Teaching the Holocaust

See You Soon Again: Few can still give first-hand witness

Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz tells his story to students, every time as if it were the first | Photo: Waystone Film

Leo Bretholz remembered the scene with perfect clarity, although some seven decades had passed. He had been standing in the courtyard of their family farm in the rain, looking up at his sister’s room, where he could see her cowering behind the window, her brown hair and pale face unmistakable though the glass.

“She was holding a little black board in her hand on which she had written ‘See you soon again’,” he said, his voice quivering slightly as he looked out over the students in the Baltimore, Maryland, classroom. “This was our mantra: that this whole thing cannot last forever.” He never saw his family again.

Leo Bretholz is a Holocaust survivor, one of an increasingly tiny group still living, whose quest to tell his story to American high school students is part of an important new documentary See You Soon Again, by Austrian filmmakers Lukas Stepanik and Bernadette Wegenstein, a media professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Unlike most other Holocaust documentaries, this film shows Bretholz and fellow survivor Bluma Shapiro more than half a century after the war ended, portraying their never-ending quest through Baltimore’s classrooms – over 2,500 public talks over several decades – to pass on the living memory of the crimes of National Socialism.

Instead of cold concentration camp yards and ghettos crowded with starving Jews, the documentary shows well-heated classrooms and lecture halls, where students munch away on chips while listening to the story of how a charismatic old man lost his entire family in a heartbeat.

See You Soon Again is not a Holocaust film,” explains co-director Stepanik, to The Vienna Review. “It is a film about how hard it is to tell a story of unspeakable suffering, and how impossible it is not to. ”

The 88-year-old man is a rock star among Holocaust survivors: With wide eyes, his teenage audience hangs on his every word, while he tells of how he escaped through a tiny train window by bending it’s bars with a urine-soaked shirt.

“I don’t like that special attention,” says Bretholz, in a packed student cafeteria after the lecture. Brushing some breadcrumbs from his jacket, he looks like the loneliest man in the world.

Stepanik suspects Bretholz actually enjoys the attention. “Leo is like an actor, a professional,” he said. “He tells his story every single time as if it was the first.” But not everyone is receptive, as we see in the scenes where survivor Bluma Shapiro talks to her traumatised niece, who moved to Colorado just to get away from her grandparents’ obsession with the Holocaust.

Besides being a fascinating documentary about the survivors’ own struggle, the film shows how Holocaust education is approached in the U.S. Rather than concentrating on the data and the factor of guilt (as it is still often done in Austrian schools), students are encouraged to debate about the responsibility of the individual during wartime and the Holocaust’s relationship to other events in history. They even challenge the survivor by comparing the Holocaust to other genocides – usually an absolute no-no.

Stepanik feels that Austrian schools could learn a lot from the way the subject is handled by American educators, and has organised a special screening for teachers that has already attracted 220 people. By understanding individual choices, he says, the students seem to have a better chance of seeing the roots of such atrocities and how they might be prevented.

See You Soon Again, now playing at:

Top Kino
6., Rahlgasse 1
(01) 208 30 00
www.topkino.at

Village Cinemas 3
3., Landstraßer Hauptstraße 2a
(01) 242 40-0
www.villagekinos.at

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