The overture to seven years on the run How Kristallnacht changed the life of Leo Bretholz

November 08, 1998|By Michael Olesker

SIXTY YEARS AGO this week, as the fires of Kristallnacht scorched the skies over Germany, Leo Bretholz was a 17-year-old boy packed with six other desperate people into a rickety Peugeot racing across Europe to escape the destiny awaiting millions of Jews.

It was the overture to a miraculous seven-year journey for Bretholz, which started only days earlier, in Vienna, when his mother insisted that he run for his life. Roundups had long since begun. The rule of the mob had commenced.

Leaving behind his mother and his two young sisters, none of whom could have made such an escape, and none of whom would survive the war, Bretholz had already swum a torrential River Sauer, fully clothed on a chilled autumn night, and made his way into Luxembourg, where he was arrested but found haven and a second chance at escape with an underground organization known as the Ezra Committee.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, he sat in this little Peugeot heading for the temporary safety of Belgium, along with a driver named Becker, a plump woman with clacking dentures, a terrified teen-age girl, a man in eyeglasses and two other women, and headed through the Ardennes Forest, nearing the Bastogne region, never imagining the bloody fighting to come to that land six years later - and never conceiving of a place called Baltimore, where he would arrive after surviving the war years.

After a while on that long-ago night, the Ardennes vanished and the land seemed to open up. The sky was starry. Bretholz remembers staring straight ahead when the man with the eyeglasses, sitting behind him, cried in startled Yiddish, "Look, look to the right. Can you see what I'm seeing?"

The driver Becker slowed his car and then stopped it. It was long past midnight, and the road was deserted. In the farthest distance to the east, they could see odd flashes of color against a dark horizon, as though the sky were being smudged by some invisible giant hand.

It was the unleashing of Adolf Hitler's long night of barbarism, a moment that had merely been waiting for an excuse to happen.

Days earlier, the Gestapo rounded up 18,000 Polish Jews living in Germany and took them by special train to the Polish border. But they were denied entrance into Poland. Some were forced across the border illegally by the Nazis. About 5,000 were forced to a primitive camp in a tiny Polish frontier village, Zbazsyn.

Among them was a man named Grynszpan, who managed to get word to his son, a 17-year old student named Herschel who was living in Paris and was so enraged at the news that he went to the German Embassy there, intending to kill the ambassador. Instead, he shot a third secretary of the embassy, Ernst vom Rath.

'Action against Jews'

It was Nov. 7. Vom Rath would die two days later, his death mourned at a hero's burial service attended by Hitler that same evening. At 11:55 that night, a message was issued from Gestapo headquarters in Berlin to all officers:

"At very short notice, action against Jews, especially at their synagogues, will take place throughout the whole of Germany. I Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about twenty to thirty thousand Jews in the Reich."

As the little Peugeot paused on the road to Belgium, what its passengers saw reflected was the horrific response to that message: the fiery destruction of hundreds of synagogues, of thousands of stores and businesses, and the parading of thousands of beaten Jews before howling mobs.

The Germans called it retaliation for the killing of vom Rath. But it was also the night they implicitly set a policy for the Jews, and for the whole world: You kill one of ours, we kill many of yours. Don't even try to strike back.

In Brussels the next morning, Leo Bretholz learned of the night's destruction and tried to understand its dimensions. It was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, who placed the word "Kristallnacht" into the world's vocabulary. Goebbels meant it as a boast, a description of the glitter and the festive mood caused by billions of pieces of shattered glass from ruined synagogues burning through the night.

The 17-year-old Bretholz's thoughts went directly to his family. His mother and his two sisters were in Austria, which had been taken over by Germany eight months earlier. Had they been paraded through the streets? Had his own synagogue been one of the hundreds turned to rubble?

It would take the rest of the war to learn the depressing answers to these questions, a war Bretholz survived through a series of remarkable escapes from the Germans, and from those Vichy French who served as German lackeys - escapes aided not only by other Jews but by Franciscan monks, parish priests and a nun named Sister Joan of Arc.

Now 77 and retired from a career managing bookstores in the Baltimore area, Bretholz has spent the last half-century asking himself another, eternal question:Why me?

Why did he survive to come to America after the war when so many in his family did not?

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