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.