October 17, 2018

Telling the Story

Retired bookseller Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor, can hand you his own death notice.

There is his name, listed among the 1,000 passengers who rode transport No. 42 from Drancy, France to Auschwitz, of whom only five survived. Bretholz isn’t listed among the survivors. Yet survive he did, by leaping from the train in transit.

Bretholz had repeatedly escaped from the Nazis since his mother sent him away from Vienna, at age 17, in the dangerous days just after the Anschloss. He describes his five harrowing escapes in his memoir, “Leap Into Darkness” (Woodholme House, hardcover, $23.95; Anchor/Doubleday, paperback, $12.95) Last week, he recounted the stories during a luncheon of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He spoke of swimming, fully clothed, across the torrential River Sauer; of crossing the Alps on frozen, bloody feet; of his rescue by a French nun named Joan of Arc; of jumping from a train guarded by gendarmes and from that other train bound for Auschwitz.

On November 6, 1942, Bretholz and his friend, Manfred, were shoved into transport No. 42 amid elderly Jews, pregnant women and small children “holding little toys and dolls close to their bodies.” Bretholz felt trapped in a “congregation of the doomed” — until he began to focus upon the tiny window high up in one corner of the cattle car.

In order to save his life, the survivor says, he first had to violate it. To create the friction necessary to bend the window’s iron bars, he and Manfred had to repeatedly dip their sweaters into the human waste sloshing on the floor, then pull on the bars with the foul garments. The arduous process took more than five hours. “The stench was overbearing,” he says.

While the passengers debated whether or not the youths should attempt an escape, an elderly woman pointed her crutch at Bretholz and her eyes, ablaze with passion, locked onto the young man’s face. “If you jump, maybe you’ll be able to tell the story,” she said, in a voice ragged with exhaustion. “Go ahead, and may God watch over you.'” Emboldened by her words, Bretholz hoisted himself to the window, writhed his 120-pound frame through bars bent less than a foot apart and leapt.

“I promised to tell the story,” he says.