Historian Sarah Federman Tracks French National Railway's Role in Holocaust TransportHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, French history, SNCF
Even over a Zoom call, one gets the distinct sense that Sarah Federman has a difficult time discussing some of the details of her new book. As if the title wasn’t indicative enough, “Last Train to Auschwitz” is a particularly serious book that covers a particular aspect of the Holocaust through the lens of corporate accountability. So it’s understandable why the author, even while she’s an accomplished public speaker, still finds some parts to be difficult to discuss.
“I’m so changed from it that I don’t even know who I was before,” Federman says. “It kind of helped me. In going through the process, it helped me understand the world in which I find myself.”
Nearly a decade in the making, “Last Train to Auschwitz” examines the French National Railways’ (SNCF) role — as perpetrator, as victim and as hero — during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Exhaustively researched and fluidly written, the book takes a hard look at these varying roles the SNCF played during the conflict. Its subtitle (“The French National Railways and the Journey to Accountability”) is illustrative of this fact. That is, just as the SNCF helped many people to escape Nazi terror, they were also complicit in transporting many to Nazi death camps.
Having conducted hundreds of interviews, some with Holocaust survivors, as well as scouring thousands of pages of documents and records, it’s no wonder Federman feels as if she’s forever changed. The real challenge for her, however, came in writing something that could be both historically nuanced, and, perhaps more importantly, written in a way that could be accessible to the average reader.
“The book is a hybrid. I wanted it to be useful for lawyers and historians, but I wanted it to have heart,” says Federman, who recently moved to San Diego and is an associate professor of conflict resolution at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. “So instead of writing two books, I wrote one. So each chapter is the facts and then following the end of it, I cover the people. So you’re following the people and the facts from the ‘30s to today.”
Federman’s own journey in writing the book is almost equally interesting. Originally from New England, the self-described “accidental academic” was working at her family’s advertising agency before starting on the journey that would lead to “Last Train to Auschwitz.” One gets the sense that while she spent over a decade in the business, making a sizable income and working with companies such as Google, Bloomberg and the National Football League, she still hadn’t yet found her true calling.
She says she found that when her company transferred her to Paris. Once there, she was directly exposed to the impact of the World Wars. She admits early in “Last Train” that, even as a Jewish woman, the Holocaust “never captured much of my attention.” Once in Europe, however, she found herself visiting the trenches of World War I and the death camps of the World War II, and, in a way, finding herself along the way.
“It didn’t affect my friends in the same way, but I just sort of had these moments, these breaking points,” Federman recalls of visiting the various war memorials and landmarks. “I was like, all right, this is insane. I can’t spend my life helping people drink Diet Coke.”
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