And justice prevails: Remembering Leo Bretholz

“To know Leo was to love him and respect him, and our work to ensure justice for him and the thousands of other SNCF victims will continue in his memory.” —Statement issued on Bretholz’ death from the Ad Hoc Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice.
Leo Bretholz seen here with seniors from the John Carroll Class of 2013
(Photo by Patti Murphy Dohn)
Remembering two Leos:

As the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Leo the Great today, I had to smile when a photo of my dear Jewish friend Leo Bretholz popped up on my Facebook feed this morning… My elder brother in faith, as Pope St. John Paul II would say.

You see, Leo inspired my John Carroll students with his words of wisdom and passion each year as he recounted the atrocities that he and countless others endured at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. He died peacefully in his sleep in March of 2014, just two days after his 93rd birthday.
Though Leo spent countless hours educating about the horrors of the Holocaust, he put even more of his heart and soul into leading the way through activism and advocacy, in calling for reparations to be made by all who aided the Nazis, from governments down to corporations. 
In his obituary from The Washington Times, Emily Langer noted: 

“While acknowledging the extraordinary suffering of the victims of Nazi persecution, opponents of reparations note that many companies and individuals were coerced into cooperating with the Nazi regime; those people, too, faced threats of deportation or death. Critics also note the essential impossibility of undoing the damage of the past.

Mr. Bretholz was insistent.

‘The train to Auschwitz was owned and operated by SNCF,’ he said before the House committee. ‘They were paid by the Nazis per head and per kilometer to transport innocent victims across France and ultimately to the death camps.’
He handed committee members a copy of an invoice.
‘SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais, the French railway system that transported 76,000 people to death camps) pursued payment on this bill after the liberation of Paris,” he said, “after the Nazis were gone.”

Two days before his testimony:

Leo died in 2014 just two days before he was scheduled to testify before the Maryland House of Delegate’s Ways and Means Committee regarding legislation to prevent companies from being awarded railroad projects unless they paid reparations to those who were forced onto cattle cars toward almost certain death at concentration camps.

Leo Bretholz testified with other Holocaust survivors before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on November 16, 2011, calling on Congress to allow them to sue France’s state-owned SNCF railway to make reparation for its role in deportations to Nazi death camps. (Photo credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)


Twenty months after Leo’s death, Holocaust survivors who were deported by train from France and their heirs are now able to apply for this reparation. In an agreement finalized last December between the United States and French officials, the State Department will oversee the distribution of $60 million paid by the French government.
“He deserves an enormous amount of credit. He pursued this doggedly. . . . His family will have some comfort and will be able to get quite a substantial amount. It’s delayed justice, but it’s justice nonetheless for Leo Bretholz and thousands of others in this situation.”
Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s special assistant on Holocaust issues, speaking on Leo Bretholz’s leadership in getting accountability and justice for the those transported to death camps on their cattle cars.
Leo was indeed loved and admired by many. He had the conviction to tell his story so that we would “never forget.” 
And now, thanks to his advocacy, many families whose loved ones suffered the atrocities of the Nazi regime will see justice served.
Rest in peace, Leo Bretholz. See you soon again, my friend.

Learn more about Leo Bretholz:

2. VIDEO: “See You Soon Again” 
Directors: Lukas Stepanik, Bernadette Wegenstein
Writer: Bernadette Wegenstein
2. Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe, Leo’s memoir which was co-authored by Michael Olesker, and published in 1998 by Random House.
3. Leo Bretholz’s oral history was recorded and preserved in 1989 for future generations by the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Catholic Review

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