Last year, I was cleaning out some books in my house and I came across a copy of Leap into Darkness, a memoir of a Jewish holocaust survivor, published in 1998. I didn’t recall having bought the book. But I figured someone either gave it to me and I never got around to it, or with the many roommates and house guests over the years, one of them might have left it.
I read the synopsis on the back and couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this book since I’ve been interested in WWII history and specifically holocaust survivor stories since high school. My interest in this period had a lot to do with my decision to double major in music and history in college. I don’t know what that says about me exactly. It’s not about a personal connection to it. I’m not Jewish. (Well 1/8 but that doesn’t count and it’s not proven with DNA) And even though there were enough Jews for a small synagogue in my hometown, we didn’t know anyone who attended. I didn’t know a Jewish person until I was an adult living in Atlanta.
Perhaps it is the sheer gall of what the Nazis did that sparks my curiosity and calls for me to revisit the subject from time to time. It wasn’t that long ago. It was also a first world country with a beautiful culture especially with music, Beethoven and Bach just scratch the surface. Furthermore, compared to so many places, Germany had enough to take care of its citizens. It blows the mind to read about the methods of fear, fun, and propaganda used to push people into doing terrible things to their neighbors while allowing the majority of people to carry on because of indifference. And I mention the word fun because most people don’t realize how festive the Nazis were in the 1930s. The big festivals with color, boldness, and excited crowds, wanting to feel strong and above the humiliation from WWI and the economic depression. It was so seductive and dangerous because the message was, “You don’t want to spoil the fun, do you?”
I’m also drawn to survivor stories from people who have lived through awful circumstances. And with WWII, the randomness of a Jewish person or other persecuted person surviving at a time when whole communities were rounded up and hunted boggles the mind. Surviving was so much about luck, kindness of strangers, quick-thinking, age, and physical stamina. And I am still awe struck that so many government officials outside of Germany, went along with their diabolical plans without much pushback.
And so I sat down and sped through Leap Into Darkness quickly because it reads more like a thriller. It’s riveting and it was interesting to read about a person who had jumped from a train. So much has been covered about life in the death camps. However in this memoir, Leo Bretholz, survived by going on the run for 7 years. Not knowing what’s going to happen from one moment to next, I was glued to the pages until the end. At 19, Bretholz left Austria and he moved around mostly in France. He lived with friends, relatives, strangers, and in several types of concentration camps. At one point he spent a year in a regular French prison which ironically was one of the safest places he could be. He is one of the approximately 764 survivors that jumped from moving trains on the way to the death camps. He eventually moved to the United States and died in 2014.
As I was reading, the idea of gender came to mind. Since I am a mother and I have a greater awareness of gender at this age and with our current politics, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Leo Bretholz would have survived had he been a young female. He credits much of his ability to act on his own behalf and do what was necessary because he was alone. I also felt for his mother and admired her wisdom and unconditional love. She pushed him to leave the family behind in Austria and live on the run after the Nazis took over the country. She felt he had the best chance to survive. And indeed, it did seem to matter. If he needed to act quickly, he could because there was no one else’s opinion and no emotional tugs to consider, only himself. A young woman moving about like him at that time would have been unthinkable. And with the social training of always considering the family and accommodating others, a woman on the run would have had to do things differently.
Ultimately, the main reason I wanted share my thoughts about Leap Into Darkness is to highlight the lessons that apply to today, specifically regarding the migrants on the southern border of the United States. In the last few weeks, the horrific details of the detention camps that I have read sound familiar to the details of Breholz’s account of his time in Drancy, a camp located in a northeast suburb of Paris. He was there in 1942. It was not a death camp, but a place to hold people before being transported to Auschwitz. He decided that where he was going had to be worse than Drancy and so he jumped from the train.
(From Chapter 9)
“There were only 1200 beds for the initial 4000 detainees. Forty or fifty people were packed in each room. Drancy’s diet was water cabbage soup that led inevitably to burning diarrhea. There was almost no water to wash and no soap if there was water. “
“We were ushered into unfinished rooms with straw piled on concrete floors, home for lice and other vermin.”
“Children walked about, searching for familiar faces. They’d been pulled out of nurseries, out of kindergartens, plucked from grammar school classrooms and told to come with the authorities, told their parents were waiting for them. Their clothing was badly soiled. They were frightened and confused and wept openly.”
“They were put by the score into bare rooms with buckets to be used as toilets, because many of the children couldn’t walk down long hallways to bathrooms, or were too frightened to go without adults.”
“They soiled their clothing and the mattresses on which many of them lay whimpering day and night. When their clothing was removed for washing, the children lay on their backs naked, with the autumn air growing colder, waiting for their clothes to dry. They wore little wooden dog tags, so someone would know who they were.”
In summary, the outcome and methods to inflict pain and suffering for the purpose of collective punishment and dehumanization do not have to be exactly the same for us to call what is happening atrocities. Our government right now is in a territory of criminality. The accounts of migrants that are currently enduring these awful dehumanizing conditions in the custody of the United States Government have to be addressed. We have to speak out about the corruption, dishonesty, incompetence, and racist ideology at the heart of the policies.
And while you’re busy resisting, take a little time to read Leap Into Darkness. It is compelling and absorbing at every moment. It’s another opportunity for better understanding and empathy for one young man who left his family and decided to out run the war. Do we have the courage to see the connections to our politics today?
Other References about Migrants