SNCF & the Holocaust

The Deportations And The Victims

Between March 1942 and August 1944, SNCF transported 76,000 Jews and other “undesirables” through France to Nazi concentration camps. Included were U.S. and Canadian pilots who had been shot down over France; they were placed on SNCF trains and sent to Buchenwald and Auschwitz instead of prisoner-of-war camps. 

The train cars were packed as tightly as possible in order to maximize the number of passengers and therefore revenue. Employees forced all passengers, including young children and the elderly, to stand for the trip of several days’ duration, with no food, no drink, and no sanitary facilities – terrible and inhuman conditions.

Fewer than 3% of all those deported survived. One SNCF train left the French holding camp at Compiegne, France, on July 2, 1944, with 2166 passengers.  When it arrived at Dachau three days later, 536 people were already dead. SNCF employees cleaned the cars and disposed of the bodies of those who perished during transit.

In the United States, there are hundreds of known survivors and family members of those who perished. The number of survivors who can speak out against SNCF for its actions in the Holocaust grows smaller each day, and they have yet to receive any justice. SNCF has never made any sort of restitution or reparations to the victims it wronged and has never fully disclosed its role in the Holocaust.

Collaboration – Debunking the Coercion “Defense”

While coercion is never a defense, as the Nuremberg Principles make clear, SNCF’s claims that it was coerced into operating Holocaust deportation trains are belied by the facts and denied by historians.

Since the Holocaust, independent studies and tribunals have found that SNCF collaborated with the Nazis. The Bachelier Report, (PDF) commissioned by SNCF itself, found that in the first meeting with the Nazis concerning the deportations, it was agreed SNCF would retain control and responsibility for the deportations, including the technical conditions of the deportations. Indeed, SNCF complained when Red Cross workers tried to provide food and water to the victims because it slowed down the deportation schedules.

court determined SNCF was completely responsible, and its actions entailed its full and total liability.

The Government Commissioner in the Lipietz case, an independent fact finder, found that the Bachelier Report did not support SNCF’s assertion that it lacked all effective autonomy. He pointed out that SNCF did not hesitate to resist the demands of German authorities, albeit with varying success, when SNCF’s fundamental economic interests were at stake. By contrast, when it came to racial deportations, those transfers did not give rise to one single official protest.

The Commissioner further concluded that SNCF’s independence in the matter of the transports seemed perfectly clear, and that SNCF never even implied that it had been subject to coercion by either the Occupation Authorities or the French Ministry of the Interior.

The Court itself rendered its verdict against SNCF, confirming that SNCF had never set forth any objection or protest about the convoys. The Court pointed out that SNCF’s own agents had blocked the openings of the cars, made no provision for any water, food or minimal hygienic conditions and presented no evidence that it was under any duress whatsoever that might have excused its acts.

SNCF even submitted invoices for the deportations and pursued payment, (PDF) after the liberation of Paris (and after any conceivable coercion “defense” would have been nullified).

SNCF’s willing collaboration is particularly tragic because, according to an article by Jochen Guckes titled “le Role de chemins de fer dans la deportation des Juifs en France” (Revue d’histoire de la Shoah January – April 1999), SNCF’s refusal to cooperate, even by means of passive resistance, would have been a catastrophe for Germany.

The Myth of SNCF Resistance

As part of its PR campaign, SNCF claims its employees faced execution and torture for resisting orders. However, SNCF has provided no such evidence. The Bachelier Report, (PDF) confirmed that although some workers showed evidence of solidarity with the deportees, not one single protest against these transports ever came from SNCF itself. In fact, only one engineer refused to drive a deportation train. He did not face death. He did not even lose his job.

While SNCF employees who were members of the Resistance did face death or deportation, their acts of resistance were independent of SNCF and did not directly impact the deportation trains. No deportation train was ever sabotaged.