Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from a train car bound for Auschwitz, died Saturday at the age of 93.
Bretholz was a Viennese Jew who immigrated to the US after the war. Later in life, he shared his harrowing tale of escape with the US House Foreign Relations Committee, at a hearing in which he said, “There was hardly room to stand or sit or squat in the cattle car. There was one bucket for us to relieve ourselves. Within that cattle car, people were sitting and standing and praying and weeping, fighting.”
Bretholz recorded his story for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, telling how he and a friend saturated sweaters in human waste, to make the material strong enough to pry open the bars of the train car they were imprisoned on. The pair leapt from the car, escaping to freedom.
After his daring survival, Bretholz felt compelled to act on behalf of others. He was a leading voice in the movement to secure reparations from the French railway system for survivors and victims’ heirs.
“The train to Auschwitz was owned and operated by SNCF,” Bretholz told the House committee. “They were paid by the Nazis per head and per kilometer to transport innocent victims across France and ultimately to the death camps.”
Bretholz was set to testify before the Maryland House of Delegate’s Ways and Means Committee considering legislation that would prevent companies from winning tax-funded rail projects until they were held accountable and paid reparations to those who were forced onto the cattle cars. He had become the face and voice of the Ad Hoc Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.
“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,” according to a statement issued from the Ad Hoc Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.
Watch below a moving interview with Bretholz, captured on film by the Washington Post.