Noted holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz will speak at Carroll Community College on April 17.
Bretholz, who will also be signing books during the event, makes the trip nearly every year by the invitation of Tom Hockstra, Carroll history professor. Hockstra invites the 92-year-old to speak to his Hitler and the Third Reich students; however, the event is open to all Carroll students.
Below The-Quill reprints Christina Ceary’s 2012 interview with Bretholz.
Bretholz’s speech is being held on April 17 from 5PM-7PM in room K100.
Growing up as a Jew in Austria in the twenties and thirties, Leo Bretholz suffered discrimination, but it was nothing like what came later. As Hitler’s influence spread, life became exceedingly difficult for Bretholz until his mother told him to leave in order to be safe. At seventeen his journey began. Bretholz escaped from the Nazis several times throughout the course of the war, including a time where he leaped from a train to avoid being taken to a death camp. Eventually, his life lead him to work with the resistance in South France and ultimately to the safety of America. It is these stories that fill the pages of his autobiography, “Leap into Darkness.” The-Quill was able to sit down with Leo Bretholz and discuss his life, his work and his thoughts on the world.
What was it like working with the resistance?
“It was hoping that the next day wouldn’t be worse than the one that just passed. That was the plus. It was very difficult, not only difficult but we had to deal with enemies that wanted to put us in camps and kill us. I say, trying to be one step ahead of those who wanted me dead. That’s what it is. That’s the story of not just me, many other people have come through the same situation.”
How did you keep the presence of mind to escape all of those times?
“Fear, fear. Fear made me escape. I didn’t want to get killed. Fear’s a great motivator, did you know that? A general was interviewed and they asked him how he defines courage. He says ‘Courage is fear.’ Why, he was asked, ‘Fear motivates you to do something that you never knew you had in you.’ That’s what it was. Not only I, anybody who was hiding or escaping did that out of fear. And I had another reason. I wanted to survive hopefully eventually to meet my mother again and my sister whom I had left in ’38 in Austria. And that never happened. It was a little bit of fear and hope, that’s what I would say…Yes, that’s what it is – and friends. I was never alone. There were other people too. We were surrounded. We supported each other. So we had a little bit of help. Togetherness.”
How has your view of the world changed after what happened?
“These were tragedies, atrocities, but you learn from it and you hope there will be better times. But you see today, there are many things that happen that are still tragic. In Africa, Cambodia. There is still hatred today, people hate each other. In Africa it’s the hatred between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Different sizes. They hate them because they’re bigger, they hate them because they’re smaller. I mean this is not because of what they did, but who they are. That was our case. We were persecuted because we were Jewish, not because we had done some things, but because we were Jewish. That was endemic almost, in Austria especially…in Poland. But that’s old history, you may have read about it in some books.”
Do you feel there are ways the world has changed now?
“Well, pick up a paper; you can see that often there’s still bad things going on. As long as there are people there will be good things and bad things. People are responsible. Hatred, animosities. Sometimes because of race, sometimes because of religion, sometimes because of nationality…Hatred. You know what they say, ‘hatred is akin to love.’ It’s a strong sentiment. Love can be strong, and hatred can be just as strong…Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, these are all parts of Yugoslavia. They are fighting each other with arms. As Jews we were never armed. We were never armed. We never had any kind of intention of killing them. There was a book written by [Father Flannery], it’s called ‘The Anguish of the Jews.’ Subtitle is ’23 centuries of anti-Semitism.’ [He said] to say that the holocaust is the most horrifying event [in] Jewish history is an understatement. The Holocaust is the most horrifying event in the totality of recorded history. Something like this has never happened. That people were being taken to a place to be gased, to be killed. Infants, before they even knew their names. That was perpetrated by a nation of poets and thinkers. German. This was no backwoods society.”
Was it hard to adjust once everything was over?
“It’s always good to adjust to better times. When the war was over, there was only one question. What happened to the family. And I did not find out…I came to this country in ‘47, it was not till 1962—15 years later—that I found out what happened to my mother and sisters. All during that period, there was always that little bit of hope maybe one day I’ll find out they had survived, but they didn’t. I lost over twenty members of my family. So, the war was over yes, but the family situation lingered. It still hurts now when I think about. Why? You ask yourself the question why. Elie Wiesel, author and noble prize laureate, [said] ‘never ask yourself the question why, because you’re torturing yourself. The little word ‘why’ will never be answered.’ He said that after each talk. He said, ‘What you have heard tonight, when you go home you will think about it but don’t ask yourself ‘why’.’ He knows what he’s talking about.”
After Leo Bretholz came to America, he began working in sales and later co-owned a retail bookstore. He also met his wife, which began a love affair that still brings a light into his eyes when he speaks.
“I’m thinking of my wife of blessed memory,” Bretholz said. “She passed away two and a half years ago. She would normally be here. She was always with me. Flo, lovely lady… I met her in Baltimore. She was born in Baltimore. So were her parents. I was the best man at a wedding of my good friend, Herbie Freedman. I was the best man and my wife was the bride’s maid. We met and half a year later we got engaged. It would be sixty years in July. When my wife passed away we were married fifty-seven years. It’s a life time. You know people say, you’ve got good memories, but that is what hurts. Bad memories you are glad you get rid of, but good memories, when I think about it all the good memories, all the things we did together. We traveled in twelve different countries. So, when we were together these are good memories. Rehashing them, rethinking them is painful. Bad memories you’re glad to get rid of… My wife always liked to come here [Carroll County] when she came with me. She always liked to travel to Westminster. It’s a great hurt to know she’s not here. It’s a void. Emptiness.”
A lot of times people come to be defined by events like the Holocaust, but how would you like your life to be defined?
“I don’t like to be called a survivor. Do you know you’re a survivor too? You know that? If that evil had conquered the world like they wanted, we wouldn’t be sitting here exchanging free thoughts. It would all be controlled. I tell that to students. The word survivor…I don’t exalt in that term. It means, as a survivor, I’m something special. No, I’m not. I was plain scared, and anybody who is scared will survive because they have to do something to see that the next day isn’t worse than the day that just passed. But survivor, everyone today, all the students—keep that in mind—if the militant Germany (the Nazis) had conquered the world like they wanted to, free expression, free exchange of thoughts, newspapers they’d all be censored. We would not be able to conduct an open discussion.”
What is the one question that no one has ever asked you?
“This is a very hard question. The most awkward, most unusual question I’ve ever got was if I would like to change my religion. ‘Would you like to give up your Judaism?’ A student once asked me that. And you know what I said? ‘If I do that, I give Hitler a victory.’ Hitler wanted us to disappear. To destroy us. If I do that I would give him a posthumous victory. But one question I was never asked is really it’s very hard to think of.”
Tom Hockstra offered a question that he had never heard Bretholz asked in all the times that he had spoken with students. Why did he not go back to look for his family immediately after the war ended?
“Because it was too fresh,” said Bretholz. “That’s maybe the question. It was too fresh. Europe for me was a very bitter sweet experience…My wife liked to go to Vienna and walk the streets. But when I was with her, she enjoyed it and I knew to let her enjoy it. She deserves it, but to me it was bitter sweet.”
Recently, Tom Hockstra went to Europe with his wife and fellow Carroll professor, Tijuana Hockstra, to retrace Leo Bretholz’ steps. They visited his family’s house and found the plaque that stands a monument to Bretholz mother and sisters, who died in a concentration camp after he escaped.
After our interview, Bretholz spoke with Hockstra’s class and answered their questions about his book. He explained to them the motivation behind writing the book and giving speeches like these. Before he found out about the fate of his family, Bretholz did not speak of anything that had happened to him. However, after he found out that they had died, his wife encouraged him to start telling his story. “Now that you have found out what happened to your family, you can’t keep quiet,” she said to him. She explained that he could choose to speak or not to speak, but his family no longer had that choice. Bretholz has been telling their story ever since.