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Posted Monday, January 4, 1999

 Plus ça change . . .

January 1 1999

 The French state railway is accused of collaborating in wartime deaths, writes Ben Macintyre in Paris

Son sues rail firm over Auschwitz

A JEWISH Frenchman whose parents were deported by train and murdered at Auschwitz in the Second World War is suing the state-owned French railway for "crimes against humanity".

French railworkers of the Societé Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) have been celebrated as Resistance fighters. But the lawsuit launched by Jean-Jacques Fraenkel, the first of its kind, has questioned that heroic image by claiming that the rail company collaborated in the deportations to Nazi death camps.

M Fraenkel is already suing the state for "receiving stolen goods" - valuables taken from his parents - but he has extended the suit to include SNCF, which was nationalised in 1938. He claims that his father, a surgeon and holder of the Légion d'honneur, and mother, who became a Resistance worker, were taken to the death camps in French trains and the state rail company "collaborated in the deportations without any individual or collective act of opposition".

M Fraenkel, 67, who also holds Canadian citizenship, acknowledges that individual railworkers performed acts of great heroism during the war, but he insists that the company did nothing to prevent the deportation of French Jews.

"There were, it is true, railworkers who were deported and shot, SNCF employees who resisted. But it should not be forgotten that there were hundreds of trains which transported Jews like so much freight to the concentration camps," M Fraenkel said. "It must be officially recognised that the SNCF was one of the tools used by the Nazis to exterminate 80,000 French Jews."

The judge examining M Fraenkel's claims against the state is also likely to take over the complaint against SNCF which could face an avalanche of similar claims from Holocaust victims. "The SNCF knew the intolerable conditions these people faced on the cattle trains," M Fraenkel said, pointing out that the company's bureaucrats organised the train convoys.

Roger Fraenkel, M Fraenkel's father, was among 743 wealthy Jews taken to Auschwitz in 1941, soon after the Nazi occupation of France.

His mother fled to Nice, but was betrayed and sent to Auschwitz in 1943, leaving M Fraenkel and his younger sister as orphans. The family apartment was looted under the anti-Jewish legislation.

"By operating trains of deported Jews using French staff, the SNCF took part, alongside the French administration and other private companies, in a crime against humanity," M Fraenkel alleges in a lawsuit which the Paris prosecutor's office confirmed was "unprecedented".

The French railworker or cheminot enjoys an almost mythical status. That is likely to be shattered if M Fraenkel proves that the company and its wartime staff played a role in one of the worst crimes in history.

Our opinion
 WHEN my parents died, over thirty years ago, I wept for days; months later, we learned that my mother had left us four children a small inheritance, of a few thousand pounds in investments. I was in a rage -- I did not want money, I wanted them back. To others, money swiftly repairs all sorrows.
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