PARIS — A French court ruling has reopened the country's wartime record and revived a question that has shadowed it for years: Who should be held responsible for the mistreatment and deportation of French Jews during World War II?
An administrative tribunal in Toulouse, France, ruled last week that the state-owned railroad, the SNCF, was liable for its part in transporting some 76,000 Jews to transit centers in France and then on to Nazi concentration camps.
The railroad did nothing to stop the operation, the court found, and on its own initiative, chose to cram its passengers into cattle cars in "abominable" conditions with no food or water for trips that lasted days.
It was the first time a French court had condemned a government institution, rather than an individual, in connection with Holocaust crimes, and the case has aroused strong feelings in France.
Railroad workers and management have complained that it stains the railroad's reputation as a bastion of resistance to the German occupation.
"While some employees may have been collaborators," wrote SNCF president Louis Gallois in Le Figaro this week, "to go from individual guilt to collective guilt is to go too far toward a corruption of history."
The decision has met with a mixed response from Holocaust survivors and their families.
For many, the tribunal affirmed their own belief in the wider culpability of French society in the roundup of Jews and said publicly what it took French leaders 50 years to acknowledge.
"There were plenty of French people who acquiesced to the requirements of the Gestapo," wrote historian Maurice Rajsfus in an emotional essay in the newspaper Libération on Wednesday.
But at a time when many in the French Jewish community worry that anti- Semitism is spreading – just Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged French Jews to send their children to Israel – some say they worry that the case could cause a backlash against Jews.
Others argued that the case deflects blame from the high-ranking German and French officials who executed the Nazi program for eliminating the Jews.
Alain Lipietz, whose father and uncle brought the complaint against the SNCF based on their experience of being sent by train to a Nazi transit camp in 1944, calls the railroad's reaction "a perfect example of self-induced amnesia."
"No one required it to put deportees in cattle cars, without food or water," says Mr. Lipietz. "A state that wanted to express its solidarity with deportees, even a state under occupation, had a margin of maneuver to at least not participate in torture."
Similar arguments have been made in a class-action suit filed by Holocaust survivors in US District Court in Brooklyn that charges the SNCF systematically confiscated money and property from Jewish deportees. Harriet Tamer, one of the lawyers representing the survivors, says the ruling in the Lipietz case could help her clients' financial claims against the railroad and their request that the SNCF be found complicit in crimes against humanity.
"There were honorable people in the resistance but no deportation train was ever blown up," she says. "You have to accept responsibility. And sometimes accepting responsibility means reparations."
But others said the notion of collective responsibility was overextended in the SNCF case.
"If the SNCF is guilty, then the guy who drove the bus is guilty, the guy who provided the gas is guilty, the person who typed the lists is guilty," says Arno Klarsfeld, a Paris attorney who defended the record of the railroad.
"The danger is that if everyone is guilty, then no one's guilty, from the top of the chain to the bottom," he adds.
Mr. Klarsfeld's statements on behalf of the railway have received wide coverage in France because he is the son and law partner of France's most famous Nazi-hunters, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.
But Arno Klarsfeld, named after his father's father who died at Auschwitz, said his position on the SNCF was consistent with the work of his family in focusing on bringing to trial the Gestapo and Vichy officials who directly oversaw and executed the roundup and deportation of French Jews.
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged that France shared in the responsibility for crimes against the Jews, saying "The criminal folly of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state. Commissions for reparations to survivors and victims' families were set up.
But for decades, the question of whether postwar France bore any responsibility for wartime crimes was not even on any French government's agenda.
Instead a narrative was encouraged that portrayed the majority of French as either actively or secretly part of the Resistance and the minority were collaborators who had been executed just after the war.
The collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled in the southern part of France, while the Germans occupied the north, was considered an illegal entity. Subsequent French governments, then, could not be held accountable for what it had done.
Mr. Rajsfus, the historian, noted that in 1972, then French president Georges Pompidou called on the French nation to forget about the Vichy period, calling it a time "when the French didn't like one another."
"But how could I forget that on July 27, 1942, my father and my mother, were deportees in convoy No. 11, transported on French rolling stock, handed to the Gestapo by French state employees," he added.