CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge ruled that descendants of Holocaust victims accusing France’s national railway of looting property from tens of thousands of Jews bound for concentration camps must bring their case before a French commission before suing in U.S. court.
Three heirs to Holocaust victims filed a federal class action in April 2015 against the state-owned railway company Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, or SNCF, alleging it confiscated property and belongings from Jews and “undesirables” before they were herded like cattle by Nazis into train cars and transported to the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps.
Seventy-five thousand Jews were taken from France to the camps and only 3 percent survived.
In addition to charging the Nazis for third-class travel after they had shoved victims into cattle cars, SNCF allegedly stripped the victims of cash, gold, jewelry, art, musical instruments and clothes.
“Thus was a mutually beneficial relationship established between SNCF and the Nazis. The Nazis received the human fodder for their Final Solution, as well as the victims’ property, all through the collaboration of SNCF,” the complaint stated.
The lawsuit claimed the railway received money from the property and belongings or gave it to the Nazis in exchange for goodwill. To this day, the rail company still holds some of the property it looted, or its proceeds, according to the heirs’ complaint.
Lead plaintiff and Chicagoan Karen Scalin’s grandparents died in Auschwitz. She was joined in the class action by French residents Josiane Piqaurd and Roland Cherrier, who also lost relatives at the concentration camps.
They argued that American courts were the best place to litigate their claims instead of France, where their only option is a commission that was created in 1999 to compensate victims whose property had been confiscated during the Nazi occupation.
The plaintiffs said that the French courts were closed to their claims and slammed the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliations, or CIVS. They argued there are limits on the commission’s remedies and it does not compensate victims for property SNCF had confiscated.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood sided with the French national railway and granted its motion to dismiss the case on procedural grounds, finding that the heirs have not shown they had exhausted all their remedies in France.
Wood noted in her 24-page ruling that CIVS Chairman Michel Jeannoutot had contradicted the heirs’ assertions, stating in a court declaration that the commission could hear their claims and recommend compensation.
While the commission had not yet awarded compensation in claims against SNCF, that did not mean it would disregard their claims, Wood wrote.
“That claims against SNCF may be novel does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that they are ineligible for compensation,” the judge wrote. “And the fact that others have not submitted similar claims does not excuse plaintiffs from having to exhaust available domestic remedies themselves.”
Wood said there is no guarantee that the plaintiffs would fare any better in a U.S. courtroom, and that it could take just as long to resolve their claims here.
The outcome might be more favorable in France where the commission would not bar the family members’ claims as untimely, she noted.
“CIVS may not be perfect, but that does rise to a legally compelling reason for plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust its remedies,” the judge wrote, dismissing the case without prejudice.