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Holocaust: US fight for SNCF reparation goes on

Families of Holocaust victims in the US continued their fight this week to force France's state owned rail firm SNCF to pay compensation over its role in transporting Jews to Nazi death camps. US lawmakers are threatening to derail an SNCF bid for a major public contract.

Holocaust: US fight for SNCF reparation goes on
France state-owned railway is facing big problems in the US for its role in the Holocaust. Photo: OliverN5/Flickr

Seventy years after the Holocaust, Rosette Goldstein and many fellow Americans are still seeking reparations from French rail firm SNCF for transporting their loved ones to Nazi death camps.

Goldstein, now 75, was in Maryland on Monday to testify before state lawmakers, who have threatened to prevent SNCF bidding for a major public contract over its role in the World War II genocide.

Clutching a register of those transported by France's state-owned rail company, an emotional Goldstein showed where her father's name was entered.

"My father was taken by truck to the railway station and put on an SNCF train and taken to Drancy," Goldstein explained, with tears in her eyes. "He was taken on Convoy 64, December the 7th, 1943 to Auschwitz.

"I really would like them to come forward and say, 'I am so sorry for your loss,'" the petite woman said in a choked voice.

Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, who was deported on a French train, had also been set to testify at the hearing in Maryland, but he died on Saturday before he could give his account.

Bretholz, who escaped in October 1942 by jumping from a train headed for Auschwitz, had gathered 150,000 signatures for a petition asking SNCF to compensate victims and their families.

His campaign is supported by Maryland lawmaker Kirill Reznik, who says he holds the SNCF directly responsible for transporting Holocaust victims to the Nazi camps.

"We have an invoice issued by SNCF that required payment per head, per kilometer" for each prisoner transported, he said.

Reznik has proposed a law requiring the French rail company to compensate victims before they would be allowed to compete for state contracts in Maryland.

If the bill is approved, it would ban SNCF and its subsidiary, Keolis America, from bidding on a $6 billion public-private project to build and run a 16-mile (25-kilometer) light rail line in Maryland.

"We cannot have this company operating this purple line without (…) taking steps to close wounds that they have caused," Reznik said.

Under France's Vichy Regime, the SNCF deported some 76,000 Jews to concentration camps in freight cars between 1942 and 1944. Only around 3,000 of them survived the war.

"They should finally have to pay reparation at least per person," said Ellen Lightman, a 67-year-old grand-daughter of a Holocaust victim who attended the hearing at Maryland's legislature.

"Otherwise, whatever they have done in words is just air," she said.

SNCF does not deny it played a role in transporting Jews to their deaths, but the company says it had no choice.

"Yes, we were involved. No, we will never forget," said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, as he testified on Monday.

Leray, who noted that his own parents had fled occupied France to Algeria to avoid the Holocaust, said the genocide was also "a part of my family heritage."

But he denounced what he called a "misrepresentation of established historical facts."

"SNCF didn't deport anyone; the Nazis did," he insisted, saying the company "was forced to be a cog in the extermination Nazi machine."

By his side, Holocaust survivor Emil Levy, 92, testified on SNCF's behalf, saying he doesn't "believe in revenge" and that monetary compensation now would "do nothing for survivors."

Leray also said responsibility — and any eventual compensation — should ultimately come from the French government.

In that vein, he expressed hope for negotiations launched in early February between Paris and Washington over compensation for US victims transported by SNCF during between 1942 and 1944.

The negotiations concern the cases of Americans who don't meet current French criteria for compensation, covering citizens and residents of France only through September 1, 1939.

Around 250 Americans would be affected by the negotiations, according to the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.

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How to find cheap train tickets in France

Travelling by train is one of the best ways to see France - even with a mandatory mask on. Here - from railcards to sales - is how you can make it even better by cutting the cost of your ticket.

A blue high-speed Ouigo low-cost TGV train arriving at  de l'Est railway station in Paris, with the the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in the background
From cheap services to railcards, here's how to save money on train travel. Photo: Joel Saget / AFP

Railcards are the most common way to cut the cost of a ticket. In some cases, the card can even pay for itself in one journey. France’s rail operator SNCF has a range of cards available for everyone from impoverished students to regular business travellers with an expenses account to burn.

But if you’re not a regular traveller there are also a range of offers plus cheaper services to opt for.

Let’s start with the railcards.

Liberté card

This one’s really for business travellers, who use the TGV or Ouigo and Intercite trains regularly. And it comes with a price to match – €399 for a year. This guarantees cardholders 60 percent off SNCF’s Business Première fares when travelling standard class, and  45 percent off Business Première fares when travelling 1st class. Plus, there’s between 25 percent and 50 percent off TER fares in certain regions, and it’s valid for use in other European countries.

Forfait pass

Effectively a season ticket, this one’s for commuters who regularly use TGV INOUI or Intercité services to get to work. Prices vary based on how much you travel, and you can get annual, monthly or weekly passes. Click here for a calculation of how much you will have to pay.

Avantage Senior 60+ card

SNCF relatively recently rebranded its railcards under the Avantage umbrella. If you’re aged 60 or over and travel occasionally with TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER in France, you will save 30 percent on first and standard class travel, for an annual fee of €49. And there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

In fact, standard fares are capped for all destinations in France, no matter when you book. And that’s on top of a 30 percent guaranteed discount on 1st- and standard-class train tickets. 

You’re guaranteed affordable fares, even at the last minute. They’re currently capped as follows:

  • €39 or less for a short journey (under 90 minutes)
  • €59 or less for a medium-length journey (between 90 minutes and three hours)
  • €79 or less for the longest journey (over three hours)

Plus, there are savings on food and drink prices on the train – as well as other perks that are worth looking into.

Avantage Adulte Card

If you’re aged 27-59 and take TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER trains often, it’s worth looking into the Avantage Adulte card – which has replaced the Avantage Weekend and Avantage Famille cards – because you’ll save 30 percent on first and standard class tickets for the annual €49 fee.

Discounts extend to accompanying adults, and there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

As with the Senior card, standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Avantage Jeune Card

For anyone aged 12 to 27, the Avantage Jeune card will save you 30 percent on TGV Inoui and Intercité services that require booking for the annual €49 fee.

Standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Other ways to save money

If you’re not a regular travellers and don’t want a railcard, there are other ways to save money when travelling.

Ouigo trains

SNCF’s low-cost TGV service offers high-speed cut-price travel in and out of Paris to 17 French destinations. There are drawbacks though, the trains have fewer on-board services and some of them only go to stations close to a city, rather than the city-centre station – so it’s worth checking when you book exactly where you will end up.

Children under 12 years of age can travel for €5 all year long, or €8 to or from a station in Paris.

Railcards are valid on Ouigo trains, cutting ticket prices further.

Happy Hour

Be aware of last-minute ‘Happy Hour’ deals on available on select days for selected Intercité trains to a selection of destinations around France. You could save up to 50 percent on ticket prices. And, yes, railcards are valid.

Ticket sales

Watch out, too, for announcements of when tickets are available for sale. From November 3rd, for example, rail tickets are available up to March 27, 2022 – and up to July 2, 2022, for Inoui tickets.

Early booking may get you a good deal, and SNCF offers regular deals particularly around peak travel times such as summer and Christmas. Downloading the SNCF app will get you advance notification of sales.

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