American Holocaust Survivors Fight French Railway

Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz still has the yellow star he received nearly 70 years ago at a French deportation camp during World War II.

"This is what we were given at Drancy. [It's] the Jewish star -- it says Juif," Bretholz said, bringing the star to his chest. "When I look at that, well, it's like a [badge] of honor."

In 1942, at the age of 21, Bretholz was forced aboard a train from Drancy bound for Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

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That train was operated by the French National Railroad, SNCF. Today, SNCF runs a very successful high-speed rail system in France. The company has hopes of winning contracts to build similar lines here in the United States.

"SNCF is the most experienced operator of high speed rail in the world -- we've been at it since 1981," said Peter Kelly, counsel for SNCF America. "We have 1100 miles of high-speed track under construction, in operation in Europe."

The United States has already planned several high-speed rail lines, with trains going up to 220 miles an hour and the biggest being in California. Officials there recently broke ground on a station in San Francisco, which will eventually service the high-speed trains.


The system in California will run the length of the state and the contracts are expected to be worth billions of dollars. Kelly said the company is also interested in projects in both Florida and Texas.

Millions of Dollars, Thousands of Lives

But Bretholz, along with hundreds of other American Holocaust survivors, are protesting the company's expansion.

"They are getting paid millions, if not billions, of dollars for these projects, and they're good at that," Bretholz said. "The French are good at doing fast railroads. But they're taking tax payers' money, and some of the tax payers were their victims. Some of the tax payers are still alive today to be able to tell."

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It's believed SNCF transported more than 75,000 people to Nazi camps, most of whom died either along the way or at their ultimate destination. Bretholz survived only by escaping from a train car after prying the bars open with a sweater dipped in human waste.

"And we left 48 people in that cattle car, a total of 998 on the whole train," said Bretholz, who chronicled his escape in the book, "Leap into Darkness," which is now in its 10th printing. "My friend Manfred and I survived, and three others survived of that whole train -- only three of a thousand."


'Creature of the Nazis'

Although critics say SNCF has never fully acknowledged its past, the company said it had no choice.

"When France was invaded in 1940, one of the first things the Nazis did was to take over the railroad," Kelly said. "And SNCF employees who remained with the railroad, did so under Nazi orders, which included any disobeying of the Nazi orders would result not only in the death of the employee but in the death of the employee's family. In other words, SNCF was a creature of the Nazis during World War II."

Kelly added that the railway system performed other functions under Nazi rule, including the transport of German military personnel and equipment and other "normal railroad operations."

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"As far as SNCF is concerned, as long as there are people on this planet, the Holocaust should be remembered, and people should know about it so that it never happens again," Kelly said.

The company is owned by the French government, which has apologized to Holocaust victims. The company said that should be enough. But Bretholz would like a direct apology from the people who put him on that train, not just for him, but for the many others who did not survive.

"We want justice -- we want a recognition by them [to] say yes, SNCF, the railroad company transported. We want contrition," Bretholz said. "That's why I'm speaking out loud, for those whose voices have been silenced."

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