Leo Bretholz’s Memoir Tells of Being Liberated Twice

Review by Joe Rosenberg

Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe
by Leo Bretholz with Michael Olesker
Anchor Books, 1999
(original hardcover edition was published by Woodholme House in 1998)

Most of us born in these United States of America lead relatively placid lives. Except for brief military service, we face no external dangers except those we volunteer for. So an adventure like that of Leo Bretholz is emotionally incomprehensible. Mr. Bretholz, a resident of Baltimore since 1947, left his native Vienna in October 1938 in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. While the average Jewish-American teenager in 1938 was struggling with the last days of the Great Depression, Bretholz was swimming across a river fully dressed on a cold night in November; being interned in French camps, incarcerated in a French prison, and escaping from trains—one, in 1942, en route to Auschwitz.

Europe was ablaze with war and upheaval, and this enterprising mensch with a hernia became a master of escape and survival. He was finally free of the danger when the war ended in 1945, and he came to America in 1947. Years later, after several trips to Europe to retrace his past and connect with what remained of his family, he discovered in 1991 his true parentage, which resolved events in his pre-flight past. So he was twice liberated.

Bretholz’s story, told in 263 suspenseful pages with the help of the Sunpapers’ resident raconteur, Michael Olesker, is as well plotted as any adventure novel. To see the robust Bretholz tell of his journey in explicit detail, as he has at numerous Holocaust observances, is the personification of a heartfelt deliverance from Hitler’s calumny.

However, while celebration of life is this book’ theme, it raises larger issues as to why the world at large ignored Hitler’s pogrom against Jews, gays, gypsies and other “impure” groups. Why did the German, Austrian, Polish, Italian and later French people turn against their neighbors and help send them to their deaths?

There are no simple answers. But seeing Leo Bretholz’s smile and that of his loving wife you know that good occasionally does triumph over the darker acts of our fellow inmates in this asylum.

I wish we could celebrate these triumphs more and bemoan the tragedies less.

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This story was published on May 13, 2003.