By Brett Kline
October 13, 2006
PARIS, Oct. 16 (JTA) – Mayer Grosman thinks back to Feb. 2, 1944, all
the time.
French policemen and militia members came to his parents’ apartment in
Paris with orders to take two Grosman males – Grosman, age 6, and his
father.
But Grosman’s grandfather, whose name was not on the paper, insisted on
going in place of 6-year-old Mayer. After jewelry and money exchanged
hands, the police and militia agreed.
Grosman’s father and grandfather, both Polish-born Jews, were taken on a
train of the SNCF, the French national railway, to the Drancy internment
camp north of Paris. From there, another SNCF train took them to
Auschwitz, where they were gassed.
Grosman’s mother took him and his sister and hit the road, hiding in
French homes and churches. They survived the war.
Grosman, along with other deportees’ families, received a settlement
worth about $24,000 from the French government in 2000. But when Alain
Lipietz, a French deputy in the European Parliament whose father and
uncle were rounded up and sent to a holding area during the war won a
cash indemnity worth about $77,000 from the SNCF – the railway is
appealing the case – Grosman decided he’d sue as well.
“I’ve never forgotten and never forgiven,” said Grosman, 68. “I want
recognition, and if my children and grandchildren can receive financial
compensation, all the better.”
More than 1,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, have filed similar claim
letters since the Lipietz case in Toulouse last summer. Under French
law, the SNCF must respond to each letter individually within two
months, or legal proceedings begin automatically.
Jewish community leaders in France have come out against claims on the
SNCF. They argue that of all the state-run institutions active during
World War II – including banks, insurance companies, the education
system and many others run by high-level civil servants in prestigious
posts – SNCF officials have made the greatest effort to be transparent
and truthful in explaining their wartime activities to the French
public.
“I understand the families,” said Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF, the
umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. “I can feel their pain,
but the SNCF has really made an effort to put together exhibits in train
stations and other educational tools. If people take the SNCF to court,
they could begin doing the same with other state-run groups such as the
police, and then why not private companies? I understand the claims, but
is this the right path to take?”
CRIF officials and community leaders – such as Serge Klarsfeld, the
well-known Nazi-hunter, lawyer and head of the Sons and Daughters of
Jewish Deportees from France – have criticized the lawsuits, but the
CRIF has taken no official position.
The story gets more complicated. Klarsfeld’s son, Arno, was highly
praised in 1998 for representing plaintiffs in the trial against Maurice
Papon, a Vichy police boss who directed deportations from Bordeaux and
went on to a decorated civil service career.
Arno Klarsfeld now represents the SNCF in New York, where deportees’
families filed a class action suit against the French railway. He also
works closely with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on providing legal
papers to certain illegal immigrants in France, leading some to charge
that his SNCF work is politically motivated.
Neither Serge nor Arno Klarsfeld returned phone calls for this article.
Historians consider the Holocaust the industrialization of mass murder
on an unprecedented scale. In France, that industrialization is
represented by the SNCF’s efficiency in deporting mostly Jews, but also
Resistance fighters and even railway workers who joined the Resistance.
“Right after the war, De Gaulle did a brilliant thing,” said Corinne
Hershkovitch, a lawyer representing some 500 families who have launched
claims against the SNCF. “All the major institutions, the banks,
insurance companies, construction companies and so on, were issued a
presidential pardon for collaborating with the Nazi regime, in the
interest of French national unity. He managed to convince the French
people that France had won the war.”
Among the groups receiving the pardon, which was political and not
judicial, was the SNCF. But now the railway has a dilemma on its hands:
There are no class action suits in France, so each of those 1,000
letters could lead to a hearing or trial.
An SNCF official said the letters were being answered individually and
not with a form response.
However, SNCF General Director Guillaume Pepy told a Paris TV station
earlier this year that “the SNCF board has decided to reject the
requests by plaintiffs for cash indemnities to be paid by the railway.
The SNCF was requisitioned and was acting under constraints from the
Nazi regime. We think it would be unfair and a historical error to find
the SNCF guilty for the deportations.”
Hershkovitch disagrees.
“This is the continuation of the Papon trial. Papon was the first
individual to take the stand, and the SNCF may be the first company,”
she said.
The SNCF officially opened its wartime archives in 1992. The Bachelier
Report, commissioned by the SNCF and written by a private French
institute, was issued in 1996 and made available to the public in 1998,
revealing some ugly details.
For example, the reported noted that the Nazis asked for big barrels of
water to be placed in each train car so people could quench their thirst
on the trip to Auschwitz.
“French SNCF officials at the time refused to do so,” Hershkovitch said.
“They said putting barrels of water in each car could easily delay the
trains and upset the schedule. They said that their job was to keep the
trains rolling on time.”
Another lawyer handling more than 400 claims, Avi Bitton, said it was
normal to ask for financial reparations, “even though the French quickly
link the money with the claimants being mostly Jews, and that is
negative.
“The SNCF role was about money from the very beginning,” Bitton said.
“According to the Bachelier Report, the French railway billed the Vichy
government for every person who was deported. And they billed Vichy for
the use of third-class cars, but put the deportees in cattle wagons.”
“The high-level officials at the SNCF knew exactly what they were
doing,” said William Wajnryb, who also is suing the railway. “The French
police arrested my father on May 8, 1941. The SNCF took him to the
Pithiviers camp in France and then to Auschwitz, where he was gassed 48
hours later. They made money by deporting my father.”
Wajnryb saw the Lipietz case on TV, and found his lawyer on an American
Web site.
The Lipietz case “case opened a breach, and I jumped in,” he said.
Wajnryb said he had asked for about $220,000, but is sure it will be
refused. He figures that an out-of-court settlement is probably the best
solution for everyone, because trials and appeals could take years.
“I never knew my father,” Wajnryb said. “I never did anything for him.
By making a claim like this, I feel like I’m walking hand-in-hand with
him. I’m bringing him back from the dead across the time barrier. This
is how I feel.”