Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who became a major voice in the campaign to gain reparations from companies that transported victims to concentration camps during World War II, died Saturday in his sleep of unknown causes at his Pikesville home. He was 93.
Mr. Bretholz was scheduled to testify Monday in the Maryland House of Delegates on a bill that would require the French railroad company SNCF, which is seeking a $6 billion contract from the state of Maryland to operate the Purple Line, to pay reparations to U.S. Holocaust survivors.
Mr. Bretholz played a major role in the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, and through his popular change.org petition, had gathered more than 154,000 signatures supporting this action against SNCF.
"He was the heart and soul of the effort and one of the most remarkable forces in life that I have ever known," said Rafi Prober, a partner in the Washington law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who had been working on the SNCF case with Mr. Bretholz for six years. "Leo was thoughtful, smart, compassionate, funny and tenacious when it came to seeking justice for him and the other survivors, and it is in his memory that we will continue to do so.
"It pains me that we were not able to bring closure while Leo was still with us. But I know he's looking down and smiling and will help us get across the finish line," said Mr. Prober.
The son of Max Bretholz, a tailor and a Yiddish actor, and Dora Fischman Bretholz, a seamstress, Leo Bretholz was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, where he also received his education.
Mr. Bretholz was in high school when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. As the Nazis tightened their grip on the country, Jews were terrified that what had happened to Jews in Germany would be repeated in Austria.
His mother insisted that he leave Austria, and as Nazi thugs went on a rampage against the Jews on Kristallnacht in November 1938, Mr. Bretholz, who was 17, swam the Sauer River on a chilly fall night, finally reaching Luxembourg. From there, he traveled to Belgium, and after the Germans overran that country and later the Netherlands and France, he fled to southern France, where he hid in the mountains near the Spanish border.
Finally, Mr. Bretholz was arrested and was taken to the Drancy-Le Bourget, France, holding camp.
"In the camp at Drancy, a few days before my selection for deportation, I witnessed the killing of a just-born infant, whom the guard had thrown into the air aiming at it as if it were a clay pigeon," Mr. Bretholz wrote in a 1982 article in The Evening Sun.
"The hysterical mother, forcibly restrained by two other guards, witnessing that bestial game, threw herself at the killer (having managed to tear herself away from the guards) and she, too, was killed on the spot," he wrote.
He and 999 other Jews were loaded into cattle cars on Nov. 6, 1942 — 50 per car with a single hole in the floor for sanitation — aboard Transport 42, which was to take them to Auschwitz and certain death.
In the middle of the night, Mr. Bretholz and another young man, Manfred Silberwasser, escaped through a rectangular opening after they finally succeeded in bending two parallel bars. As the train slowed and rounded a curve, the men slipped through the window, and upon hitting the ground, tore off the yellow star with the word "Juif," French for "Jew," that had been sewn to their coats.
Of those on the transport, 773 were gassed on arrival or died en route, while 145 men and 82 women were selected for forced labor. Only four men from Transport 42 managed to survive Auschwitz.
Mr. Bretholz later joined the resistance group Compagnons de France but was confined to a hospital after his hernia ruptured.
"He was rescued by a nun, Sister Joan of Arc, who took him to a hospital," said the Rev. Robert E. Albright, a longtime friend. "He was an amazing man who was never bitter about what had happened to him."
"But bitterness destroys the person who is bitter" Mr. Bretholz said in a 1988 interview with The Evening Sun. "If I were bitter, I could not write about what I saw. I could not speak rationally. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined."
Mr. Bretholz moved in 1947 to Baltimore, where an uncle and aunt lived. Through the years he worked in sales and managed bookstores, retiring in 1997.
Mr. Bretholz often visited schools to tell students his story so that the history of the Holocaust would not be forgotten. He had started limiting his engagements in recent years.
"Ten days ago, he was at John Carroll School in Bel Air with other Holocaust survivors," said Jeanette F. Parmigiani, director of the Baltimore Jewish Council's Holocaust Program.
"He was an incredible man. He was a scholar and a righteous man who sought justice, and even though he was telling this terrible story, he did it with a twinkle in his eye," said Ms. Parmigiani. "He relived it again and again to remember those who did not survive."
In an op-ed page essay published in The Baltimore Sun on March 2, Mr. Bretholz argued that SNCF and its American affiliate, Keolis America, should not be awarded the contract to operate the Purple Line, a planned mass transit line between New Carrollton and Bethesda.
"All I am asking, all anyone is asking, is that SNCF finally take responsibility for its willing and deliberate participation in the Holocaust," he wrote. "Until that happens, we will not forget and we will not be silent."
It wasn't until 1962 that the longtime Pikesville resident learned that his mother and two sisters had perished at Auschwitz. His father died before World War II.
Looking back over the ordeal he had endured, Mr. Bretholz told The Evening Sun in 1982, "We had survived; all else is epilogue."
Mr. Bretholz chronicled his escape from the transport in his book "Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe," which he wrote with former Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker in 1998.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.
He is survived by a son, Myron C. Bretholz of Phoenix, Baltimore County; two daughters, Denise B. Harris of Ellicott City and Edie B. Norton of Herndon, Va.; and four grandchildren. His wife of 57 years, the former Flo Cohen, died in 2009.