“Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter…. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined.” ~ Leo Bretholz
Leo Bretholz died last night. He was 93 years old, so it should come as no surprise. That he lived this long to spread his message about the horrors of the Holocaust is miraculous in itself. Many obituaries will rightly talk about the great contribution he made as a living historian, tirelessly visiting schools to educate young people about the Nazi genocide and about the Resistance movement in which he played a crucial part. Right to the last day of his life, he was still working to see that justice would continue to be done in memory of the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, he had been scheduled to testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates, urging them to support a reparations bill that was directed at a French rail company contracted to construct a new portion of the state’s light rail line. I hope the world recognizes the great work he did to raise awareness about the dangers of racism, nationalism, all of those -isms that say “Our -ism is better than yours. Your -ism should not even exist.”
A lot of much better writers than me are going to talk about his midnight swim across the River Sauer to escape Austria as it fell to the Nazis. They will talk about his daring escape from a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, his great friendship with the nuns who helped nurse him back to health, and his work with the Compagnons de France, the Jewish Resistance Group.
I will talk instead about the good humor and patience of a man who worked at a bookstore over thirty years ago. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, the bookstore was right around the corner from the restaurant where my mother worked. I was in my early teens, I think, but she didn’t like to leave me at home alone all day. Sometimes she’d send me down the street to the delightful Sobus family, a stereotypical Catholic family of about ten kids. There was always music and noise and good food there, but she didn’t like to take advantage of them, so on other occasions, she’d tell me to come down to work with her and “go find something to do in the neighborhood.”
What I found to do was pester Leo.
I suppose the first few times the chubby girl with thick glasses and weird hair showed up, he wondered if I was shoplifting. But I always found some bargain book to buy and he must have been able to sense a fellow lover of the written word. He began to chat with me each time I came into the store. I told him I thought I might like to be a writer someday, and he said he was thinking about writing a book too. He recommended books for me, introducing me to the wonderful epics of Leon Uris in particular and to many works of history and poetry. After I read Mila 18, Uris’ tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Leo began to tell me his own story of survival.
I was, and still am, in awe of him.
He was always kind to me, always had time to talk to me. My mom came into the store to drag me home one day, apologizing profusely, but he brushed it off and told her I was no trouble. To Mom and me, he was just a nice man who worked around the corner from her. Only gradually did we discover what a huge force he was in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Eventually, my mother moved on to another job and so did Leo. I don’t really remember which of them left first, but I know that we lost touch for many years.
In the summer of 2001, my husband and I moved our family a fair distance from Baltimore, where I’d met Leo so long ago. Mom came along. She was retired now and slowing down a bit, so we moved her into an in-law apartment in our home. One day a couple of years later, we were at the local library when Mom saw a poster.
“Look, it’s Leo!” she cried.
The poster announced a talk and book signing by Leo Bretholz, author of Leap Into Darkness. It was a memoir. “He finally wrote his book!”
We decided to go to his talk. We thought it was important to support him, because sometimes book signings aren’t that well attended. (I hadn’t written any books of my own yet, but I’d heard about book signings where no one buys and everyone just wants to know where the bathroom is.) But Leo had spent decades sharing his story with so many people, and taking time to listen to their own stories, no matter how small. So we needn’t have worried about attendance at his signing. It was standing room only, and the line to purchase his book and have it signed was an impressive sight. We waited until almost everyone had gone, because Mom couldn’t really stand for long periods anymore–all those years on her feet as a waitress had taken their toll. Now remember what a busy life this man had lived, and all the important things that had happened to him, and the fact that he hadn’t seen my mother and I in nearly two decades.
When we stood to have him sign my mother’s copy of the book, he paused and stared at us for a long time.
“I know you,” he said to my mother. And then: “Cathy?”
They embraced and we reminisced for a little while, wishing him good luck with his book. I told Leo I hadn’t written any books yet, but he assured me I still had time to get started.
And so I went home and I did.
He had that kind of effect on people.