Expect foreign companies galore to bid on major contracts for building components of California’s planned high speed rail system, the largest such project now planned anywhere in the world.
They will come from Germany and Japan and China, among others, because no American-based company now can provide all the elements needed to build the required locomotives and cars. Some, like the German-based Siemens AG (largely owned by American pension and mutual funds) already have plants in California.
One bidder will almost certainly be Alstom Group, a huge French-owned firm that built all the engines and coaches for France’s smooth-as-silk TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse – or high speed train) network. The current chief executive of California’s High Speed Rail Authority, Roelof van Ark, previously was president of one wing of that company, Alstom Transportation Inc.
This outfit has built rail cars for the government-owned French SCNF national rail system since 1928 and is itself about 20 percent government owned after receiving a recession-related bailout.
But as good as Alstom’s machinery is, and as strongly as Van Ark may be associated with the firm, it should not be getting a nickel’s worth of work from California or any other American state until the SCNF – its corporate sister and biggest customer – begins paying reparations for its role in the Holocaust.
The link between the SCNF and the slaughter of most French Jews during World War II? SCNF trains carried more than 76,000 deported French Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. More than 97 percent were murdered.
This was acknowledged in a sideways manner last winter, when SCNF president Guillaume Pepy told an audience in an old train yard near Paris that “In the name of the SCNF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported and before the suffering that still lives.”
Oddly, Pepy never mentioned Jews, who made up more than 90 percent of those sent to their deaths, strictly because of their very birth. His “apology” reminded some of a memorial plaque placed a few years ago near the entrance of the Gare du Nord (North Station) in Paris, which acknowledges that “From here, thousands of loyal Frenchmen were deported to their deaths.” No specific apology to Jews, neither there nor in Pepy’s words. That’s in keeping with the longstanding French government reluctance to acknowledge the country’s well-documented role in furthering the Holocaust.
Also,nary a word about reparations payments, the sincere form of apology Germany has been paying Holocaust survivors for many decades.
Instead, Pepy pretended SCNF was a victim. “The SCNF…was forced and requisitioned as a cog in the Nazi extermination machine,” he said. “We will never forget it.” What he did apparently forget was the fact that the SCNF was paid both by the person and by the kilometer for each deportee it hauled.
“That was blood money and they’ve never paid a penny of it back,” New York lawyer Harriet Taumen charges. She has filed a lawsuit seeking reparation payments for 600 Holocaust survivors who were forced onto SCNF trains at gunpoint.
It’s undeniably true that some SCNF employees were resistance fighters and tried to sabotage the deportations, among other efforts. These included 1,647 SCNF personnel who were executed. But the rail firm’s management cooperated fully.
There are many in California who believe the state’s high speed rail plan is ill-designed and bound to be extremely inefficient. It has major flaws, not least of which are parts of its planned route.
But the chances are that high speed rail will become reality, in part because of intense interest from top levels of the federal government. Vice President Joe Biden voiced that enthusiasm the other day, comparing current plans to the original blueprint for the Interstate highway system. “We expect 80 percent of Americans to have access to high speed rail within 25 years,” Biden said.
President Obama has put cash where Biden’s mouth is, earmarking about $4 billion for the earliest work in California, to be done in the Central Valley, with $2.4 billion more possible soon. Another $9 billion in state bonds is available.
It would be a moral mistake to let any tainted company, domestic or foreign, have part of that largesse before it acts to rectify past misdeeds.
Alstom’s longstanding tight links to SCNF make it such a company. No bid should be accepted from French rail firms until and unless they move to divest themselves of any profits from their ferrying innocents to their deaths by the scores of thousands.
That divestment should take the form of reparation payments to those whose lives were taken or scarred, or their heirs, in a manner much like what has been done since the 1950s by the German government and by companies that– like SCNF – profited from Nazi policies. Demanding anything less of Alstom and SCNF would simply be immoral.