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Chasing the Merchants of Auschwitz

Bretholz: Escaped the train to Auschwitz in 1942.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Christopher Snow Hopkins
November 16, 2011

Sixty-five years after the first military tribunal at Nuremberg, some Holocaust survivors are still awaiting recompense from the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

On Nov. 6, 1942, 21-year-old Leo Bretholz wriggled through the window of a cattle car bound for Auschwitz.

“[A friend] and I set out to pry apart the bars on the windows,” Bretholz testified on Wednesday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “First, we tried belts, but they slipped off. Then someone suggested we dip our sweater into the human waste on the bottom of the car. We kept twisting the wet sweaters tighter and tighter, like a tourniquet. The human waste dripped down our arms. We kept going for hours, until finally there was just enough room for us to squeeze through.”


Along with two other Holocaust survivors—California-based activist Renee Firestone and Holocaust Survivors Foundation President David Schaecter—Bretholz appealed to lawmakers to ratify the Holocaust Rail Justice Act, which would prevent SNCF—France’s state-run railway—from invoking foreign sovereign immunity as a legal defense.

During World War II, nearly 80,000 Jews were ferried to Nazi concentration camps aboard trains operated by SNCF. The company was paid by the Nazis per head and per kilometer. Fewer than 2,000 would survive.

“They collaborated willingly with the Nazis,” said the 90-year-old Bretholz, directing the panel to an invoice sent by the railway in August 1944. “SNCF pursued payment on this bill after the liberation of Paris, after the Nazis were gone. This was not coercion, this was business.”

Particularly galling to Bretholz and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld—which is advising him pro bono—are apparent inconsistencies in SNCF’s defense. In a statement submitted to the committee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.—one of the bill’s 51 cosponsors—condemned the company’s legal legerdemain.

“At the very same time as SNCF argued in United States courts that it was entitled to foreign service immunity, the company was advancing the opposite argument in French administrative court in an effort to have a case dismissed,” she wrote.

“It is unconscionable that SNCF has successfully evaded accountability by arguing in the US that it is an instrumentality of the French government and thus entitled to sovereign immunity while at the same time arguing in France it was performing a private function (and not a government function).”

SNCF did not return a request for comment.

As for Bretholz—a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, synagogues, and churches—he has sought restitution from the railway for close to seven decades. Born in Vienna, he fled to Luxembourg in 1938 and escaped the Schutzstaffel—the SS—seven times in the ensuing period of Nazi domination. In 1947, he immigrated to Baltimore, where he married and started a family. After working as a salesman for a textile company, he managed two bookstores and later coauthored a book documenting his experiences during the Holocaust.

Notwithstanding the railway’s public apology earlier this year—designed to mollify critics of a proposed SNCF rail in the United States—Bretholz was forthright in his appraisal of the situation.

“As it was during the Holocaust for SNCF, so it is now—all about money. The Holocaust Rail Justice Act is the last opportunity we will have to see justice in our lifetimes.”

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