Today, I found out that my dear friend Leo Bretholz passed away earlier this week, just two days after his 93rd birthday.
Many of my friends probably know that in my senior year of high school, I spent a week in Washington D.C. as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Project.
There, I met five inspiring Holocaust survivors and for the first time in my life, I truly internalized the Holocaust. It became something tangible and real for me because these were no longer just stories, but real people, amazing people, people that I called friends.
I write about the experience at length in this blog post, but I wanted to re-post Leo’s particular story, as well as a photo of the two of us.
Thank you for reading.
During the group’s first dinner together, when we’re uneasily beginning to get to know one another, a survivor addresses the students. He asks us if we want to hear a joke, “A guy is in a restaurant and sees his waiter coming over with the hamburger he ordered, sticking his thumb right on top of it, so he exclaims, ‘Hey, why would you put your finger on my food like that?!’ The waiter answers, ‘I just didn’t want it to fall on the floor again.’” We laugh and the ice is broken.
This storyteller, we learn, escaped the Nazis seven times throughout the war. He crossed the Sauer River, crawled through a hole in barbed wire, outran policemen, and ultimately leaped transport No. 42*, a freight train heading to Auschwitz—all experiences documented in his book, Leap Into Darkness. Leo Bretholz lived with the most overpowering fear during the Holocaust, yet exudes a teenage boy’s zest for life.
Leo was 17 when his mother told him he had to flee his home alone to save his life. He describes how wrenching it was to agree, even as he realized his mother’s fears for their safety in Austria were legitimate. He stares directly at us and says, “Imagine yourself by my side, what would you have done? Identify, identify.” I think to myself, I am 17 now. Would I have fled?
His flight turned into seven years on the run. “We could never plan for tomorrow,” Leo says, stopping to look at us. “You know you’ll wake up tomorrow.” And it was true. That morning I had woken up in a comfortable, queen-sized D.C. hotel-room bed. I opened up my prayer book and began the morning service, without having to hide, run, or fear.
Afterwards I approach him and say, “I don’t think I could have done it.” He tells me that one emotion motivated him all along: fear. “Fear could either paralyze you or propel you to do the impossible, the unimaginable.”
While I consider this, he jokes about how lucky he is to talk to a beauty like me. I let out a long, sarcastic, “Riggghhhhtt,” but can’t help smiling. He’s done it again—putting the people around him at ease, making a difficult situation comfortable.
[Here’s a photo of Leo and I, right after the exact conversation I just described above, where he tells me I’m beautiful. What a charmer!]