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Newsmaker: Leo Bretholz

Newsmaker: The man who escaped the train to Auschwitz (w/video)

Leo Bretholz, who made a daring escape from the Nazis by jumping off a moving train en route to Auschwitz, died Saturday at his home in Maryland. He was 93.

Bretholz's amazing story of survival amid the Holocaust later became a memoir, Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe.

He was born in 1921, to Polish immigrants in Vienna. His father, a tailor, 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 Nazi Germany in 1938. He recounted traveling by rail to Trier, a city in Germany, and then swimming across the Sauer River to Luxembourg. There, he said, he was met by refugee workers who smuggled him into Belgium.

After the German invasion of that country in 1940, Bretholz was deported to France. He entered Switzerland in 1942 but was returned to France and ultimately to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris.

"In the camp at Drancy, a few days before my selection for deportation, I witnessed the killing of a just-born infant, whom the guard had thrown into the air aiming at it as if it were a clay pigeon," Bretholz wrote in a 1982 article in the Baltimore Sun. "The hysterical mother, forcibly restrained by two other guards, witnessing that bestial game, threw herself at the killer (having managed to tear herself away from the guards) and she, too, was killed on the spot."

He and 999 other Jews were loaded into cattle cars on Nov. 6, 1942 — 50 per car with a single bucket for sanitation — aboard Transport 42, which was to take them to Auschwitz and certain death.

In a recorded interview preserved by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bretholz recalled his escape. He and a friend, Manfred Silberwasser, 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 apart the bars.

"We kept twisting the wet sweaters tighter and tighter, like a tourniquet," he later said. "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 recalled that he lay in a ravine and then moved into a village, where he received aid from a priest. The French underground resistance provided him with false identification documents. He worked with the resistance and later assisted refugees in France after the 1944 D-Day invasion.

Bretholz came to the United States in 1947. It wasn't until 1962 that he learned that his mother and two sisters had perished at Auschwitz.

In recent years, he had become a leader among activists who have called for reparations from governments and companies in Europe that aided the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.

Bretholz often said that there was one victim of the Holocaust he could not forget. She was an elderly woman in his cattle car.

"If you get out," she told him, shaking her crutch, as he prepared to escape, "maybe you can tell the story. Who else will tell the story?"

Reporting: Washington Post, Baltimore Sun

Newsmaker: The man who escaped the train to Auschwitz (w/video) 03/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 6:31pm]
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