Florida's Holocaust survivors win battle against French railroad

A French railroad that helped shuttle thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi Germany will have no part of teaching Florida’s children about the Holocaust, the state education commissioner has decided.

SNCF America, the U.S. subsidiary of the French National Railroad, had agreed to pay $80,000 to the state for a program focusing on France’s role in the Holocaust. But Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson told an SNCF administrator in a letter last week he was terminating its partnership after “thoughtful consideration of numerous concerns raised.”

It was a victory for the state’s Holocaust survivors, who fought a passionate battle against the railroad, which transported about 76,000 Jews during World War II. The survivors said the company hasn’t taken full responsibility for its role in the Holocaust and should have no part in the state’s Holocaust education efforts.

Their fight received support from Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio as well as 11 U.S. House members. In September, they wrote a joint letter to Robinson criticizing the department’s involvement with SNCF.

“We are told again and again that all it takes for evil to succeed is for people to do nothing,” said Rita G. Hofrichter, 84, of Sunny Isles Beach, who lost her parents and other relatives in the Holocaust. “We have done something, and I’m very proud of that effort.”

The survivors said SNCF hasn’t paid reparations to victims, and they saw SNCF’s donation as a public relations ploy in its efforts to secure billions of dollars worth of U.S. rail contracts.

“They want to whitewash history. I just don’t feel this is a company that should teach about the Holocaust in our Florida schools,” said Rosette Goldstein, 73, of Boca Raton, whose father was forced onto on an SNCF train and ultimately killed. “Until SNCF comes out and apologizes and pays reparations for what they did, I think they should not be allowed to do any work here in the U.S.”

SNCF issued a statement of regret last year about the Holocaust, adding the trains were commandeered by the Nazis. The company also said it’s part of the French government, which has reparations programs, and that it wanted to support the Florida program as part of its commitment to education.

“We believe that while history cannot be unlived, it need not be repeated. The best way to accomplish this objective is through the education of future generations,” SNCF America spokesman Jerry Ray said.

Ray said the curriculum was being drafted by the Shoah Memorial of Paris, a Holocaust museum and documentation center. SNCF’s only role was paying for the program, he said.

“It is important, in France and in Florida, that the teaching of the history of the Holocaust be held to the highest standards of scholarship and accuracy,” he said.

In his letter, Robinson said the Holocaust education program is committed to teaching “tolerance and good citizenship,” and he left the door open for possible future collaborations with SNCF.

“While we are declining to continue our partnership at this time, we sincerely hope that, in the future, different circumstances will enable partnerships such as this one to succeed,” Robinson wrote.

Ray said SNCF also hopes to work with the education department in the future

State law requires public schools to teach students about the Holocaust. Students read materials in class, watch videos and listen to speakers who share lessons from the era.

SNCF became involved with Florida last year when it sought to bid on a planned $2.6 billion, high-speed rail project. During that time, it proposed the Holocaust education sponsorship and agreed to continue its support after Gov. Rick Scott killed the train proposal.

Linda Medvin, a Broward school district employee who chairs the state’s Holocaust Education Task Force, supported SNCF. She had traveled at the company’s expense to Paris, visited the Shoah Memorial and learned about the railroad’s Holocaust education efforts.

But other members of the task force, including several Holocaust survivors, said the agreement was made without proper discussion, and they only learned about it after it had been signed. These opponents sent letters and emails to lawmakers and Department of Education officials in hopes of reversing the decision.

Medvin couldn’t be reached for comment, despite calls to her work and home.

Goldstein said it’s tough for average people to take on giant companies such as SNCF, but she’s not surprised she and others prevailed.

“This is the United States of America. I came here as a young girl, and this country opened up its arms,” she said. “My home country of France failed me. But here in America, I had the chance to fight this, and we have people who represent us and listen to us. This is wonderful. It’s democracy in action.”