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France and Jewish Deportation

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Interesting article in today's Guardian:


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

Tuesday August 29, 2006

The Guardian

France and its national railway company, SNCF, face a deluge of compensation claims for their role in the deportation of Jews during the second world war.

More than 200 families from France, Israel, Belgium, the US and Canada will launch suits this week against the French state and SNCF for colluding in the transport of Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals and Gypsies to the Nazi death camps during the German occupation.

Cases brought in dozens of tribunals across France could last years and, if successful, force the state and the railway to pay millions of euros in compensation.

Many of the cases are being brought by pensioners who as children were interned in Drancy, the transit camp north of Paris known as the "antechamber of death" - from which about 67,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. They were transported to the camp on the national railway system, often crammed into cattle trucks. SNCF classified them as third-class passengers and continued to send bills for their tickets even after the liberation of France.

Of the 330,000 Jews living in France in 1940, 75,721 were deported to death camps and only about 2,500 returned. For decades France refused to face up to accusations of its collaboration. In 1995 President Jacques Chirac made a historic admission that the Vichy government did bear a heavy responsibility in the deportation of France's Jews.

But it was only in June, when the French Green party MEP Alain Lipietz won a historic case against the state and SNCF, that families came forward. Mr Lipietz sought compensation after his father was taken to Drancy in 1944, aged 21. He was transported from Toulouse by SNCF train, travelling for more than 30 hours in a cattle truck crammed with 52 people without sanitation, one opening for air and only once given water by the Red Cross. He and three relatives survived the camp.

A Toulouse tribunal set a precedent when it awarded the Lipietz family €62,000 (£42,000) in damages, saying the transportation amounted to an "act of negligence of the state's responsibilities" and because SNCF never voiced "any objection" about transporting prisoners. SNCF is appealing against the ruling.

One of the complainants remembers spending her seventh birthday in Drancy. Others were hidden when their parents were rounded up. Some were born after the war to parents who escaped the camps. Not all are Jewish. One family's relative was a Spanish republican sent to the camps as a political prisoner.

A French pensioner said that in 1943 his parents sent his older sister, Odette, to Nice, hoping to save her life. In February 1944 she was denounced as Jewish by a newsagent, arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died. When her mother heard of the deportation, her hair went white overnight and she suffered a mental breakdown. She died in a care home, still repeating: "My daughter Odette will be here soon."

Another complainant was born after the war to a Jewish woman who had survived the camp. She told her lawyer: "My mother came back with nothing, no family, no money. She was psychologically traumatised. She couldn't keep me with her so she put me in an orphanage. I have suffered all my life from it and that's why I am bringing this case."

SNCF declined to comment. In June its lawyer said the railway could not be held responsible because it had been forced to cooperate with German occupying forces.

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