Austrian filmmakers document Holocaust survivor's quest to pass on his story

Documentary to feature 89-year-old Leo Bretholz and students from around the Baltimore area

May 30, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Shanlei Cardwell could not fathom why so many people had wanted to kill the engaging old man standing before her.

Meredith O'Connell laughed at his jokes and wondered how he had the spirit to tell them after all he'd endured.

Both teenagers sensed that they'd be talking about Leo Bretholz for decades to come, that they would take on a small part of the quest that has driven him for almost 50 years. For all that time, Bretholz has crisscrossed the Baltimore area telling his harrowing tale of eluding capture and death as an Austrian Jew living in Europe through the Holocaust.

"[Fellow survivor] Elie Wiesel tells people, 'You are the witnesses to the witness,' " says the 89-year-old Bretholz, who still tells his story at least 40 times a year at schools, synagogues, churches and other gatherings. "All we can do is hope the students carry on."

Now, Bretholz's life as a witness and the powerful reactions he inspires in students such as Cardwell and O'Connell will be the subject of a documentary, "Wien-Baltimore," produced and directed by Johns Hopkins University media professor Bernadette Wegenstein and her friend, Lukas Stepanik.

Both filmmakers grew up in Austria haunted by the legacy of the Holocaust and fascinated by their country's reluctance to confront its role in the atrocity. With their documentary, they hope to capture not only the life of an Austrian survivor who has made it his life's mission to tell the story but to show how American students receive such unvarnished depictions of the genocide.

"We need individuals bearing witness, so we're able to see that none of us are all that far from a horror like this," Wegenstein says. "I hope we can make a contribution by showing how that happens here."

They have spent the past few months filming Bretholz's appearances and classes on the Holocaust at Pikesville, John Carroll and Northwestern among other area high schools. They plan to edit the footage this summer and complete the film late this year or early next.

'Beyond description'

Wegenstein joined the Hopkins faculty three years ago. Shortly after she and her family moved to Homeland, she asked a neighbor about Holocaust survivors in the area. There were more than 300, he told her, including a well-known Viennese fellow named Leo Bretholz.

Sufficiently intrigued, Wegenstein dove into Bretholz's book, "Leap into Darkness." She wept as she read, feeling his voice resounding in her head. So she phoned him and arranged a meeting.

"I met this man who was something beyond description," she recalls. "I immediately saw him as a great screen character."

Next, she called Stepanik, a Viennese director who had made several Holocaust films, to see if he agreed that Bretholz's story could be a fresh take on a subject that has been documented so thoroughly.

"There are so many films with survivors that are oral history," he told her. "You have to find something else."

The students' reception of his story was that something else, she decided. Stepanik was also intrigued by capturing the life of an old man who still works so hard to keep memories of the Holocaust fresh. They had the thrust of their movie.

Bretholz had always imagined that a film about his life would be a fictional depiction of him evading the Nazis. His late wife, Flo, told him to go forward with the documentary. She had also been the one who urged him to begin sharing his survivor's story in 1962.

"It's another effort to bring knowledge to the world so this doesn't happen again," says Bretholz, whose mother and two sisters were killed by the Nazis. "If you don't remember the victims, you kill them all over again."

His wife fell ill as the project moved forward, and she died last fall. "Right now, I'm preoccupied with loneliness," Bretholz says, his voice cracking. "I'm surrounded by four walls, but the heart and soul is gone."

As her health failed, Flo Bretholz insisted that her husband give all of his planned talks, many of which will be featured in the film. "I never enjoy it," he says of the talks. "It always strains me. It brings back memories. I'm doing it for the voices that were silenced. They had no choice."

Supporting players

Though Bretholz will be the main character of the documentary, Cardwell, a junior at Pikesville High, and O'Connell, a senior at John Carroll, will play strong supporting roles. The filmmakers became fascinated that a 16-year-old black from Pikesville and an 18-year-old who had been raised Catholic in Bel Air could feel such powerful connections to an 89-year-old Jew from Austria.

When O'Connell, who began contemplating conversion to Judaism after a fall religion course, first heard Bretholz, she cried at his plain-spoken descriptions of what he had survived and felt a strong urge "to be his friend."

She had read his story, wondering how a person moves on from such tragedy, and decided that for Bretholz, the answer was the love of his wife. Thus, she greeted him with condolences on her death.

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