By Megan R. Wilson - 08/04/13 12:19 PM EDT
Legislation proposed last week in the Senate has reignited a lobbying battle over reparations for Holocaust survivors.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a member of Democratic leadership, reintroduced the Holocaust Rail Justice Act on Thursday, bipartisan legislation aiming to change a decades-old law that limits when a country can be sued in U.S. courts.
The company in lawmakers’ sights is SNCF America, the American subsidiary of a company owned by the French government.
“Survivors and family members of those who perished have long attempted to hold SNCF accountable for its active role during the Holocaust, but so far the company has succeeded in cloaking itself in foreign sovereign immunity,” Schumer said in a statement.
The legislation would change the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) to allow Holocaust victims and their families to sue SNCF in U.S. courts.
Supporters and opponents of the bill have enlisted the help of high-powered Washington lobby shops in the battle over the legislation — and more broadly, over the historical record.
SNCF America has hired a consultant and a slew of firms to correct what it says are “significant historical inaccuracies about SNCF’s record during World War II.”
The K Street firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, meanwhile, is representing about 650 Holocaust survivors and family members of the victims. The team at the firm disputes SNCF’s claims it was wholly coerced by the Nazis, and wants the company to do more to provide reparations.
Jerry Ray, a spokesman for SNCF America, said Schumer’s legislation contains falsehoods about the company’s participation with the Nazis.
“As a result, SNCF, through its lobbyists, is working diligently to correct these inaccuracies,” he said in a statement to The Hill.
SNCF America has spent more than $2.8 million to lobby the federal government since 2011, when the Holocaust Rail Justice Act bills were first introduced in Congress.
Disclosure forms show lobbyists currently working for SNCF — including advocates at Capitol Counsel, Hogan Lovells and five other firms — spoke to policymakers about the legislation and transportation contracts. Last year, SNCF America dropped contracts with two other firms, Dutko Worldwide and Advanced Strategies.
Rafi Prober, the partner at Akin Gump leading the charge for Holocaust victims, says the bipartisan support for the bill illustrates its importance.
“These bipartisan members are in a position to push this forward and want to see survivors have their day in court,” Prober said.
The Senate bill had 19 co-sponsors in the last Congress, including now-Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), but failed to move out of committee.
The dispute over the legislation is tied up in a broader debate about SNCF’s actions during the Nazi occupation.
What isn’t disputed is that SNCF transported 75,000 individuals to the French border, where they were taken to concentration camps. Less than 3 percent survived, according to the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, the group that Akin Gump is representing pro bono.
But the survivors’ group says it has evidence that SNFC transported the victims willingly, and sought payment for those services even after France was liberated from the Nazi's grasp, which the company strongly denies.
The Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice has staked its case partly on an invoice that SNCF sent to the French government, looking to collect more than 210,000 francs for transportation to “Camp d'internement."
Many of the documents have date stamps at least two months after the liberation of Paris, “which undercuts SNCF’s assertion they were wholly coerced by the Nazis,” Prober said.
“This was about business and they were looking to get paid,” he said.
In response, representatives for SNCF point to congressional testimony from Serge Klarsfeld, the president of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews.
“The SNCF is accused of making a profit from the deportation. If that were the case, it would be natural, indeed legitimate, for the SNCF to return this profit. However, there was no profit,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. SNCF has said in other media reports it was “financially devastated” during the war.
“This American pressure on the SNCF has tarnished the memory of 1,647 train drivers who were executed or deported and never came back,” Arno Klarsfeld, the attorney son of Serge, told The New York Times in 2011. “It discards the role of German authorities and the French Vichy state and lessens the responsibility of those who took charge of deporting the Jews who lived in France.”
Klarsfeld and other French-Jewish groups have told lawmakers that “the focus of the … legislation is misplaced,” and prefer negotiations to increase an overall resolution of the treatment of French Jews during the war. State Department officials and the French government have reportedly been involved in these negotiations.
SNCF does business in 120 countries, including Israel, its spokesman points out. While that has been used as part of an argument for the company’s record supporting Jewish causes, the attorney for the victims says it is irrelevant.
“Where they do business is not the equivalent to providing some moral blessing,” said Prober. “The bottom line is they have never been accountable to their victims.”
The two sides have several other points of contention, including on questions about the state and viability of French reparation programs for Holocaust victims.
Billions of dollars have been distributed through private reparation funds and through the French government, but Prober says most of his clients do not qualify because the requirements are too onerous and U.S. citizens aren’t eligible for all of them.
In 2010, SNCF expressed “its profound sorrow and regret for the consequences of its acts” while France's Vichy government collaborated with the occupying Nazis.
Prober argues that the apology was only offered “in the context of pursuing high-speed rail contracts in the United States.
The company has also partnered with Jewish memorial institutions in Paris and Israel to fund education and research programs and has made millions of its documents from wartime available to the public.
“Until SNCF steps up and pays reparations, we can expect the constant drum beat from elected officials who refuse to accept the current situation,” Prober said.
This story was updated at 1:11 p.m. to correct the number of individuals SNCF transported from 65,000 to 75,000.