This interview by Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld with Bernard Emsellem was recently published at INN, and republished here with the author’s consent.
The French Railways during the Shoah, and the Jews
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Bernard Emsellem
“The role of the French state railway SNCF during the Second World War has been both researched and criticized for a long time. One major aspect is the role it played in the deportation of more than 75,000 French Jews – mainly from the transit camp Drancy. Most of them were murdered.
“In 1990, then-President of the SNCF Jacques Fournier decided that all its archives – with priority given to the wartime ones – should be stored in a single location. They have since been digitalized. In recent years, copies were made available to the Shoah Memorial in Paris, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. These archives are now accessible on the internet.”
Bernard Emsellem is a former Senior Vice President for Corporate Responsibility of the SNCF. Before that, he was its Director of Communications.
“Fournier also asked the French Institute for Contemporary History to prepare a report on the history of the SNCF during the Second World War. Christian Bachelier wrote it under the supervision of historian Henri Rousso. It became available in 1996 and contains 900 pages. It too is accessible on the internet.
“The report deals inter alia with relations between the SNCF and French and German authorities. In the armistice agreement of June 1940, the SNCF was placed at the entire disposal of the German army. The railways’ employees became subject to German war law.
“The report also presents in chronological order, various stages of the SNCF’s war history, i.e., the sequestration of railway equipment, the process of decision-making and its realization concerning the deportation, in particular during the year 1942. It also deals with the resistance, as more than 2,000 railway employees died in deportation or were executed in France. Finally, it analyzes the railway workers’ contribution to the Allies before and after they landed in France.
“In 2000, Louis Gallois, who was then-President of the SNCF, initiated a conference on the report’s subject. It took place symbolically at the French Parliament. A book has since been published which contains the conference’s presentations.
“Gallois also decided that an exhibition of pictures of deported murdered children would be shown in twenty major railway stations between 2002 and 2004. It was prepared by Jewish lawyer and activist Serge Klarsfeld. The exhibition was also shown at the headquarters of the SNCF, the French Parliament and the Paris Municipality and was seen by an estimated one million people.
“In 2008, then-new SNCF President Guillaume Pepy decided to initiate additional activities under the motto, ‘Transparency, history, remembrance and education.’ He publicly declared that this entailed admitting that the SNCF was a cog in the Nazi war machinery. Pepy expressed his regrets for the consequences of the SNCF’s conduct during the war. The term ‘regrets’ was chosen because in French it expresses a deeper commitment toward the future than ‘apologies,’ which brings a subject to a close. Pepy ended his speech by saying “We commit to never forget.”
“In addition, the Bobigny railway site was transferred to the town’s municipality, which turned it into a memorial site. The trains of those deported from Drancy departed from there between the summer of 1943 and the summer of 1944. At the official transfer of the site on 25 January 2011 – two days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day – Pepy made his aforementioned public statement. Those present at the ceremony included parliamentarians and local authorities, representatives of the Jewish community, survivors as well as managers, and other employees of the SNCF. The media gave much attention to this event.
“In the United States, the SNCF came under attack for the same reasons as in France – its role in the deportation of the Jews. Its main critics are survivors and descendents of deportees as well as their lawyers. They have forwarded claims for indemnification by the SNCF. Yet, the French authorities are the ones who paid indemnifications for the internment and deportation of people after the war. At the beginning of this century, additional payments were made to orphans whose parents were murdered. Restitution was also paid out for looted Jewish property.
“Some critics oppose SNCF’s current activities in the United States. There is also opposition in the U.S. Congress. Yet today in France, SNCF is facing up to its past as few other institutions have done. We also work with Israel. One wonders why the SNCF is the only company which is being attacked.
“Education about the Shoah is an important issue for the SNCF. All our activities in this field have an instructional purpose. We financed for example, a theater piece called ‘Haim.’ It is accompanied by educational work with students from schools that are located close to the theater company.
“We have an important partnership with the Shoah Memorial in Paris. For four years we funded activities they have for teachers and students concerning education about the Shoah. We also financed a program about genocide in Bordeaux. All this shows that we try our best to come to terms with the past as far as possible.”