A French train company is facing an unusual and severe stumbling block before it can be considered for a new rail project in Maryland: finally cleaning up its role in shuttling victims to Nazi concentration camps.

The State Department has been holding informal talks with French officials over reparations to U.S.-based victims who were sent to concentration camps on trains owned by French company Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) during World War II, The Washington Post reports. SNCF’s U.S. subsidiary company, Keolis, is one of the companies bidding on the Purple Line in Maryland, a $2.2 billion light-rail project that would link up to Washington’s Metro system and other commuter hubs in the area. 

But Maryland lawmakers are reluctant to go ahead with the deal until the payments have been made. A state senator introduced legislation last month that would prevent the company from receiving American government contracts until reparations are paid out. If passed, it could become the first state law banning a company with Holocaust ties from receiving government contracts.

Historians estimate that SNCF trains transported 76,000 Jews and prisoners, including 11,000 children, in 72 convoys to concentration camps. Only 2,000 prisoners survived. According to the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, there are about 15 people living in Washington, Maryland and Virginia that were either transported on SNCF trains, or had family members who were transported or killed.

A map of the proposed Purple Line. Credit: Gene Thorp/The Washington Post

Keolis is one of four companies chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation to bid on the line, which would allow them to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance the project. Maryland has set aside $750 million for the project and are seeking $500 to $900 million from a private company for a contract that could last for up to 40 years.

“To the great credit of the French, they came to us and said they’d recognized there were ‘holes in the blanket’ of their [Holocaust reparations] program that didn’t cover Americans" who were deported on French trains during World War II, Stuart Eizenstat, special adviser to Sec. of State John Kerry on Holocaust issues, told the Post. A Washington lawyer, Eizenstat also managed to negotiate similar agreements for U.S. victims with Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

The campaign for reparations has been spearheaded by a 92-year-old Maryland resident and Holocaust survivor, Leo Bretholz, who escaped from a SNCF train that was en route to Auschwitz in 1942. A Change.org petition he started calls for the company to be held accountable, and has received 108,000 signatures so far.

Tell SNCF and its American subsidiary, Keolis, that as they seek to expand their business in the United States – with many projects funded by the tax dollars of the very survivors who were deported toward the death camps on SNCF trains – they must pay reparations to these Holocaust survivors and their families. It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary is now competing to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line in my home state of Maryland – valued at more than $6 billion and one of the single biggest contracts in state history – while refusing to be held accountable," Bretholz said in the petition.

France says it’s paid more than $6 billion in reparation money, including to those transported on SNCF trains, but only to French citizens and those who resettled in Poland, the Czech Republic, the U.K., and Belgium, countries that reached agreements with the French government. Deportees who ended up living in the U.S. can't receive reparations, but according to Eizenstat, French officials want to have a repatriation agreement sorted out by the summer. 

Update: 02/25/2014 But under French law, the French state is required to pay all compensations to victims, and not private companies. "Therefore, under French law, it would be inappropriate for SNCF to make these repayments," according to Alain Leray, President of SNCF America, Inc.

SNCF contacted The Wire to inform us that SNCF was seized and placed under the command of the German Nazi Army transport department in 1940, after which all SNCF employees were subject to the Nazi laws of war. More than 800 SNCF employees who resisted Nazi orders, and who were found in "non-compliance" with the Third Reich, were executed, and more than 1,200 additional SNCF railroaders were sent to death camps, where they were murdered, Leray said in a statement. The Nazi Party made the decision on behalf of SNCF to used the company's trains during the Second World War.

SNCF apologized to Holocaust victims in 2011, saying that the railway was forced to transport prisoners to camps after the railway was “requisitioned” by the Nazis.