Maryland Transportation Bill Held Up Over War Reparations

State officials on Monday told a state House panel that if the legislation involving Holocaust reparations passes, it could jeopardize federal funding for a planned light rail project in the state.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to a story of how a long ago association with the crimes of Nazi Germany could stop a French company from doing business today in Maryland. A Maryland House committee heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would bar companies that played a role in the Holocaust from bidding on state contracts unless the companies pay reparations to victims.

State officials told the hearing that if that bill passes, it could jeopardize federal funding for a major light rail project. NPR's Allison Keyes explains.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The hearing before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee was especially emotional Monday. Holocaust survivor Rosette Adler Goldstein told lawmakers her father was transported to a concentration camp on a SNCF train.

ROSETTE ADLER GOLDSTEIN: They were taken to Auschwitz, a thousand of them, on that train - women, children, old people.

KEYES: The Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, the state-owned French railway, is the majority stockholder in a company seeking to bid on Maryland's multi-billion dollar Purple Line Project. Goldstein and others said they came to testify on behalf of Leo Bretholz, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor who was the soul of the battle against SNCF prior to his death last weekend.

Aaron Greenfield is a pro bona attorney for the survivors and attacked SNCF for insisting it was coerced into working for the Nazis in occupied France.

AARON GREENFIELD: That is categorical nonsense. They invoiced the French government after the liberation of Paris, sought payment per head, per kilometer, with interest.

ALAIN LERAY: SNCF did not deport anyone. The Nazis did.

KEYES: Alain Leray is president and CEO of SNCF America and insisted to lawmakers that not only was his company under command of the Nazi war machine, but it is the government of France that's responsible for paying reparations. Leray also stressed that SNCF is doing business with Israel and therefore shouldn't be barred from doing so with Maryland.

Gil Genn, representing SNCF's subsidiary Keolis North America, told the hearing the proposed legislation is unworkable.

GIL GENN: This bill violates legal and constitutional principles under the Foreign Affairs Doctrine.

KEYES: Genn and other SNCF supporters stress that the U.S. and French government are negotiating over paying reparations to American Holocaust survivors and suggested lawmakers wait until those talks are over before acting. And Maryland transportation officials testified that the bill would likely place federal funding for the $6.5 billion contract in jeopardy. President Obama's 2015 budget request includes $100 million for the Purple Line Project. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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