Transit giant Keolis America has become embroiled in a controversy over Holocaust reparations that threatens to mar the company’s international reputation just as it prepares to take over the reins of the Massachusetts commuter rail system.
The company’s majority shareholder is the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, the French national railway that historians say transported more than 76,000 Jewish people from France to their deaths in concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, during the Nazi occupation.
Now, lawmakers in Maryland are weighing a bill that would bar Keolis from pursuing a lucrative light-rail contract in the Washington, D.C., suburbs if Holocaust survivors living in the United States do not receive reparations.
Some Massachusetts residents say they wish such legislation had been enacted before the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority awarded Keolis a $2.68 billion commuter rail contract in January, the largest operating contract in state history.
Some concerns about the French national railway’s role in the Holocaust surfaced during the final stretch of the contract-bidding battle between Keolis and the current operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. But the T forged ahead with the deal.
“We were very disappointed that the contract was awarded without any consideration of the rights of the survivors,” said Harry Shamir, 75, of Plymouth, whose grandparents in France were taken to a concentration camp on trains operated by the railway. “It needs to be rectified.”
The railway company says the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France forced the railway to transport Jews and other prisoners to the death camps. While the railway company believes Holocaust survivors should receive reparations, it says the French government — not the company — should pay them.
Keolis America says it had nothing to do with the war, as it was not founded until decades later.
“It’s a series of misrepresentations,” said Alain Leray, president and chief executive officer of SNCF America. “There is no historical basis for enacting such a rule and such a law in any state anywhere. We acted under duress.”
A French law passed just after World War II mandates that the government pay all reparations for actions by French companies, state-owned or private, that were linked to Holocaust atrocities. According to the law, the state failed to protect its citizens from the Nazis and therefore is responsible for the actions that took place by those conscripted by the Vichy government.
The French government says it has paid billions in reparations to survivors. But those living in the United States previously have not been eligible.
Last month, Stuart E. Eizenstat — a lawyer, former ambassador to the European Union, and State Department special adviser on Holocaust issues — flew to Paris to begin formal talks with the French government about Holocaust reparations for American survivors. He said delegates are sensitive to the advanced age of most of the survivors who would benefit from an agreement.
“I’m pleased that they are doing it, and it is to their great credit that they are doing it,” Eizenstat said of the French government agreeing to discuss aiding American survivors.
There are no estimates of how many Holocaust survivors might receive the reparations, or how that money would be distributed. “We’re just trying to get our arms around the dimensions of the issue,” Eizenstat said.
A petition on Change.org, signed by more than 118,000 people, demands that the railway pay reparations.
“SNCF did not even publicly apologize for its role in the Holocaust until three years ago, not coincidentally at the very same time that SNCF was pursuing lucrative high-speed rail contracts in the United States,” reads the petition, penned by Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, who lives in Baltimore.
“As it was during the Holocaust for SNCF, so it is now — all about money,” the petition said. Leray suggested that competing companies are fanning the fire of the controversy, and said the railway and Keolis have the deepest respect for Holocaust survivors.
“It is a tragedy that cannot even be described,” he said. “There are some people out there who are trying to profit from the most horrific event in human history — and they are clearly distinct from the survivors.”
Leray said that the Maryland legislation, if it passes, would complicate the process of delivering money to Jewish deportees.
He pointed out that Keolis runs rail service in Israel and has established a partnership with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the world’s foremost Holocaust research center, to aid understanding of transportation during the mass deportation of Jews in World War II.
Leslie Aun, spokeswoman for Keolis America, said the company was being unfairly targeted.
“Keolis has no World War II history,” Aun said. “It would be sad if the hardworking people at Keolis were penalized for events that have absolutely nothing to do with our company, or anything to do with them.”
Shamir, an engineer who designs fencing equipment, said that seeing someone held responsible would bring him “closure.”
“It is the goal of this company’s inheritors to shut their minds and shut their hearts and shut their responsibility,” he said. “It is not allowable.”
Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said the case has garnered much interest in the Jewish community in Boston, but he insisted there are no easy answers. “It’s not a simple good-versus-bad,” Burton said.
Burton said he believes reparations for Holocaust victims are a good thing, but he does not think legal mandates like the one pursued in Maryland are necessarily a good idea.
“There’s more than enough shame to go around,” he said. “We need to grapple with that honestly.”Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.