Holocaust Survivor Gives GC Students First-Hand Account

“It was amazing,” said Garrett College student Tori Smith following a luncheon with Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz. She was one of students from Beth Luers 20th Century World History class who had traveled to Baltimore to meet with Bretholz and learn first hand what the Holocaust was about. “When you are reading Leo’s book about what happened, it’s not necessarily sinking in that these things really happened to people. But to meet him, and listen to him, you understand that he actually lived through this. And he’s such a happy person with such a good sense of humor,” Tori said, describing the 91-year old survivor.

For the last several years, Luers, Garrett College Professor of Humanities, has taken students to Baltimore to meet with Bretholz and learn about significant historical events from someone who actually lived them. The students, who had read Bretholz’s book Leap into Darkness, were already familiar with the saga of his repeated escapes from his Third Reich captors as a young man still in his teens. During his face-to-face meeting with these students, he recounted some of his experiences and showed them actual mementos.

“He brought out his yellow star that says ‘Juif’ and he showed them pictures of Sister Jeanne d'Arc, the nurse who protected him after he had a hernia operation in a French hospital. He was afraid he would be turned in to the Gestapo because the doctors and nurses knew he was a Jew. Sister Jeanne d'Arc told him he had nothing to fear. He would be protected. She has since been officially recognized by Yad Vashem in Israel as a ‘Righteous Gentile’, a very high honor,” Luers explained.

Bretholtz also showed the students a book listing the transports sent from Drancy, France, to Auschwitz. “The book lists the 76,000 names of those transported to Auschwitz. If the person survived, there was an asterisk next to that name. Leo's name did not have an asterisk. According to the book, he was dead. He escaped death by working the bars in the cattle car and bending them just enough so that he and another young man could slip out and jump from the train,” Luers said.

Ben Porter, a member of the student contingent, echoed Tori’s response. “Meeting Leo made it all so real. It wasn’t just words in a book.” Katie Frazee was also deeply moved by the experience. “It was an amazing opportunity. I can hardly put into words what it meant to me. You read the book and know that it happened but then you meet Leo and it becomes so real,” she said.

Karissa Brenneman recently took part in the Joan Crawford Lecture Series by writing and performing a monolog about a woman named Nessa Godin, who survived the Holocaust. “I learned a lot about her while I was working on that project. Then I met Leo and found out he actually knew her. It really put life into her and her experiences for me,” she said.

As a group the students agreed that the impact of meeting Leo Bretholz was powerful. A number of them also reflected that this was a strong reminder that people can’t forget what happened because they cannot let it happen again.

Luers speaks of Bretholz and a friend, a mentor, and a partner is teaching history. She said she deeply appreciates his willingness to meet with students and to help bring a sense of reality to learning about the Holocaust and its lessons in human psychology. “I know that my students will never be the same after meeting and talking with Leo,” she said.