IN CASTRES, FRANCE, at a retreat for aging nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception, I found Sister Joan of Arc last month, sitting in a wheelchair and reaching out to me across a room, and across 55 years of separation.
She was my shelter at one of the most vulnerable times of my life, in the midst of World War II. I was a young Jew on the run from the Nazis. She was the one who comforted me, and told me I would be safe with her. Now, in the autumn of 1999, I was returning.
I have told the earliest pieces of this story before. Last year, my memoir, "Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe," co-authored with Sun columnist Michael Olesker, was released by Woodholme House publishers.
My story was the familiar one of Nazi persecution, with a twist. Unlike the 6 million Jews put to death for their religion, I was one of those who blessedly escaped. Once, by swimming fully clothed across a torrential River Sauer out of Germany. Once by crawling under barbed wire at a holding camp at St. Cyprien and then by crossing the Alps on frozen feet, only to be arrested at the border by Swiss guards. Later by jumping from a train watched by guards at a French railroad station.
Most dramatically, I escaped from a freight train that left the holding camp at Drancy, France, on the raw morning of Nov. 6, 1942, and headed for Auschwitz with a thousand people on board. By the Germans' numbers, only four people from this transport survived after arriving at Auschwitz.
But the numbers have become faces once again: of those who rode the train on that final night of their innocent lives; of a young fellow named Manfred Silberwasser who miraculously escaped with me; and of Sister Joan of Arc, who helped where she could.
She entered my life when I was working in the French Resistance. On May 8, 1944, I was to take false identity papers to smuggle children out of the country. But I passed out on the sidewalk with what turned out to be a strangulated hernia.
I awoke in the Centre Hospitalier Regional de Limoges, terrified that I would be turned in as a Jew. When I looked up, I saw two large black eyes staring at mine: the face of a nun in a white habit.
"I am Sister Joan of Arc," she said in French.
Joan of Arc? I imagined I was dreaming, or losing my mind out of terror.
"As long as I am in this ward," she said softly, "you have nothing to fear."
She nursed me through a difficult recovery, and made me feel safe, and comforted me through a terrible time.
More than a half-century later, as Michael Olesker and I were finishing the final pages of "Leap Into Darkness," I wrote a letter to the hospital, asking the whereabouts of Sister Joan of Arc. She'd gone to an old-age home some years earlier, I was told, but no one knew if she might still be alive. So I wrote to the old-age home.
On a drizzly November afternoon a few weeks later, there came a letter from Sister Joan of Arc. "You'll never know how much your letter has touched me," she wrote. We spent the following year corresponding. She will be 89 in a few weeks, and I am 78. We wrote about the possibility of a reunion.
Meanwhile, the war came back in other, unanticipated ways. In November 1942 at the Drancy holding camp, in the final days before the freight train ride toward Auschwitz, I met Manfred Silberwasser.
Desire to escape
Like me, he was a teen-age Jew who had been caught on the run. Like me, he had a ferocious desire to escape. Around us were thousands whose lives were about to end: children torn from their parents, old people barely able to walk, men and women marked for death purely by religion.
On the day we left Drancy, Manfred and I were among 50 people jammed into the same freight car. There were 20 such cars, each with two small windows with horizontal iron bars. Those windows, and the tiny space between bars, became our avenue of escape, our literal leap into unknown darkness.
When Woodholme House published the hardback version of "Leap Into Darkness" last autumn, a remarkable thing happened. An archivist at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Lauren Apter, looked at the youthful photograph of me on the cover of the book. She thought it looked familiar. She looked at photos in the museum files.
Within days, a photograph from Apter arrived unexpectedly in my mail. "Oh, my God," I said out loud. My wife, Flo, seeing my face turn pale, asked what was wrong. It was a photograph of Manfred and me, at the camp at Drancy, a day or two before we would climb the train to Auschwitz.
Around us in the photo are little children, innocents who did not yet grasp that the hour of the end of their lives was soon arriving.
Seeing that photograph, I felt as if I had stepped back onto that campground, as if I'd been replanted in that moment, with its belligerent guards, and its poor souls living out their final days while the German photographers took their propaganda pictures to show the world how nicely their Jews were being treated.
I remembered climbing with Manfred onto the freight train, and how it rumbled through the dark toward Auschwitz, and more faces came back to me: women holding terrified children; a young man wiping tears from the face of his weeping girlfriend; and an old woman with a crutch, who saw the confusion on my face as I wondered if I should attempt escape.
'Who will tell this story?'
"If you jump," she said in an exhausted voice, "maybe you'll be able to tell the story. Who else will tell this story?"
Manfred and I jumped from the train later that night and hid with a village priest until morning. We stayed together for a few weeks as we crossed France, and then lost touch later in the war. I never saw Manfred again.
But, Sister Joan of Arc -- a miracle!
Last month, my wife and I went back to France and found her at the Marion St. Joseph retreat, frail, hard of hearing, sitting in her wheelchair.
"You're here, you're here," she cried in French. "I had to wait for it, but it happened."
Flo and I began to cry, and so did several nuns standing nearby. Sister Joan of Arc hugged my neck as if making up for 55 years of absence and wouldn't let go.
It was a time of remembrance, and of filling in blanks. I remembered her cheerful jauntiness, how she whistled, how she bounced when she walked during that awful wartime era. She remembered many others comforted at the hospital.
One time, she said, they were sheltering a group of Jewish children there. Gestapo officers found out.
"They brought food and clothing and toys for the children," she said. It sounded utterly remarkable.
"But, you see," she explained, "they were placating them. Two hours later, the officers came back with a truck, and this time they took them all away."
She wept as she told the story. A half-century had passed since that monstrous time. But, here in this old-age retreat, in this safe place, the war returned to us in all the worst ways -- and, I realized as I held Sister Joan of Arc's hand, in all the best.
"Is there anything we can send you?" my wife and I asked when we left the next day. "Something for your personal use?"
"Your affection," said Sister Joan of Arc.
She has had that since the moment we met.
Leo Bretholz reached America two years after the war ended and later operated two book stores in Baltimore. "Leap Into Darkness" is newly released as a paperback by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, and as a hardback by Constable and Co., in Britain.
Pub Date: 10/31/99