Holocaust group rejects SNCF remorse on Holocaust shipments

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A US-based Holocaust group Friday rejected expressions of remorse from France's state-owned rail company SNCF for hauling thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi camps, and urged a direct apology to survivors.

"If they want to issue an apology, they should issue an apology directly to the survivors. Who are they issuing the apology to?" asked Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Florida.

"They are spending so much money coming here, paying a PR campaign, they are talking with everybody except the people directly involved. I don't understand."

Until recently, the company insisted it had been forced by France's World War II German occupiers to help deport 75,000 French Jews to the gas chambers, and noted that 2,000 of its own rail workers were executed.

But, with SNCF and its main train-builder Alstom seeking work in the United States, the company's chairman Guillaume Pepy earlier this month met in Florida with elected representatives and Jewish community groups to express his regret.

Pepy told them he wished to express "his profound pain and regret for the consequences of acts... carried out under order," and cited a speech made by French former president Jacques Chirac at a 1995 memorial about the "dark hours" when Jews suffered because of France's role in the war.

SNCF also has an English-language website, www.sncfhighspeedrail.com/heritage, which seeks to explain its role in the Holocaust.

But Kenigsberg told AFP the group had yet to issue a statement to Jewish groups directly apologizing for the practice.

"They have to make a direct statement, not one that go around the issue. I don't know why it's so difficult for them to come and to apologize," she said.

"I think that survivors are owed an apology and I think that the apology they understand has to come directly from them.

SNCF archives were opened to Americans in 1996 and Pepy said in August that he took concerns over the company's role "very seriously" -- but stuck to the company line that it had been "acting under the Nazi yoke."

"I think that after all of these years since 1945, it the right time to speak out and say 'I'm sorry' to the survivors, that's it," Kenigsberg said.

"They spend so much time going around in a circle instead of heading the issue. This is not with the government of France, this is with SNCF."

She noted that southern Florida is home to the second-largest population of Holocaust survivors in North America.

"They have a voice, because they were there," Kenigsberg added. "The (SNCF) CEO was not there, he was not there during the Holocaust, but they were and they know what happened."

© 2010 AFP

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