ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Thursday signed into law a first-of-its-kind measure that will require the French rail company SNCF to disclose its role in transporting Holocaust victims to Nazi concentration camps if the company seeks a contract to provide train service in the state.
O'Malley described the measure, which will take effect June 1, as "an example of thinking globally and acting locally."
"We hope this legislation can become a national model sooner rather than later so that Holocaust survivors who are still with us can know that the atrocities inflicted upon their families and their people will remain in our minds, will never be forgotten and will never be repeated," O'Malley, a Democrat, said at a bill-signing ceremony.
Leo Bretholz, a 90-year-old Pikesville resident who escaped from a SNCF train in 1942 by prying apart the windows of a cattle car, praised the measure.
"It's a beginning," said Bretholz, who championed the legislation. "The other states will probably take note and perhaps do the same thing."
Maryland is the first state to pass such a law, which would require the company to provide complete records of its role in the Holocaust and post then online.
"We need contrition," Bretholz said during a meeting with O'Malley at which he showed the governor a book that included the names of about 76,000 people transported by the railway during the Holocaust, including his own. "We need statements. We need the truth."
Keolis Rail Services America, a majority of which is owned by SNCF, a French government subsidiary, has sought a contract to be a third-party provider to operate the MARC train's Camden and New Brunswick lines. The state's transportation department withdrew an initial request-for-proposal in the hopes of generating additional competition, said department spokesman Jack Cahalan. Keolis won a contract last year to run Virginia's commuter rail line.
A phone call to the Rockville-based company was not immediately returned. E-mails to SNCF officials were not immediately answered.
The railway acknowledges that SNCF's equipment and staff were used to transport 76,000 Jews to Germany. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.
SNCF has argued that it had no effective control over operations when France was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944. The company also has said the French government has made an apology and offered reparations, although survivors contend the company itself never made such amends.
In a statement last fall, SNCF Chairman Guillaume Pepy noted that France's president in 1995 recognized that nation's responsibility for the "criminal madness" of the period.
"As an arm of the French State, SNCF fully embraces these words and the sorrow they reflect for the victims, survivors, and their families who suffered as a result of our role during the war," Pepy said in the statement.
Pepy said the company continues to work to educate young people about what happened and reach out to Jewish community leaders in the U.S. "to reflect the full story of what happened in World War II." He said the company was trying to assist the remaining U.S. residents who may be entitled to reparations from the French government program.
Between 1941 and 1944, 3,000 wagons that had been designed to move cattle were used to transport Jews to Nazi death camps, according to a study by French historian Christian Bachelier that was ordered by SNCF in 1996. The study points out that there were acts of resistance, but mostly by workers and not SNCF officials.
The railway's bid to win high-speed rail contracts in California and Florida angered some U.S. Jews last year; they opposed giving a contract to a company with a role in the deportations.
Last year, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have required companies seeking high-speed rail contracts with California to disclose any role they played during the Holocaust. While the company agreed to voluntarily comply with the measure, the California lawmaker who introduced the bill wrote in a February letter to a company official that SNCF did not appear to be moving in that direction.