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$60M Holocaust Reparation Signed

Washington DC Legal DC

This week, the French government signed an agreement acknowledging the role of its national rail company, SNCF, in deporting 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The settlement will provide a $60M fund for survivors and their families. Yesterday, we spoke with Rafi Prober, who led Akin Gump's pro bono representation of 650 Holocaust survivors.

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The agreement is the culmination of 14 years of work to hold SNCF accountable. Akin Gump chair Kim Koopersmith and congressional investigations head Steve Ross brought in the pro bono matter in 2006 when contacted by plaintiff's attorney Harriet Tamen, who started the effort with a lawsuit against SNCF in 2000. Rafi, a congressional investigations partner, tells us more than 50 lawyers and lobbyists at the firm have contributed 5,000 billable hours. The Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, SNCF, was paid per head per kilometer to transport Jews and US and Canadian airmen to death camps such as Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Of the 76,000 individuals, less than 3% survived.

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Leo Bretholz was one of those who survived--he pried open the bars on a train car and jumped out as it was headed for Auschwitz--and became the face of the efforts for reparations. Rafi pointed out Leo's name in a thick book that documents each person in the 86 convoys transported on SNCF trains. Leo passed away in March at age 93, two days before he was to testify before the Maryland General Assembly. He'd previously testified twice before Congress. "It's a bittersweet moment because Leo's not here," says Rafi. "He devoted so much of his life to telling the story. It was never about the money--he would have been most happy to see what the settlement signified and the admission of complicity."

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State Department Special Advisor on Holocaust Issues, Covington's Amb. Stuart Eizenstat (left) and his team "worked tirelessly for years" on negotiations with France, and this achievement wouldn't have been possible without their efforts, says Rafi. Akin Gump started working with the State Department more than two years ago, after lawsuits against SNCF had been dismissed on grounds of foreign sovereign immunity. The issue had gained momentum when SNCF and its majority-owned affiliate Keolis looked to bid on lucrative rail contracts in the US. Rafi tells us that the notion of a company coming to the US looking for taxpayer dollars from some of the very same taxpayers they'd deported to Auschwitz and to whom it hadn't paid reparations was untenable.  

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Here at the signing is some of the pro bono team, including Akin Gump's Tom Moyer; Rasky Baerlein|Prism's Liz Poston; Matt Berger, previously of Dezenhall Resources; Greenfield & Kress' Aaron Greenfield; Ambassador Eizenstat; Rafi; and Akin Gump's Francine Friedman. Multiple firms, politicians and nonprofits, such as Bet Tzedek Legal Services, also supported the effort. Akin Gump worked on federal legislative initiatives, litigation and appellate matters, and state-level legislation in CA, FL, NY and MD, including a bill signed by MD Gov. Martin O'Malley in '11 requiring SNCF to disclose its records from the Holocaust before bidding on a MARC rail contract. Keolis is bidding on the $6B Purple Line contract, expected to be announced this spring.

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Survivor Rosette Goldstein, who's represented by Akin Gump, attended the signing this week. She was hidden in France during the war, while her father was deported on an SNCF train toward his death at Buchenwald. The State Department has said thousands of people could be eligible for the settlement--either survivors, their spouses or heirs. Recovery for survivors could be in the six figures, and for spouses in the tens of thousands. The agreement will first be voted on by the French parliament.