French memorial to be built for deported Jews

An abandoned railway station outside Paris will be turned into a memorial for the tens of thousands of French and other European Jews who were deported from the site to death camps during World War II, an official said Tuesday.

The French national rail network, known as SNCF, is giving the former station in the Paris suburb of Bobigny to local officials as part of an agreement to create the memorial there.

SNCF last year for the first time expressed "sorrow and regret" for its role in the deportation of Jews during World War II.

Speaking at a handover ceremony at the site, SNCF Chief Executive Guillaume Pepy said the memorial would be "a witness to the madness that once overcame men."

"The SNCF, a state-owned company, was — under duress and requisition — a cog in the Nazi extermination machine," he said. "We don't forget that."

The railway concedes that the SNCF's equipment and staff were used to haul 76,000 French and other European Jews to Germany, where they were sent on to death camps. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.

The company's role in the Holocaust — and for years its refusal to apologize to victims — have long been a subject of criticism. Last year, the SNCF's bid to win high-speed rail contracts in California and Florida sparked the anger of some U.S. Jews who opposed giving a contract to a company with a role in the deportations.

Pepy denied that the creation of the memorial had anything to do with criticism from the United States, saying the railway's actions were not "dictated by the circumstances, but by its convictions."

No date has been set for the memorial's completion.

In 2007, an appeals court overturned a ruling that France's state railway network should compensate the family of a group of World War II deportees.

The appeals court said the case did not fall within the jurisdiction of the original court, and it also accepted the SNCF's arguments that it was not responsible because it was acting under requisition orders. The ruling was an important victory for the SNCF because at least 1,200 other families and groups had asked for similar compensation following the original case.

The SNCF is bidding on a $2.6 billion high-speed rail project that would connect Tampa and Orlando, Florida, but has run into resistance from Holocaust survivors there.

California is working toward the construction of a system that would extend 800 miles (1,290 kilometers), linking Sacramento and San Francisco to San Diego. Construction is expected to begin in late 2012. SNCF has expressed interest in that project, too.