ORLANDO, Fla. – The French national railway wants to build the first high-speed tracks in the United States, reopening Holocaust wounds that threaten to derail the company's bid because of its role in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps.
One of those leading the charge against the railway is Florida resident Rosette Goldstein, whose father was taken away by Nazi soldiers, shoved in a cattle train and delivered to his death during World War II. Goldstein plans to voice her opposition on behalf of many Holocaust survivors to the railway Thursday when the Florida Department of Transportation holds a public meeting in Orlando on the $2.6 billion high-speed rail project, which would connect Tampa and Orlando.
Goldstein and others — including legislators — want the railway, known as the SNCF, to formally apologize for its role in the war, give full access to its records and make reparations.
"Why does this company deserve my tax dollars when they cooperated with the Nazis and let their trains transport people to be murdered?" said Goldstein, 71, who lives in Boca Raton.
SNCF stands for Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais. The company has argued that it had no control over operations when France was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and was under orders to transport Jews to death camps. The firm also has said the French government has made an apology and offered reparations, although survivors contend the company itself has never made such amends.
"We plan to have a full disclosure of our records and complete transparency," said Peter Kelly, an American-based attorney for SNCF. "The fact is many railway workers were killed by Nazis, many were bullied and the company was under control of an occupied government."
Not everybody accepts that explanation.
Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, vice president at the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center in South Florida, said corporations such as SNCF have long used coercion as an excuse. She said SNCF profited greatly from the transports, charging per head and kilometer.
"Being a collaborator and saying you were coerced is not acceptable," she said. "Nobody bought that at the Nuremberg Trials, Rwanda, Darfur and other genocides. You can't help murder people and then just say, 'Well, we were coerced.'"
In California, lawmakers passed a bill last month that forces companies hoping to compete for a piece of California's $45 billion high-speed rail project to disclose whether they transported Holocaust victims. SNCF is bidding for that project and said it has no problems with the bill.
Florida lawmakers are also stepping into the fray.
U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat who represents portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, a district with a high Jewish population, said he was writing a letter to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist asking for some of the same things Goldstein wants.
"This was a company that was taken and used by the Nazis that profited from the deaths of tens of thousands of people," said Klein, who is also Jewish and serves on the board at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
SNCF employs 175,000 people and operates 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of high-speed lines in France, and is generally respected as a heavyweight in French industry. But the company has had a hard time erasing its past.
Between 1941 and 1944, 3,000 wagons — originally designed for the transportation of cattle — were used by the SNCF to transport Jews to Nazi death camps, according to a study by French historian Christian Bachelier, ordered by SNCF in 1996. The study points out that there were acts of resistance, but they were sparse, isolated and mostly by workers — not SNCF administration.
SNCF is among about 30 companies bidding for the Florida contract. Transportation officials are in the process of going through the bids.
Plans for high-speed rails were announced by President Barack Obama in January. Florida would get $1.25 billion in stimulus money and trains are expected to begin operating at speeds up to 168 mph by 2015.
A spokesman with the Florida Department of Transportation did not immediately have any comment.
At the very least, SNCF faces big challenges trying to win U.S bids.
"The court of public opinion may already have convicted them, and politicians don't want to be called soft on the Holocaust or anything," said Winston Nagan, a professor of international law and human rights at the University of Florida.
Goldstein and others whose families were wiped out have vowed to raise their voices.
Goldstein was 4 years old when she hid with another family on a farm outside Paris as her father enlisted at a nearby labor camp to avoid internment. He often sneaked away at night to see her, then one night he didn't come.
She said he was transported by an SNCF train — Convoy No. 32 — to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Langenstein-Zwieberge, where he was killed by Nazis just five days before the camp was liberated by Americans.
"If SNCF had resisted even a little, more people could have been spared," she said. "What's worse, is the way they've ignored us. Is it so hard to say, 'I'm sorry?' I'm one of the youngest survivors — soon there's not going to be any. We have to make sure people don't forget what happened."
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this story.