Leo Bretholz, a Pikesville resident who as a child escaped from a train that was transporting him to a Nazi death camp, died March 8, two days after his 93rd birthday and one day before he was to testify in favor of reparations for those who were forced to ride those trains during World War II.
Bretholz died peacefully in his sleep, according to his daughter, Edie Norton. “His death seemed to have been much kinder than his life,” she said.
Bretholz was to testify Monday before the Maryland House of Delegate’s Ways and Means Committee during its consideration of legislation that would prevent companies from winning tax-funded rail projects until they were held accountable for any Holocaust liability and paid reparations to those who were forced onto cattle cars like the ones Bretholz rode. Bretholz had become the face and voice of the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.
He was a young boy on a deportation train in 1942 when he and another boy began working to weaken the bars that covered the train’s windows. Many on the train begged them to stop for fear that they would all be punished, but one rider urged them on, telling them to get free and then tell the world what was happening. Bretholz related this story numerous times, whether it was during testimony to legislators, before young students or in his book, “Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe.”
“To know Leo was to love him and respect him, and our work to ensure justice for him and the thousands of other SNCF victims will continue in his memory,” the Ad Hoc Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice announced in a statement, referring to the French company whose subsidiary is in the running to develop Maryland’s Purple Line transportation project.
Bretholz’s daughter recalled her life with her father, noting, “It’s hard to say everything he meant to us, but he probably taught us that anger and bitterness isn’t useful.”
Her father spoke often about his experiences during the Holocaust, which he hoped would make sure it never happened again, Norton said. He spoke to groups of all ages and on Capitol Hill.
“I remember the first time he spoke with an elementary school group; that was rare, and we wondered if he would know how to do that,” recalled his daughter. “But he was fine. He was the kind of person who consoled other people if they were upset by what he told them.”
Around 1962, Bretholz finally learned that his mother and sisters had died in a concentration camp. After that, “he really started speaking a lot,” said his daughter. “And when he wrote his book in 1998, that was really cathartic.”
Norton recalled that “he and my mom brought us up in a home free of bigotry. I think we were more sensitive to people than we would have been had he not gone through what he did. There was never a question about how you treat people. He always treated people nicely.”
Her father was more than a survivor, said Norton. “He was funny, kind and sweet.”
Erika Schon, chairwoman of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission at the Baltimore Jewish Council, recalled Bretholz as “a man of remarkable courage and principle. As he retold his painful story of survival to thousands of listeners throughout his life, he never faltered in his pursuit of justice. Despite the horrors he experienced, Leo chose to live a life filled with tremendous love, joy and purpose and was a blessing to all who knew him.”
Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust Programs at the BJC, called Bretholz “a gentle, loving man with a twinkle in his eye. He endured separation from and loss of his family as a teenager and struggled to hide and escape from the Nazis for seven years. Like so many other Holocaust survivors, Leo worked tirelessly during his ‘retirement’ years, speaking to and inspiring thousands of students with his experiences during the Holocaust, teaching all about hope and endurance and love.”
She noted that Bretholz continued speaking out about the horrors of the Holocaust until 10 days before his death.
Deborah Cardin, assistant director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, observed Bretholz speaking about his experiences many times.
“His ability to connect with individuals of diverse backgrounds was extraordinary and contributed immeasurably to the impact of our Holocaust educational programs,” she said.
Rita Plaut, a Jewish educator at Krieger Schechter Day School, called Bretholz “a man of fortitude. Leo lived his life both as a survivor who understood the importance of telling his story over and over, but who also was a family and community man, who loved life and especially adored being together with his wife, Flo. Leo knew how to form immediate friendships with anyone he met, and his joie de vivre and his youthful vigor won him instant popularity.”
Bretholz never forgot his early years in Vienna and “felt deeply for his mother, whose foresight and determination resulted in his leaving his family, and thus saving his own life,” said Plaut.
Leo Bretholz is survived by three children and four grandchildren.