Leo Bretholz was born on March 6, 1921, into a Jewish family of Polish descent in Vienna's 20th district, which together with the 2nd district forms Vienna's "Mazzo-island." One of an estimated total of 2,500 survivors of 50,000 Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust, he has resided in Baltimore's Pikesville neighborhood since 1947.
Leo’s life in Vienna, where 200,000 Jews were living at the beginning of the 20th century, changed dramatically after Hitler’s annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938. On that day, as Leo recounts, everything changed. Even the tramways were forced to drive on the other side of the road. Leo’s life and the lives of 200,000 fellow Jews were irrevocably altered: from the mundane anti-Semitism with which Leo had grown up Austria had turned into the absolute enemy for Jews. On October 25, 1938, Leo’s mother Dora sent Leo away to Antwerp. Leo never saw his mother and two sisters, Henny and Ditta, again.
Leo, however, escaped and survived. Between 1938 and 1945 he hid in attics, outran police, escaped from prisons, and joined the Compagnons De France under the false name of Max Henri Lefevre. On November 6,1942 he did something unprecedented: he jumped from train no. 42 from the French prison camp Drancy to Auschwitz, where he would have been killed the very same day of his arrival together with all but five of the 1000 deportees on that train. Not many trains, as Leo points out, would have given him the opportunity for such an audacious escape. As it turned out, the French deportation trains had their bars inside, and not outside the windows as most of the Polish ones did. This allowed Leo and his friend Manfred to remove the bars, although with an almost unimaginable effort.
After eight hours, and almost at the German border, the bars came loose and they jumped into darkness. "Allez-y, et que dieu vous garde" (go, and may God keep you) were the encouraging last words of a
woman who was riding toward her own death. Leo’s escape would not have been possible without the help of many people, among whom was French nun Jeanne d’Arc, who saved his life in Limoges where he was hospitalized with a life threatening hernia. Leo had to face one more obstacle: passing as a Christian in the hospital in Vichy-France. The miraculous Joan of Arc, who has since been named a righteous gentile by the Yad Vashem, calmed him: "you have nothing to fear, as long as I am in this ward." Leo rejoined the underground movement and remained in Limoges until departing on a ship for New York on January 19, 1947. He moved in with his aunt and uncle in Baltimore, MD, got married to Flo, a local Jewish girl, and together with her started a new life.