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Getting off the train

Had it not been for an elderly woman assigned to the same car as Leo Bretholz, he may not have escaped from a train headed to Auschwitz.

But the woman was there and pleaded with Bretholz to pry the window bars apart, jump from the moving train and tell the story of those who didn’t escape with him.

That story is what Bretholz presented to a group of about 30 who gathered in the Marshall Center Ballroom at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

It’s a story he hopes will change the future.

“I hope the students (at the lecture) will take this into the future,” he said. “Students should find out about it (the Holocaust) and not just let history pass them by without learning from it.”

Bretholz’s Holocaust experience began when he was 17, when Germany annexed Austria.

The Austrian people were evicted from their homes and schools.

“From then on our existence descended into utter chaos,” Bretholz said.

Bretholz’s mother convinced him to escape to Luxembourg because at the time it was only men, not women and children, whom the Germans were murdering.

“My crime, you see, was being born into a Jewish family and being born in Vienna, Austria,” Bretholz said.

Leaving his family behind in Austria was especially difficult for Bretholz because after his father’s death several years earlier, Bretholz had become a father figure to his two younger sisters.

The youngest of the sisters was sick with scarlet fever when Bretholz left Austria. He went to the hospital to say goodbye to her.

“She had dark eyes and dark hair,” he said. “I call her the last angel on earth. When I said goodbye she wrote on a blackboard, ‘Good luck to you. We’ll see you soon again.'”

That day in 1938 was the last time Bretholz saw his sisters or his mother.

“Little did we know then at that moment that four years later women and children would be put to death,” Bretholz said.

From Luxembourg, Bretholz was smuggled into Belgium. The night he arrived, Bretholz said, he and his fellow escapees noticed lights in the sky. The next morning, a newspaper informed them that the lights had been the glow fires that had destroyed 300 synagogues, 23 of those in Vienna.

“I felt that my mother would need me now,” Bretholz said of his reaction to the news. “But there was no way back. I felt bad about leaving her and my sisters.”

In 1942, struggling with a hernia, Bretholz escaped an assigned residence in France. He and a friend made it to the mountainous Swiss border and after 72 hours managed to cross the mountain range.

“I took my shoes off, but I couldn’t take my socks off,” he said. “They were so bloody.”

Bretholz said Switzerland, which he thought would mean freedom, was a beautiful sight. But soon he and his friend were faced with a Swiss policeman who took them to jail. Bretholz pleaded with a police sergeant.

“I told him I wanted to be here (Switzerland) for the rest of the war to save my life,” he said. “I was looking for freedom, and here it was at arm’s reach, and the man sent us back to France. Neutral Switzerland sent 30,000 Jews back to France.”

In France, Bretholz was sent to a holding camp for Auschwitz. Aboard the train he was convinced to escape and did so by wringing cloth soaked in human waste around the window bars. After applying enough tension the bars began to move.

Bretholz said he did not escape because he was feeling brave.

“My escape was not heroism,” he said. “It was motivated by fear.”

From the train Bretholz escaped to a priest’s home, was arrested, sent to jail and escaped again. His second train escape was on Yom Kippur, a sacred Jewish holiday.

Finally, after seven years of running from the Germans, Bretholz acquired forged birth documents and took on a false identity.

Bretholz said though surviving the Holocaust took tremendous physical and mental strength, it wasn’t the most difficult thing to do.

“While I was swimming a river, climbing a mountain and escaping from one train to another,” he said. “These things are relatively easy. The war of hatred is the hardest thing to cross.”

Hatred, Bretholz said, is always nearby, but it is only successful if it goes unchallenged.

“You have to let the hater know that you’re not on the same page,” he said. “The hater never thinks he’s wrong. We have to stand our ground.”

Bretholz also said that the Jewish people are often criticized for not fighting against the Germans. That, Bretholz said, just isn’t true.

“We did not go without resistance,” he said. “Resistance is not only guns or weapons. The best resistance is what we did to escape by forging papers, allowing children to hide out and taking on false identities to escape. When you survive that’s the utmost form of resistance.”

Burton Krakow, a research associate at USF, said he remembers the Holocaust but only from the newspapers he read at the time. As a Jew himself, Krakow said it was very important for him to hear Bretholz speak.

“I’m an old man. I remember the Holocaust, but I was very lucky to be in the U.S.,” he said. “I read about it in the newspaper at the time, but I couldn’t talk to the people directly involved at the time. It’s good to see and hear someone who did survive.”

Amy Cowen, an education major who attended the event, said she thought Bretholz brought the Holocaust to life.

“It was very interesting and pretty sad,” she said. “It was amazing to actually hear someone who experienced it rather than reading about it in books. I realized how hard it was and amazing that he escaped.”

Bretholz has written a novel about his experiences entitled Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe.

  • Contact Rachel Pleasantat