Leo Bretholz: Holocaust survivor who made a daring escape from a train and later campaigned for reparations from French railway

Of the 1,000 people on his train, he said, only five survived the war

Leo Bretholz made a daring escape from the Nazis by jumping off a moving train en route to Auschwitz. Decades later he led a campaign for reparations from the French railway that carried thousands of others to their deaths.

Born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Bretholz became a leader among activists who have called for reparations from governments and companies in Europe that aided the Nazi regime in its execution of the Final Solution. The controversial issue of reparations has figured prominently in recent considerations of a planned light-rail system in Maryland, where Bretholz settled.

The SNCF, the French railway system that historians say carried 76,000 people to Nazi camps, is the majority owner of Keolis, one of the companies invited to bid on the multibillion-dollar project. Bretholz was scheduled to testify before the Maryland General Assembly’s House Ways and Means Committee on a bill that would prevent Keolis from winning the contract if the SNCF does not pay reparations to victims.

Bretholz had frequently recounted in speeches before lawmakers, schoolchildren and others his story of persecution and survival. He was born in 1921, to Polish immigrants in Vienna. His father, a tailor and amateur Yiddish actor, died when Bretholz was a boy. His mother supported their surviving children by doing embroidery. At his mother’s insistence, Bretholz fled Austria after it was annexed by Germany in 1938. He recounted travelling by rail to Trier, in western Germany, and then swimming across the Sauer River to Luxembourg. There he was met by refugee workers who smuggled him into Belgium.

After the Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, Bretholz was deported to France. He entered Switzerland in 1942 but was returned to France and ultimately to the Drancy transit camp north-east of Paris. From there, he and thousands of others were sent east, bound for the death camp at Auschwitz, in what is now Poland. Years later, in testimony before the US House Foreign Relations Committee, he recalled the conditions on the train.

“For the entire journey, SNCF provided what was one piece of triangle cheese, one stale piece of bread and no water,” he recalled. “There was hardly room to stand or sit or squat in the cattle car. There was one bucket for us to relieve ourselves. Within that cattle car, people were sitting and standing and praying and weeping, fighting.”

In a recorded interview preserved by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bretholz recalled his escape through a cattle car window on 6 November 1942. He and a friend removed articles of clothing, soaked the clothing in human waste from the bucket and repeatedly wrung out the moisture to increase the fabric’s strength. The two men then used the clothes to force open the bars.

“We kept twisting the wet sweaters tighter and tighter, like a tourniquet,” he told the House committee. “The human waste dripped down our arms. We kept going for hours, until finally there was just enough room for us to squeeze through. It was night. I went first, and Manfred helped me climb out the tiny window... He followed me, and we held on tight so as not to slip and fall beneath the train, and waited for it to take a curve and slow down. Then we jumped to our freedom.”

Bretholz lay in a ravine and then moved into a village, where he received aid from a priest. He said that the Resistance provided him with false identification documents. He worked with the Resistance, falsifying documents and scouting Germans, and later helped refugees in France after D-Day. Of 1,000 people on his train to Auschwitz, Bretholz said, only five survived the war. Many of his relatives also perished.

He moved to the US in 1947, settled in the Baltimore area and ultimately became a US. citizen. He worked for much of his career in sales; at various times he sold textiles and cemetery plots and later managed bookshops.

He wrote a memoir, Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe, with the journalist Michael Olesker. While acknowledging the extraordinary suffering of the victims of Nazi persecution, opponents of reparations note that many companies and individuals were coerced into co-operating with the Nazi regime; those people, too, faced threats of deportation or death. Critics also note the essential impossibility of undoing the damage of the past. But Bretholz was insistent.

“The train to Auschwitz was owned and operated by SNCF,” he said before the House committee. “They were paid by the Nazis per head and per kilometre to transport innocent victims across France and ultimately to the death camps.” He handed committee members a copy of an invoice. “SNCF pursued payment on this bill after the liberation of Paris,” he said, “after the Nazis were gone.”

Bretholz often said that there was one victim he could not forget. She was an elderly woman on his cattle car. “If you get out,” she told him, shaking her crutch as he made his escape, “maybe you can tell the story. Who else will tell the story?”

Leo Bretholz, salesman and Holocaust survivor: born Vienna 6 March 1921; married 1952 Florine Cohen (died 2009; two daughters and one son); died Pikesville, Maryland 8 March 2014.

© The Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue