During World War II, the French national railway transported some 75,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. This still strikes a sensitive nerve for some Holocaust survivors. This month, a subsidiary of that railway took over operation of a commuter train in northern Virginia and survivors are upset, as Jacob Fenston reports.

JACOB FENSTON: 89-year-old Leo Bretholz is sitting in his living room in Baltimore flipping through a heavy, well-worn book.

Mr. LEO BRETHOLZ: See all the names here? Over 70,000 names.

FENSTON: The names of Jews deported from occupied France to almost certain death in camps in Eastern Europe.

Mr. BRETHOLZ: Convoy No. 42, on the 6th of November 1942.

FENSTON: Bretholz was on the train that night.

Mr. BRETHOLZ: See the name here? Leo Bretholz, born on the 6th of March '21 in Vienna. See it? Right here. Black and white.

FENSTON: The train was headed for Auschwitz.

Mr. BRETHOLZ: A thousand people in every train. These were freight cars.

FENSTON: Bretholz and a friend managed to pry open the window bars and leap from the moving train. Of the thousand on that convoy, Bretholz was one of five people to survive the Holocaust. The train he escaped was in Nazi-occupied France run by the National Railroad Company, SNCF.

Mr. BRETHOLZ: At that time, the trains were SNCF, yes. This was the Societe Nacional de Chemins de Fer Francais.

FENSTON: Now, Bretholz and some 300 other survivors are suing SNCF for damages in a New York court. And they want to keep the company out of U.S. trains.

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FENSTON: Here in Washington, D.C. a subsidiary of SNCF now operates this commuter train, the Virginia Railway Express. The company recently outbid Amtrak.

(Soundbite of train)

FENSTON: Steve Townsend is the president of Keolis America, the SNCF subsidiary. Townsend thinks it's a stretch to link his company to the Holocaust.

Mr. STEVE TOWNSEND (President, Keolis America): The issue for me is completely new. I'm not a historian, nor I really am an expert at all in SNCF's history.

FENSTON: Michael Marrus is a historian, a professor at the University of Toronto. He's written extensively about the Holocaust in France and agrees with Townsend that SNCF and its subsidiary shouldn't be punished today for what happened 70 years ago.

Professor MICHAEL MARRUS (University of Toronto): When the deportees reached Paris, they were taken on a bus. So what about the bus companies? What about the companies that supplied the petrol for the buses?

FENSTON: In occupied France, says Marrus, the entire society became part of the Nazi war machine. Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz says the French government never fessed up to this involvement.

Mr. BRETHOLZ: This is what parents ask of their kids when they do something wrong. They say you have to admit that you did wrong. You teach that to kids.

FENSTON: But, Marrus says, starting in the 1990s, the French government and SNCF did come to terms with their past. The government paid reparations, and the train company opened its books. Bretholz says he did receive a small reparation for time in a forced labor camp, but never an apology.

Here in Washington, commuters waiting for the train are mostly unaware of the link to SNCF and the Holocaust. But some, like commuter Danny Hambrick, do find the link troubling.

Mr. DANNY HAMBRICK: Now, as to whether I'll keep riding, now that you told me that now I don't want to. But I think until I kind of figure out a better alternative, I probably have to keep going.

FENSTON: The SNCF subsidiary is also bidding on two commuter lines in Maryland. And one of the biggest rail contracts in U.S. history could go to SNCF. That's California's $42 billion high-speed train that will link San Francisco and San Diego.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

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