`Persevere' is message of Holocaust survivor

Speaker: An author tells students how he escaped the Nazis and about the lessons he learned in war-torn Europe.

March 28, 2004|By Daniel C. Wilcock | Daniel C. Wilcock,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Nazi storm troopers marched into Austria in March 1938, Leo Bretholz was scarcely older than the 10th-graders at John Carroll School who gathered to listen to his story last week.

As a 17-year-old Jew, Bretholz watched as Adolf Hitler's motorcade flooded the streets of his native Vienna to cheers of "Heil Hitler!" As violence against Jews in his city grew, Bretholz fled and began a seven-year quest for survival across war-torn Europe.

"Try to walk next to me," the 83-year-old Bretholz told the students while standing in the center of a classroom. "What would you do, as a young man, if your mother says you must leave?"

FOR THE RECORD - The caption accompanying an article about Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz incorrectly described the woman shown in a photograph that Bretholz was holding. The woman is also improperly identified in the article. She is Sister Jeanne D'Arc, a hospital nurse who cared for Bretholz after a Red Cross worker found him ailing on a park bench and sent him for medical treatment.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Bretholz's answer was to run for his life, to run for freedom, to never succumb to the fear and hatred that surrounded him. It is a message that Bretholz hopes to instill in young people he encounters.

"Never give up," Bretholz said repeatedly.

Bretholz, who emigrated to Baltimore in 1947, has chronicled his escape from the Holocaust in the 1998 book Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe, co-written with Sun columnist Michael Olesker.

Bretholz fled into Luxembourg across a flooded river and found his way to Belgium and later France, at each step narrowly escaping capture and death.

Bretholz was arrested in France but by chance was allowed to use a restaurant bathroom and noticed an open window.

"You're still walking with me?" Bretholz asked, his eyes locking with a student's. "What does that window mean?"

"Get out," the student said.

"Get out," Bretholz repeated. "So I ran away."

His most daring escape occurred on a train nearing the German border.

Bretholz and a friend were trapped in a fetid cattle car headed for Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp where more than 1.2 million people, mostly Jews, were killed. Using urine-soaked sweaters, they loosened the metal window bars and jumped into the night air.

"My friend and I escaped, and that night we spent the night with a priest," he said.

The priest allowed them to bathe and then provided a bed with clean white sheets.

"A heaven," Bretholz said of sleeping on clean sheets after months of living in a filthy camp.

Priests and nuns frequently helped Bretholz as he ran between scattered outposts of family and friends.

Bretholz faults Europe's Christian hierarchy for looking the other way as Jews were persecuted during World War II, but he gives examples of people who helped him.

Bretholz tells his story to about 40 groups a year, many of them Catholic institutions such as John Carroll.

"While the institution did not help," he said, referring to the church, "individuals did."

One such individual was Sister Jean D'Arc, a French nun working for the Red Cross who nursed Bretholz to health after he collapsed in 1944 with a strangulated hernia.

D'Arc found Bretholz lying in anguish on a bench, took him to a hospital and promised to protect him despite his being Jewish.

Recounting these acts of kindness and bravery along with the horror of the Holocaust is essential, Bretholz said.

"I am a tiny footnote to all of this history," Bretholz writes in Leap into Darkness. "But such footnotes are the secrets which make the story real."

During his talk, Bretholz showed several items from his days of running. One was a yellow Star of David he was forced to wear in 1942. When he escaped from the train headed for Auschwitz, he tore the star from his lapel to conceal his Jewish identity.

He also displayed a book containing the names of Jews deported from France to concentration camps. In that book, Bretholz is listed among the dead.

"We have to remember the victims," he said to the students. "If we do not remember them, we kill them all over again."

Those who deny that the Holocaust occurred "have a real problem," Bretholz said.

"Like the certain father of a famous actor," he said, referring to publicized comments made by The Passion of the Christ director Mel Gibson's father playing down the extent of the Holocaust.

Bretholz stressed the need to avoid succumbing to hatred or futility.

"If I would have had a gun and tried to fight it out with the Nazis, how long would I have lasted?" he asked.

"Not that long," a student responded.

Behind Bretholz, red and gray construction-paper letters stapled to a bulletin board read, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

"You and you," Bretholz said, gesturing about the room. "And all of you are survivors."

The group of about 20 students, a 10th-grade Russian class, and several adults who listened to Bretholz applauded the talk, and several asked for book signatures.

"It's so important for these students to connect with someone who lived through this period of history," said Ed Miller, a teacher of Russian at John Carroll who arranged Bretholz's visit.

Miller vividly remembers his own brush with history. In 1938, his parents took him to the last reunion of soldiers at Gettysburg, Pa. There he met Dan Devine, one of the last remaining Union soldiers.

"I think we need people like that, who witnessed it," said Amy Perry, one of the students who listened to Bretholz. "How could you say to his face it didn't happen?"

"Even though this isn't happening today," said student Amanda Selvy, referring to the Holocaust, "it's happening in different ways through hatred.

"It starts with small statements of hatred and leads to bigger things."

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