Voice lifted against `the haters'

History: A Holocaust survivor speaks to Carroll Community College students about his escape.

May 09, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Leo Bretholz was old enough to remember but is young enough to tell his tale: seven years of eluding the Holocaust in Europe, after his mother persuaded her teen-age son to leave his native Austria in 1938 after it was annexed by Nazi Germany.

And how he ran - jumping off trains and out of bathroom windows, wading swollen rivers, climbing mountains, fleeing incendiary bombs and crawling under prison walls - to avoid those who would kill him for being Jewish in the 1930s and '40s.

Some escapes were less physical, more psychological, as he used his knowledge of languages and people to fake his way out of confrontations with Nazis and their collaborators.

Bretholz survived - although he has a 1978 French record book that lists him among the victims of Auschwitz. He showed the book listing the victims of the concentration camp in Poland, his yellow felt star and other items to a crowd of more than 50 students and others at Carroll Community College last week.

"My name is here," he said, pointing to the telephone directory-size book, then to himself, but "I am here to tell the story.

"I am speaking of times that are years of depravity," said Bretholz, 83. He speaks dozens of times a year at venues large and small, from classrooms and book clubs that are on his agenda this month, to overflowing auditoriums around the country.

Adjunct instructor Thomas G. Hockstra, who teaches a history course on Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich at the Westminster college, watched Bretholz interact with the audience, then said those who experienced the horrors firsthand "won't be around that much longer."

Hockstra was teaching at Franklin High School when he met Bretholz, a retired textile worker and former Baltimore bookstore owner.

Bretholz was participating with a group of survivors who spoke at high schools and to other groups. He has appeared at the community college several times.

Bretholz's book, Leap into Darkness, takes its title from his November 1942 jump from a train into the dark French countryside, where 20 cattle cars were headed for Auschwitz.

He and another man worked loose the iron bars of a window with a urine-soaked sweater, urged by a woman with a crutch who told him: "Do it. ... If you survive, you will be able to tell the story."

Bretholz was 25 when he arrived in the United States in 1947, and it took almost 15 years to find his voice and take aim at "the haters." He writes letters and opinion articles for The Sun.

"At first I didn't speak too much," he said. His eyes glistened when he told the crowd how and why that changed: A letter from the Jewish Community Council of Vienna arrived to confirm the deaths of his mother and two sisters and was dated Oct. 26, 1962 - exactly 24 years after he saw them last. He recalled how his then-10-year- old sister Ditta, quarantined with scarlet fever, held a chalkboard to the hospital window to tell him, as he translated it, "Good luck. See you soon again."

So Bretholz began to speak as a way to honor them and to deny Hitler posthumous success at exterminating them - or him.

He began with a 1960s-era Baltimore multifaith group, Prejudice Anonymous. After he sold Downtown Books on Calvert Street, he said he yielded to the persistence of Sun columnist Michael Olesker, who helped to write the story of his flight from the Final Solution. The book was published in 1999 and is in its fourth printing.

In his book and talk, Bretholz vividly recalls the many acts of kindness to him by individuals, but his scorn resonates for Vichy France, the Catholic Church, Austrians who welcomed Hitler with music and flowers and the Swiss sergeant who turned him back after he had climbed the mountains to see Lake Geneva and what he thought would be a refuge.

"My story is a personal one," Bretholz said, but history demands that people remember and learn.

"I saw it from its very beginning," said Bretholz, who sneaked out to see Hitler parading in Vienna with flowers and church bells ringing, before he fled his native city and waded the rain-swollen Sauer River into Luxembourg. He lived in Belgium for a time, following news about the Nazis in several languages.

He was arrested in Belgium as an "enemy alien," despite his protests that he had run away from the Nazis. He was sent to a typhus-ridden prison camp where more than 100 died.

Bretholz took a deep breath before speaking of the French capitulation in June 1940 and the collaboration with the Nazis, contrasting it with the French Resistance, Christians who resisted the Nazis and the unarmed Jews who held out in the Warsaw ghetto.

"It's very easy to blame a victim," he said of the oft-asked question of why no one resisted. "If I had wanted to resist the Germans with a gun in my hand, I would have lasted exactly 10 seconds. ... I chose escape."

He was in the pipeline to go to America when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the emigrants were put on hold.

He worked as "Henry Lefevre" at a low level in the French Resistance, he said, providing phony documents in Limoges, where leaflets fell in June 1944 proclaiming the Allied landing. Four days later, about 900 men, women and children were burned in barns and churches in Oradour-sur-Glane - where he was headed to deliver false identity papers, he said.

Seeing Germans on the road, he "sensed something ominous," he wrote, so he hitchhiked away from the town - and the massacre.

For all those years, fear had been his fuel - sometimes prompting foolish acts, he admits. But he wants larger results from his gripping account: that it be a warning, "a guide to the future."

Now a grandfather of four, Bretholz told the students, "You have to stand up to the haters, before it gets established as a government. ... Haters are out there now."

Hockstra said that is why Bretholz, "as an 83-year-old man, he makes 60 or 70 presentations a year."

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