PARIS - Sonia Jeruchim heard that "something big" was about to happen to the French Jewish community in July 1942. Her husband, a watchmaker, dismissed the rumors as
- Yiddish for "grandma tales."
But within days, the French police rounded up about 13,000 Jews for deportation to German death camps. And Jeruchim found herself sobbing in the home of a sympathetic Christian family, pleading that they arrange safe passage for her three children.
"I remember she said: 'If anything happens to me, please see my children get an education,' " recalled Simon Jeruchim, 77, a retired package designer from Pomona, N.Y., who was 12 at the time.
Within hours, the children were whisked away to safety in rural Normandy. But their parents were soon arrested and forced onto a French train. Final destination: Auschwitz.
"It makes me so angry," said Simon's younger brother, Michel Jeruchim, 69, of Paoli, who was 5 when he last saw his mother. "The pain of my parents' loss is a wound that never heals."
The Jeruchims are among more than 100 Americans who have joined a groundbreaking legal action in Paris against the French state-owned railway, Societé Nationale des Chemins de Fer, which shipped thousands of Jews to transit hubs on their way to liquidation. It is the same railway that now carries French commuters to their jobs. About 76,000 Jews in France were transported to German death camps; only 2,500 survived.
Last summer, in the first ruling of its kind in France against the state and a government agency, an administrative tribunal in Toulouse fined the railway and the republic $80,000 for their role in deporting a Jewish family. The railway is appealing.
French attorneys are preparing the first wave of more than 200 new legal complaints, half from survivors living in the United States, or their families, which could begin to be heard as early as next month. Since France has no tradition of class-action suits, the cases must be examined individually. Hundreds of other demands for compensation have been filed directly with the railroad.
Winning reparations has been a slog for survivors. In 2001, French banks reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with Holocaust victims. But other cases have languished.
"This is a critical issue for the French - and the world," said Corinne Hershkovitch, one of the Paris attorneys filing the new suits. "It's not only an issue of money, but one of responsibility. What role did the SNCF play in this crime?"
Like the Jeruchims, Gunther Kirchheimer of Huntingdon Valley escaped the war with his life, but lost his parents. A rescue group managed to free him from a transit camp near Marseilles during the war.
"My mother was hysterical when I left," Kirchheimer, 74, a retired building maintenance worker, recalled. "I told her: 'Mama, I'll see you soon.' We never had a chance to say goodbye. That's something I live with every day."
Two weeks later, Kirchheimers' parents were forced onto a French train to join a group of about 900 Jews who were gassed the day they arrived at Auschwitz. Kirchheimer said he joined the lawsuits because "I think we're owed something. "We were robbed of our parents. We were robbed of our childhoods."
The path for the lawsuits was cleared with the ruling in June against the railway concerning relatives of European Parliament member Alain Lipietz, who were shipped to a temporary detention camp north of Paris, but were eventually freed by the Allies.
The judges ruled that the railway failed to protest the transports and moved family members in a manner "incompatible with human dignity," without food, water or "minimal hygienic conditions." The relatives were transported as deportees typically were then: crammed and locked into a cattle or freight car. Yet passengers were billed at third-class rates, and the railway charged the French government for those costs even after the liberation.
The latest lawsuits are controversial in the French Jewish community. Some - along with railway officials - argue that the agency had no choice but to follow the orders of the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy government.
Paris attorney Arno Klarsfeld, son of famed French Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, wrote in the newspaper Le Monde that the deportations were an "authoritative act of state from which the SNCF could not shrink." He is representing the railway against Jews in a related class-action suit in New York seeking restitution for seized property.
"It's very strange for us, this aggressive reaction, especially from the Jewish community here," said Hershkovitch, the attorney. "Some talk about a backlash against the Jews. I think that comes because of a fear of anti-Semitism in France."
A similar case against the French railroad was filed several years ago in New York, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the French railway was protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which restricts lawsuits against countries and their agencies. Ironically, the railway does not enjoy the same protection in France. The U.S. law does allow certain exceptions, including lawsuits that seek restitution for stolen property.
"That means you can sue in a U.S. court if your mother had her handbag taken when she was forced on the train in France, but not if she lost her life at Auschwitz," said Harriet Tamen, an attorney who is representing about 500 clients in the class-action suit in New York against the railroad seeking restitution for seized property.
In several cases, French police or railroad workers robbed Jews as they loaded them onto the trains.
"They herded us on a car they used for animals, and took everything but the clothes on our back," recalled Abe Dresdner, 78, of Brooklyn, whose family of 11 later escaped and survived the war. The retired salesman has also joined the latest legal action.
Still, the time for restitution and reparation is running out for Holocaust survivors, who continue to grapple with powerful emotions in the long wake of their loss.
"Some people are very angry about what happened," said Simon Jeruchim, who has written a book about his wartime experiences, Hidden in France: A Boy's Journey Under the Nazi Occupation. "I feel profoundly sad. This kind of thing is never going to stop. The biggest tragedy is that the world didn't learn anything."
His brother, Michel, a telecommunications consultant with Lockheed Martin in King of Prussia, agrees.
"People are predisposed to think this is about money," he said. "It's about justice, and, for me, a sense of retribution. I personally am not above revenge. Of course, the Nazis were the murderers, but the SNCF were the eager accomplices.