Oral History

Leo Bretholz describes his escape from a train during deportation from the Drancy camp

After the Germans annexed Austria in 1938, Leo attempted to flee. He eventually reached Belgium. In 1940 he was deported to the St.-Cyprien camp in France but escaped. In 1942 Leo was smuggled into Switzerland but was arrested and sent back to France, this time to the Rivesaltes and Drancy camps. He and a friend escaped from a train deporting them to Auschwitz in Poland. Leo joined the French underground in 1943. He arrived in the United States in 1947.


But as soon as the train started in the morning, and we were out of Paris for, about half an hour or so out of Paris, we decided our task to, to pry these bars apart. And we know that when you make a cloth wet, a towel wet, it has tensile strength in wringing it, you can wring it, and when you twist it it becomes like a tourniquet. So we took off our sweaters, pullovers, v-necks, and dipped them into that human waste in the bucket, and didn't even have to use the bucket because the floor of the, we were squatting in it, and walking in it, and inhaling it, and it's still up there in my nostrils right now even when I talk about it. And, uh, we used these sweaters to twist around the bars--if these are the bars, twisted around--and twist, and twist, and twist until all the liquid had poured out and had been twisted out, by that time, it had developed that strength, and we did that often enough, alternating between him and myself, until the bars started to somewhat move in the frame. We saw them move. Why? Because the rust in the frame started falling down in dust. Rusty dust. And when we saw these bars moving, that was the light at the end of the tunnel, to use a cliche, or, uh, what do you call it, a metaphor. That was it. We knew that if we would continue that often enough, that eventually these bars will be giving enough for us to be able to bend them. Up and down, up and down, until finally they had moved enough where we could bend them into a, into a position where the opening was wide enough for us to be able to squeeze through, and we did, at a given moment we did, and after we escaped, that, uh, we lay there in the, in the, in the ravine for a while that almost seemed like an eternity, made our way into a village, went to a bakeshop, the apprentice came to the door and told us there was no bread now, not until the morning, and we said we're not interested in bread, we would like to know where the village priest lives, and he said he was going to take us to his house or home which was right adjoining a sacristy, uh, joining the church, and we got to him, we had torn off our Jewish stars. I feel now that if we had them on it would have been more reassuring for him because he would have known who we were, although we could have been a, it could have been a trap, but, uh, he recog--and we told him that we had escaped from a train, we were very frank with him, and we didn't know, he could have been a collaborator too, you know, but we felt we were in good hands as we saw the face of the man. And he said, "Yeah, they come through here several times a week," and, uh, we know, we know that, but you know, he says, "I can let you stay here for the night. But in the morning, very early, I'd have to get you out of your warm bed, because between five and six, a patrol can come by here almost regularly." So he, he gave us milk, and bread, and cheese, warm milk, put us into a feather bed, into a crisp white sheet, and that after being in Drancy with a straw on a cement floor and vermin and, uh, putrid stench, and it was like you were on a cloud. And when he woke us with that soft voice in the morning: "Hey, fellows, Leg...il faut que vous levez. You have to get up. Il faut que vous partez. Il faut partir. You have to get away because you know...." Gave us a, uh, a letter to another colleague of his, also a priest in a village, not too far, and we spent the next day in his place, an adjoining stable, not a barn, a stable, and we spending that night lying between cows.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
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