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US begins paying reparations from France to Holocaust survivors, heirs

WASHINGTON — The State Department has paid or approved 90 claims for a total $11 million in reparations from France to former World War II prisoners who were carried to Nazi death camps in French trains — the first French reparations paid to Holocaust survivors living in the United States, officials said Thursday.

The payments apply to Holocaust survivors who were deported from France to concentration camps on stifling trains operated by the state-owned French railway, SNCF, or, if the survivors have died, to their spouses or heirs. It is the first French compensation to Holocaust survivors who settled in the United States as well as Israel, Canada and other countries that haven’t had a reparations agreement with France.

It’s also the first World War II reparations program to include heirs considered to be “standing in the shoes” of people who died before receiving compensation for the atrocities they or their spouses endured, State Department officials said.

“In many ways, this is belated justice for the worst crimes in history,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s special adviser for Holocaust issues. “But it also underscores a long relationship with France.”

SNCF was paid to transport 76,000 Jews and other prisoners, usually with no food and only a bucket for a toilet, to Nazi camps. All but about 2,000 were killed.

While the French government has paid more than $6 billion in Holocaust reparations since 1948, including to deportees, those payments previously covered only French citizens and those of four countries that had bilateral agreements with France.

More than 700 claims have been filed under a 2014 agreement between the United States and France in which the French government pledged a total $60 million for the deportations carried out by SNCF, officials said. In exchange, the U.S. government agreed to ask courts to dismiss any U.S. lawsuits against SNCF or the French government.

U.S. Jewish groups and aging Holocaust survivors have pushed for French reparations since at least 2000, both through class-action lawsuits and state and federal legislation. However, their cause gained political traction in 2010, when survivors began protesting SNCF and a company in which it holds a majority stake, Paris-based Keolis, as they pursued state and federal rail projects. Survivors said SNCF and Keolis shouldn’t be awarded U.S. contracts supported by their tax dollars until they had been compensated.

So far, Eizenstat said, 29 Holocaust deportees have received $204,000 each, while 11 spouses of those who died in Nazi concentration camps or before 1948 are receiving $51,000 each. A spouse of a Holocaust victim who died in or after 1948 - the start of France’s own Holocaust reparations fund for French citizens - will receive $750 for each year that they have outlived the deportee.

Because so many Holocaust survivors and their spouses have already died, Eizenstat said, most of the claims received in the first round between November 2015 and May came from heirs.

An estate will receive what the deportee and their surviving spouse would have been eligible for, Eizenstat said.

“We made the argument [to the French government] that they were standing in the shoes of people who would have been eligible” before they died, he said.

The amount of the payments was determined based on how many people the U.S. government estimated would be eligible for the $60 million, officials said.

SNCF officials have apologized to Holocaust victims but have said the railway was forced to transport them after Nazi Germany occupied France and took control of the railroads in 1940.

Pressure on French officials increased after U.S. Holocaust survivors and their families began protesting SNCF’s pursuit of high-speed rail projects in California and Florida. Keolis, the company majority-owned by SNCF, operates Virginia Railway Express commuter trains in Northern Virginia and the commuter rail line in Boston.

Eizenstat said a team of nine State Department staffers is reviewing an additional 600 or so claims and on Thursday opened a second round of applications due Jan. 20. He said a “handful” of claims were deemed ineligible, such as those on behalf of French nationals or Holocaust victims who were imprisoned in France but weren’t deported on SNCF trains.

If the second and perhaps a third round of applications doesn’t use up the $60 million that the French government paid to the United States in November, those who have already received payments would receive more, he said. All of the $60 million, as well as interest accrued on the fund, will be paid out, Eizenstat said, noting that the State Department has waived “quite considerable” administrative costs.

Eizenstat said payments have been made to Americans and Israelis, as well as non-Jewish Canadian and American airmen who were deported after being caught behind enemy lines.

While the U.S.-French settlement was intended to prevent future lawsuits, three Holocaust survivors filed a class-action federal lawsuit against SNCF in 2015 seeking reparations for people they say were left out of the bilateral agreement. The lawsuit is pending as a judge in Chicago considers SNCF’s motion to dismiss the case. The U.S. government has supported SNCF’s motion.

Harriet Tamen, a New York lawyer representing what she says are more than 1,000 international Holocaust survivors and their families in the lawsuit, said the agreement provided no reparations for people who lost both parents in Nazi camps. Others aren’t eligible, she said, because their parents weren’t married when one of them was killed.

“We have clients who lost both parents, their brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, and they get nothing,” Tamen said Thursday. “This isn’t justice.”

Other clients, she said, have been unable to provide what she said is unreasonable documentation that the State Department is requiring as part of the application, including 1930s-era marriage licenses from Europe or proof of being an heir to a parent who died without a will.

State Department officials said no claims have been rejected for lack of documentation. They said State Department reviewers are allowing claimants to use other records to “bolster” their case, including synagogue records, tax documents and Social Security records.

“We’re caretakers of this program,” said Lisa Grosh, the State Department’s legal adviser on the agreement. “We need to make sure the money is going to the appropriate people.”

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