The New York Times obituary section is always a compelling read, given that their obits are thumbnail biographies of people who are in some way significant to the world, whether we general readers have heard of them, or not.
In any case, the Times obit writers are terrific journalists. And yesterday, Paul Vitello told a story about a man named Leo Bretholz who led an extraordinary life and not only because, as the headline stated, he “escaped train to Auschwitz.”
A subhead in the body of the article is even more significant: “A witness in a bid to make a railway pay for serving the Nazis.”
I am perhaps an unusually well-informed layman about that awful period in European history, and am especially knowledgeable about the French occupation, especially the self-serving revisions the French have rolled out over the decades to whitewash their anti-Semitic collaboration.
But I had never considered the complicity of the French state-owned railroad, The Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (S.N.C.F.) which transported victims of the round-ups to concentration camps.
Mr. Bretholz did, and was a major force driving several class-action lawsuits again S.N.C.F. that demanded reparations. Here, quoted in the obituary, is what he said in an interview with The Washington Post: “All I want is a declaration — a forceful declaration — of: ‘We did something very wrong, something inhumane. We sent people to their deaths.'”
His obit begins:
Schoolchildren sometimes asked him why he did not have a number tattooed on his arm, like other Holocaust survivors who visited their classes. The answer was in the story he was about to tell, Leo Bretholz replied.
Mr. Bretholz, who died at 93 on March 8, would describe how, as a Jew, he had evaded Nazi concentration camps by living as a fugitive from 1938 to 1945, hunted in almost every country in Europe by the Nazis and their collaborators in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Austria.
The high point of his talk was the account of his leap from the train carrying him and a thousand other Jewish deportees to Auschwitz on Nov. 5, 1942. It was a French train, he said, operated by the state-owned railway, the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, or S.N.C.F.
His escape, he said, came after he and another man had studied the railway guards’ surveillance routines. Prying loose the bars of a small window, they timed their jump from Convoy 42 on a curved stretch of rail somewhere in eastern France. Once the train slowed, they had “to avoid the floodlights, which the guards aimed over the entire length of the concave curvature of the train” at such junctures, he wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Leap Into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe.”
So Mr. Bretholz’s obituary is a World War II thriller, and the story of a righteous lawsuit. You will want to read the entire piece: Leo Bretholz, 93, Dies; Escaped Train to Auschwitz – NYTimes.com.