New witnesses to history

The Baltimore Sun

Leo Bretholz held up a book as thick as a phone directory. Printed within are 74,000 names, enough to populate a small city.

The names represent inhabitants of France who were deported to death camps during the Holocaust. And Bretholz's name is one of them.

Though millions died amid the terrors of the Holocaust, the 86-year-old is one who survived - part of a group that dwindles with each passing year.

To ensure the lessons are shared with future generations after he is gone, Bretholz and other Holocaust survivors are working with teenagers and professional storytellers to share their experiences.

Students in the program, "Becoming the Voices," will present the stories of survivors at an event today sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Becoming the Voices" developed out of the concern of some Baltimore-area survivors that they are the last ones who can actually tell their stories, said Lawrence M. Ziffer, executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education.

Though there are plenty of documents and repositories and academic studies of survivors' accounts, "we wanted to address the real issue of how young people hear these stories," Ziffer said.

"We wanted to create memories for these students that would be different than just sitting passively in a room listening," he said. "We want them to come out of this understanding the enduring lessons of how people learn to survive in the face of adversity."

After a successful pilot last spring, the center so far has matched eight survivors with six storytellers and 65 students from 15 schools - both public and private.

To start, small groups of students practice ways of sharing each other's memories, said storyteller Katherine M. Lyons. Then they meet with the survivor to listen and ask questions.

Last week, four students from Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Glyndon, joined a student from the religious school at Adat Chaim Congregation to hear Bretholz speak.

"You have seen pictures ... you have seen exhibits ... you have read about the atrocities," he told them. "My story is not about death camps."

The Austrian native then moved to the edge of his seat.

"I never was in a death camp, because I was able to escape so many times," he told the students.

Bretholz remained perched on the edge of his chair for much of two hours while he described his multiple encounters with danger and recalled the kind people who helped him along the way, including several priests and a nun.

Bretholz told them about leaving his mother - already a widow by then - and his two sisters as a 17-year-old in 1938 after the Nazis entered Austria. He traveled to Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Switzerland, fleeing from captors along the way by jumping out of a train window and crawling under barbed wire.

He described these experiences in his 1999 book, Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe, which he wrote with Michael Olesker, a former columnist for The Sun.

The students jotted down their impressions of the powerful details and will use these notes and recordings of the story to fashion a presentation that they will deliver to their schools and other venues.

"Because they go in knowing they have to retell the story, it changes the way they listen, changes the way they assimilate information," Ziffer said.

Students sometimes use dialogue verbatim or act out parts from the survivors' stories, Lyons said.

For example, an earlier group that will present today uses a piece of orange fabric to represent the tug of war the survivor's mother and Nazi soldiers had over the survivor.

Also presenting today will be three Goucher College students who will relate the stories of Holocaust survivors researched for a course on oral history and storytelling. Students from Yeshivat Rambam, a school in Northwest Baltimore, will show video excerpts of interviews they conducted with survivors.

Sometimes people can experience "compassion fatigue" when hearing about the Holocaust, Lyons said.

"You become inured to it in a way," she said. "You hear about it all the time. ... But to hear it first person and then to try to internalize it and tell it ... you actually in a way experience on some level.

"I think live performance is powerful, especially with young people doing it, and being so committed ... it gives it a special power," Lyons said.

Sacred Heart eighth-grader Jim Sullivan said he was anxious about the responsibility of carrying on details of Bretholz's story.

"I'm nervous, because I don't want to mess up," the 14-year-old said.

Marissa Friedman, 14, of Adat Chaim's religious school, said she wanted to participate in "Becoming the Voices" because her grandmother had escaped the Holocaust.

Bretholz, who speaks about his experience at many schools each year, said he is motivated by a desire to prevent such atrocities from happening in the future.

"You have to connect the past to the present," he said. "The students, who are young people, will take that with them into the future."

At points, he illustrated the recollections with artifacts from his journeys, such as the yellow Star of David he was forced to wear and the hardcover book of names of Jews deported by the French government. Each line in the volume includes an abbreviation for the person's ethnicity and dots next to those who had survived.

There are only about 2,000 dots, but there is at least one error in the tome: There is no mark next to Bretholz's name.

"You escaped the book," said Lyons.

"I escaped that train," Bretholz said.

"Memories of the Past, Voices for the Future," the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration, will be held at 7 p.m. today at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. For more information, call 410-542-4850. To see a photo gallery and hear audio clips, go to

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