Jumping Off the Deportation Train

Der Standard (11/5-6/05)
by Andreas Feiertag

Leo Bretholz is one of the very few who survived the Holocaust by jumping from a deportation train bound for Auschwitz. He has recaptured some historically significant memories in a book which he presented in Vienna.

Coming to terms with the research compiled on the Holocaust during World War II would hardly be possible were it not for the scrupulously detailed recording of the Nazis and their deeds. Deportation lists compiled by the executioners themselves are historical documents, which helped to at least quantify the Holocaust.

One of them reveals the following: Exactly sixty-three years ago today on November 6, 1942, a German freight train, Nr. 42, departed from the French internment camp in Drancy. Of the one thousand Jews crowded together in cattle cars, seven hundred seventy-three were gassed upon arrival in Auschwitz or had died on the way. One hundred forty-five men and eighty-two women were used as slave laborers; only four men survived. The Nazis garnished these gruelling numbers of those who were brought to their death with personal data. One small example: Marthe Breitenfeld, Bienfeld, Germany; Leo Bretholz, Vienna, Austria; Abram Bronoff, Novogoriek, Russia.

This list is not quite accurate, says Leo Bretholz during a conversation with The Standard. Born a Jew in Vienna in 1921, he had survived. He belongs to the very few witnesses living today that escaped death by jumping out of the moving deportation train. A leap into another life-threatening uncertainty: His flight from the Nazis forced him to be on the run for years crisscrossing Europe. It was not until 1947 that he landed in the U.S. He lives in Baltimore.

Currently, however, he is visiting Vienna. On Monday he presented his book, Leap into Darkness* - with touching memories in such clear language, evoking painful and gruesome pictures in the reader’s imagination of the past. This book takes its place among the lists of works written by present-day witnesses representing the necessary supplement to historical research and, in so doing, giving the Holocaust a human quality.

Leo Bretholz wishes to have his book viewed as a teaching tool for history instructors as well as for students of history. The author sees himself merely as a footnote in a tragic story. Much like the belief of the American historian, Gordon Alexander Craig, who died this week, what’s important to him is allowing the actors to take precedence over the circumstances; to show people the tormented as well as the tormentor. Both must not be forgotten, and if memory died with the victim, they would be brought to death a second time.

Leo Bretholz offers names and identities. He describes the luck he found in a nurse in France, or in a Catholic nun; he expresses the pain of a mother whose little child was shot by an SS soldier out of boredom; he sketches the doubts shared by many in the camp as well as on the train and the many years of his flight. In 1938, he was sent away by his mother in Vienna, for he should survive. He never saw his mother or sisters again.

Apart from memories of the past, Bretholz hopes to have written a warning for the future: "Hitler is dead, but his thoughts live on," he says and points to the statements against Israel made by the Iranian president, to the plundered Israeli cemeteries and to the swastikas smeared on synagogues.

He also wants to visit the Jewish synagogue in Vienna, not so much out of religious belief since he lost it with time: - when the synagogues were going up in flames, God must have burned inside along with them but more out of memory of the pogrom during the night of November 9-10, 1938, the so-called Reichskristallnacht, which will be commemorated during the coming weeks in Austria.

It was not until 1963 that Leo Bretholz, who ran a bookstore in Baltimore and wrote essays for newspapers, was able to speak about his experiences. It was then that the long journey of coming to terms with the past began. Now he has reached a point whereby he can bear his historical memories to the outside world free of resentment and hatred.

Bretholz, Leo; Olesker, Michael. Leap into Darkness. Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe; Anchor Publ.; 1999; 288 pgs.; ISBN: 0-385-49705-9; $13.95.
Leo Bretholz (mit Michael Olesker) Flucht in die Dunkelheit. Mit einem Vorwort von Doron Rabinovici. Wien 2005 (Löcker). 265 S., € 24,80.