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March 8: A Leap Into Darkness

Lawrence Bush
March 7, 2017
Leo Bretholz, who escaped death at the hands of the Nazis numerous times, including from a train en route to Auschwitz, died at 93 on this date in 2014. A resident of Vienna, Bretholz fled from Austria after the Anschluss and swam across the Sauer River from Germany to Luxembourg. Arrested two days later, he was deported to Belgium, where he spent eighteen months before being arrested as an enemy alien. Interned near the Spanish border, he escaped under the camp fence and spent the next ten months with relatives in France near the Pyrenees. When the deportation of French Jews reached his town, Bretholz hid with an uncle in the mountains, then walked across the Swiss border, only to be stopped by a Swiss Mountain Patrol and sent back to France, where he was confined in the Drancy internment camp. On November 5, 1942, Bretholz was deported with 1,000 others headed for Auschwitz. With a friend, he pried the bars from a window and leaped from the train. Arrested again in Paris, he spent nine months in prison (one month in solitary for having escaped for two days) and then one month in a labor camp. In October 1943 he again escaped from a train, this time carrying slave laborers to Toulouse -- where he joined the Jewish Resistance group Compagnons De France. Bretholz came to the U.S. after the war and published a memoir, A Leap Into Darkness, in 1998. He also unsuccessfully sued to force the French state-owned railway to take responsibility and pay reparations for the 76,000 or more Jews it transported to their deaths. “All I want is a declaration — a forceful declaration — of: ‘We did something very wrong, something inhumane. We sent people to their deaths.’ ” --Leo Bretholz

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.