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World & Nation

Holocaust survivors in U.S. say French agreement to pay reparations is long overdue

Drancy, France, to Nazi concentration camps
A railway car, shown in 2005, in the Paris suburb of Drancy commemorates the deportation of 76,000 Jews and others from France to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
(Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

Francine Cohen was only a toddler in France when her Jewish mother was put on a government-owned train to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

She never saw her mother again.

For Cohen, now a 76-year-old retiree who lives near Westwood, the French government’s agreement to pay $60 million in reparations to American, Israeli, Canadian and other Holocaust survivors and their families for the infamous French deportations is long overdue.

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“To tell you the truth, it’s not going to bring back our relatives,” Cohen said Wednesday. “But we always felt that the French trains were so responsible for all those people they took to the camps that they have to pay for it.”

The State Department began accepting applications Tuesday from survivors, their spouses and their heirs for compensation for the French use of its government-owned railroad under inhumane conditions to deport tens of thousands of Jews and others to death camps during World War II.

About 100 non-French survivors could receive more than $100,000 each, according to Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer and former diplomat who negotiated the agreement as a special State Department advisor on Holocaust issues.

He said spouses of deceased survivors could receive tens of thousands of dollars. Children and other heirs of survivors or their spouses could also be eligible, based on how long the survivor or spouse lived after the war, which ended 70 years ago.

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“The agreement is another measure of justice to help those who suffered for the harms of one of history’s darkest eras,” Eizenstat said.

He said it was the first time a World War II ally had agreed to pay reparations to U.S. citizens for Holocaust-related crimes, and the deal is unusual because it includes survivors’ heirs and estates. The reparations will be paid by the French government, not the railroad.

Several thousand applications are expected in all. Claims are due by May 31 at www.state.gov/deportationclaims.

In exchange, the U.S. government agreed to ensure an end to American lawsuits against the French government for the deportations.

France began paying compensation to French survivors of the deportations in 1948 and subsequently agreed to pay reparations to survivors in Belgium, Poland, Britain and the former Czechoslovakia. All reached bilateral agreements with French authorities.

Eizenstat said French authorities approached him several years ago about making a deal after widespread publicity put pressure on several states, including California and Florida, to block lucrative transportation contracts with Keolis, a subsidiary of the government-owned railroad company, SNCF.

At the time, legislation was introduced in Congress to make it easier for victims of the deportations to sue in American courts.

From its North American headquarters near Los Angeles International Airport, Keolis runs public transit operations in California, Nevada and Massachusetts, from mass transit to taxicab companies. It is part of a consortium competing for a 30-year contract to build and operate a light-rail system in Maryland.

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Keolis operations include Yellow Cab Co. in Orange County, which serves Disneyland, John Wayne Airport, hotel chains and other destinations. The fleet includes 60 wheelchair-accessible taxis and minivans for disabled clients.

Historians say SNCF, or Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, transported 76,000 Jews and others to Auschwitz and other concentration camps in stifling cattle cars and boxcars during the Nazi occupation. All but 2,000 died along the way or were killed in the camps.

Survivors said railroad workers often refused to provide water or food during the gruesome journeys because they didn’t want to slow the trains.

For 94-year-old Alain Rogier, who lives in Sherman Oaks and was deported to Auschwitz on the French railroad, the reparations would be a boon in his old age, said his daughter, Veronique Rogier Zoltan.

“He will be pleased. For him at this time it would really help a lot,” she said. “I think it’s long overdue.”

Rogier had just joined the French underground when he was arrested by the Gestapo, said his son-in-law, Peter Zoltan.

“The bottom line is it’s a welcome development,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles. “It’s also important historically because of the [ongoing] Holocaust denial.”

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Before the agreement was reached, Cooper said, SNCF invited two sets of historians to look at the company’s history and to document how its trains were used.

“Instead of trying to sweep what they did under the rug,” he said, “this huge company in France [insisted on] historic transparency about what took place.”

Francine Cohen said that while the war raged, she was hidden under a non-Jewish name with a French family who abused her.

After the war, she was placed in a French orphanage for Jewish children. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1958 when she was 19.

She plans to apply for the reparations.

“I don’t care if I get something or not,” she said. “I just feel that the French should pay for what they did to the Jewish people.”

tim.phelps@latimes.com

martha.groves@latimes.com

Phelps reported from Washington and Groves from Los Angeles.

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