It took them way too long to do it, and it happened in no small measure because of the tireless work of Stuart Eizenstat, who has been at this for years. But France finally agreed to make reparations to American, Israeli and Canadian survivors (and the families of survivors) who were transported on state-owned trains to Nazi death camps.
And the French decision wasn’t entirely voluntary, according to Eizenstat’s account. The French began paying reparations to French survivors soon after the war, and then to survivors in Belgium, Poland, Britain and Yugoslavia — not the United States. What finally did it was political pressure placed on California and Florida, among other states, not to do business with a subsidiary of the French state-owned railroad.
“Better late than never” may give them too much credit.
What is it with the French?
I understand that it is wrong to judge a country and its people by the actions of its government, but really, when it comes to the treatment of Jewish people, you have to ask the question. Seventy years after Jews were shipped out in inhumane conditions on those cattle cars, there are reports everywhere of Jews leaving Paris because they fear anti-Semitic violence. That’s today, mind you.
Go to Normandy, one of my French-loving friends always told me. She never added that we should go to Normandy any time of the year except January, which is when my son and I went. We hired a car to take us there. Our driver was an elderly gentleman, a retired businessman, but he morphed into a virulent anti-Semite and defender of Vichy France by the time we reached the outskirts of Paris. Who did he think we were if not Americans going to pay our respects to those who liberated his country?
It’s a long drive to Normandy from Paris. By the time we got there, we learned that thanks to the Vichy regime, French lives were saved. The driver’s father, a doctor in one of the nearby towns during the war, had treated the local boys. Any Americans? Any of the soldiers who survived the landing and marched or walked to Paris? No. Not any of them. No, indeed.
You don’t go to Normandy in January, I learned, because the weather is just terrible in January. A lot of the French memorials are closed; according to our driver, who insisted on driving to the closed sites, they really are the best. We asked that he proceed directly to the American museum and cemetery.
We escaped from the car, and all things French, into the pouring rain and entered a museum and cemetery that will break your heart and make you swell with pride to be an American. It tells the story of these children, 17 and 18 years old, screaming for their mothers as they pushed their way toward death and liberated France. The neat rows of crosses are dotted with Jewish stars. Families gather around tombstones in the pouring rain. There are maps to help you find loved ones. Flags are everywhere.
Our driver waited in the car. He’d seen it, he said. We drove home in silence, at our request.
So the French are finally paying up, 70 years later, because of political pressure in California and Florida. At least it worked. Stu Eizenstat is the hero who has devoted himself to seeking justice for Holocaust victims. France is just late.