French rail firm honours Jews deported on its trains

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In a muddy disused railyard, the French state rail company SNCF on Tuesday mourned thousands of Jews deported on its trains from this very spot to Nazi death camps.

Near the crumbling freight warehouse where Jewish deportees were rounded up, SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy signed over the land to the local mayor who plans a permanent memorial on the site in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris.

The SNCF has come under pressure in the United States to disclose its role in the deportation as it is bidding for contracts to build lucrative high-speed railways in California.

It says it was forced to carry 75,000 Jewish deportees on its trains and has not accepted responsibility itself as a company, pointing out that hundreds of SNCF employees were murdered for resisting the Nazi occupiers.

"The SNCF, a state enterprise, was forced and requisitioned as a cog in the Nazi extermination machine," Pepy told an audience of officials and Jewish groups. "We will never forget it."

The company insists the Bobigny project is part of a broader programme of opening up about its wartime past and is not specifically linked to particular business deals.

California lawmakers tried last year to pass a law obliging bidders for rail contracts in the state to disclose details of their involvement in wartime deportations.

It was vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger but the SNCF made a point of voluntarily detailing its role and pointing to its archives which it opened up in 1996.

"For a long time we have often been asked questions here, elsewhere, even in the United States," Pepy said on Tuesday, standing beside Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and veteran French politician.

"Our replies are not dictated by circumstances. Our replies are dictated by our convictions which were not just formed yesterday," he said of the SNCF.

In 1995 France's then-president Jacques Chirac acknowledged that the French state, under the Vichy regime that collaborated with the German occupiers, had "seconded" the slaughter.

Pepy cited Chirac's apology, reiterating that the SNCF was "requisitioned" by the Nazis. He expressed "the SNCF's deep pain and regret for the consequences of what was done by the SNCF of the time.

"In its name, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives."

"He insisted on the idea of them being compelled. The SNCF hasn't spoken much about blame," said Annie Fallik, who comes back here every May to visit the spot where her father was put on the train to his death.

"That didn't entirely convince me. But it's not a clear-cut issue, is it?" she added.

"The important thing now is to have a place to commemorate what happened," said her husband Francis, whose father also was deported from the Bobigny station and died in the camps.

Spokesman Alain Wasmes of the Bobigny mayor's office said local officials and the SNCF would develop the plot into an educational memorial site.

The SNCF "was not always perfect," said Veil, who heads a major French Holocaust foundation. But she hailed its gesture in ceding the land to Bobigny for a memorial to the 22,400 people taken to the camps from that station in 1943 and 1944.

"I trust you, so that people can know what happened here," Veil said, her voice drowned out by a freight train rumbling past on the tracks nearby.

© 2011 AFP

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