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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Lawmakers in Maryland are considering a bill that would block a firm from bidding on a multibillion-dollar rail project unless its majority owner agrees to pay reparations to Holocaust victims. The company Keolis is partially owned by a public French rail company that transported thousands of victims to concentration camps.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports on the effort to keep Keolis from winning the bid.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The determination is tangible in 92-year-old Leo Bretholz' voice when he talks about the reparations he hopes will come from his Change.org petition.

LEO BRETHOLZ: The reparations means an admission by them that they did wrong. And then the final result is justice.

KEYES: The them Bretholz refers to is the Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, known as SNCF. The rail company has admitted that in Nazi-occupied France, beginning in 1940, it transported about 76,000 Holocaust victims to concentration camps. Bretholz, who now lives in Baltimore, says he escaped from an SNCF railcar in 1942.

More than 107,000 people have signed the petition asking the company - and its Paris-based subsidiary Keolis - to pay reparations as it looks to expand its business in the U.S. The petition says SNCF projects are funded by, quoting here, "the tax dollars of the very survivors who were deported toward death camps." But asked whether he means financial justice, Bretholz says...

BRETHOLZ: If they want to do it, that's fine. But money will never bring the lives back. That's for sure.

KIRILL REZNIK: It is a very emotional issue. I don't think anybody can deny that.

KEYES: Maryland Delegate Kirill Reznik co-sponsored legislation that would block Keolis from winning a public private partnership involving the state's light rail Purple Line Project. At stake is a 35-year contract worth more than $6 billion. Keolis is a member of one of four consortiums recently chosen by Maryland to bid on the project.

The legislation, which expands on a 2011 law requiring companies involved in transporting victims during the Holocaust to disclose that, would require them to pay reparations. Reznik says he's been working with a group of Maryland-based Holocaust survivors. But he insists this bill is not directed solely at SNCF and Keolis.

REZNIK: There obviously are other companies out there that did work with the Nazis and they potentially could also be bidding on public-private procurements.

ALAIN LERAY: This law is targeting very specifically SNCF.

KEYES: Alain Leray is president and CEO of SNCF America. He stresses that it's the company's subsidiary that is seeking to bid on the Maryland light rail project.

LERAY: Keolis did not even exist during the last world war.

KEYES: And he says both the Maryland bill and Leo Bretholz's petition are based on misinformation.

LERAY: It is based on facts that are not facts. It's based on a story.

KEYES: Leray takes issue which the Change.org petition, which alleges that SNCF willingly collaborated with the Nazis as its trains carried Holocaust victims to concentration camps.

LERAY: These trains were operated under Nazi command. Those who resisted paid very dearly.

KEYES: He says the company never invoiced or profited from the transports. And he says SNCF is not responsible for paying reparations.

LESLIE AUN: We're really focused on putting together the best bid program that is really going to serve the people of Maryland.

KEYES: Leslie Aun is Keolis' spokeswoman in North America. She wouldn't discuss whether the Change.org petition or the Maryland bill was affecting the company's bid process.

The Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transit Administration are reviewing the pending legislation, and how it will affect the bidding process if it passes. The Maryland legislation is in committee right now, with hearings scheduled in early March.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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GREENE: And this is an evolving story. The Washington Post is reporting this morning that the French government, partial owner of Keolis, has begun negotiating with the State Department over possibly paying reparations to American survivors of the Holocaust.

This is NPR News.

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