asking for reparations from SNCF and Keolis as it looks to expand its business in the U.S. The petition says that SNCF projects are funded by "the tax dollars of the very survivors who were deported toward the death camps." But for Bretholz, it's not just about financial justice.
"If they want to do it, that's fine," he says. "But money will never bring the lives back."
The bill would expand a 2011 law which requires companies to disclose involvement in transporting victims during the Holocaust by also requiring them to pay reparations. Keolis is a member of one of four consortiums chosen by Maryland to bid on the project.
Reznik says he's been working with a group of Maryland-based Holocaust survivors, but he says this bill is not directed solely at SNCF and Keolis.
"There obviously are other companies out there that did work with the Nazis during World War II," Reznik says. "They potentially could also be bidding on public-private procurements."
"It is a very emotional issue; I don't think anybody can deny that," says Reznik.
Leslie Aun, Keolis' North America spokeswoman, wouldn't discuss whether the Change.org petition or the Maryland bill were affecting the company's bid process, but says Keolis is concentrating on putting its bid together.
"We're really focused on putting together the best bid, the most competitive bid program that is really going to serve the people of Maryland," Aun says.
The Maryland Department of Transportation and the Transit Administration will choose the team for the light rail project. Both say they are reviewing the pending legislation and how it will affect the bidding process, if it passes. The Maryland legislation is in committee right now, with hearings scheduled in early March.
An update to the story: On Friday, The Washington Post reports the French government, partial owner of Keolis, has begun negotiations with the State Department over paying reparations to American Holocaust survivors, who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains.