France agrees to compensate Holocaust deportees

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2014 4:05 PM
France agrees to compensate Holocaust deportees

PARIS (AP) — Thousands of Holocaust survivors and family members in the United States and elsewhere will be entitled to compensation from a $60 million French-U.S. fund announced Friday — reparations to those deported by France's state rail company SNCF during the Nazi occupation.

As part of the deal, the U.S. government will work to end lawsuits and other compensation claims in U.S. courts against SNCF, which is bidding for lucrative high-speed rail and other contracts in U.S. markets. State legislators in Maryland, New York, Florida and California have tried to punish SNCF for its Holocaust-era actions.

"This is another measure of justice for the harms of one of history's darkest eras," said the U.S. Special Adviser on Holocaust Issues, Stuart Eizenstat, who spent three years working with French officials on the agreement.

SNCF transported about 76,000 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps, though experts disagree on its degree of guilt. SNCF has expressed regret for what happened, but argues it had no effective control over operations during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944.

The compensation fund will be financed by the French government and managed by the United States. The accord will be signed Monday in Washington, but it still must get approval from the French Parliament, which could take months.

France's government has already paid more than $6 billion in reparations, but only to French citizens and certain deportees. The new accord is to help compensate Americans, Israelis and some others who were not eligible for other French reparations programs.

Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay, a French ambassador for human rights who worked closely with Eizenstat on the accord, said "hundreds" of people in the U.S. are eligible under the new fund as direct survivors or spouses, and several thousand could be eligible as heirs.

The money should break down to about $100,000 each for survivors and tens of thousands of dollars for spouses, said Eizenstat.

Only in 1995 did France acknowledge a direct role in the Holocaust, when then-President Jacques Chirac said the state bore responsibility. Subsequent compensation programs paid out compensation worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The German government has paid around 70 billion euros ($85 billion) in compensation for Nazi crimes, mainly to Jewish survivors.

France already has international accords with four countries — Poland, Belgium, Britain and the Czech Republic — over compensation for deportation victims. Friday's deal aims to fill the remaining gaps in justice for others also affected.

Although SNCF is not a party to the agreement, the company will contribute $4 million over the next five years to fund Holocaust memorials and museums in the U.S., Israel and France, according to Eizenstat.

The French government has pledged to encourage French lawmakers to approve the deal, Eizenstat said.

Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay said the French government wanted to finish the deal by year-end in part for symbolic reasons: France is hosting several events marking 70 years since the Allies liberated France from the Nazis in 1944.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, who had pushed the U.S. government to pressure France to agree to compensation, hailed the deal as a "breakthrough in a decades-long struggle for justice."

Charles Srebnik, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor from Belgium, said his family began its efforts for redress many years ago over the deportation of his uncle, Herschel Sluszny — a Paris electrical engineer who later died at Auschwitz.

"The sad part of it is that in 1995, President Jacques Chirac admitted the complicity and the guilt involved in this," Srebnik said by phone from New York, "and all these years, the French national railroad denied it."

He said the money would be useful for survivors: "At this point, a lot of survivors can't meet their daily needs — they're so badly off."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, said: "There is no amount of money that could ever make up for the horrific injustice done to these victims and their families."

"But agreements like this provide some modest redress, an important recognition of their pain, and acknowledge the responsibility of governments and institutions to leave no stone unturned in seeking every possible measure of justice for Holocaust victims," said Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor.

The deal comes as France, home to western Europe's largest Jewish community, is facing new concerns about anti-Semitism. France's leading Jewish organization, CRIF, estimates that the number of anti-Semitic incidents has grown 91 percent this year compared to a year ago.

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Lee reported from Washington. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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