Nine-year old Leon Leyson counted the days as his family packed their belongings and prepared to move from their small village in Northern Poland to the big city, Krakow. While he knew he would miss his school friends, Leon imagined the unique sights and sounds, and the exciting energy, of his new life in a new place. His father, a craftsman, needed to relocate for his work. There were whispers of danger from anti-Semites, but it was 1938, and in a modern city like Krakow, what could happen to them?
A year later, the Nazis invaded Poland. "Suddenly, I lost my most basic rights," recalls Leon Leyson. "I was hungry all the time, and frightened all the time."
Leon described how overnight he was surrounded by violence and fear. The Jews of Krakow were rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto.
Leon spent most of his waking hours searching for food; any scrap that looked edible was a treasure. "The Nazis did not kill millions," he said, "they killed individuals."
His father, Morris, was one of the few Jews who was allowed to leave the ghetto--because of his work in a factory owned by a German named Oskar Schindler. Traveling to and from the ghetto, Morris was able to bring back scraps of food to give to his family. He, like many others, worried about what plan the Nazis had in mind for the Jews. He planned ways to ensure that his wife and children would be added to the list of Schindler's workers, and perhaps would be spared the harsh fate of the extermination camps.
Leon was sent to Plaszow, a camp presided over by a murderous commandant who would shoot Jews for the slightest infractions. The commandant had a list of prisoners who were designated for transfer to Schindler's factory, and Leon saw that his name had been written but crossed off. With a sudden burst of outrage and courage, Leon confronted a guard and told him an error had been made. He shook as he spoke to the guard, and was sure that he could be shot for making a complaint, but he strengthened himself to conceal his fear. Miraculously, the guard waved him forward and he was reunited with his father, mother and sister.
Leon worked twelve-hour shifts for Oskar Schindler, but he was happy to be alive with his family. Given his short stature, Leon had to stand on a box so he could more effectively reach the machinery. Sometimes, the kind German would leave him a prize of extra food rations for a job well done; and he often smiled with a twinkle in his eye after he inquired how the boy was feeling or how many devices he had made that day. When Schindler noticed Leon was bored with a particular task, instead of getting angry, he transferred to boy to another department so he could develop his skills as a craftsman. One night, Leon saw Oskar Schindler put his arm around his father's shoulder and say, "It's okay, everything is going to be alright." Young Leon wondered how a German, who was expected to hate Jews, could have shown so much kindness to his family.
Leon Leyson said he wasn't sure whether it was because his father, Morris, was one of the first Jews enlisted by Schindler or because of the German's natural affinity for his father, "but Schindler complied with whatever my father suggested."
Morris worked tirelessly to ensure that his wife and surviving children remained on Schindler's list of workers- thus providng them safety in spite of the cruel and ever-changing plans of top-ranking Nazis.
Towards the end of the war, Schindler personally rescued the Leyson family and others on several occasions, as his factory and his workers were being transferred from Poland to Germany. When the train carrying female workers and their children was sent by mistake to Auschwitz instead of Germany, Schindler himself ventured to Auschwitz where he bribed the officials to release the women and children--among them Leon's mother and sister.
On another occasion, Leon was in a line of men destined to be transported, but he attempted to step up in front to get Oskar Schindler's attention as he walked by. A Nazi guard hit Leon with the butt of a rifle and knocked him to the ground. When Schindler noticed Leon on the ground, he immediately searched for his father and brother and brought them, together with Leon, back to the factory. Leon would find out later that Schindler had seen his mother and sister and reassured them that they would all be reunited soon.
After the war, Leon Leyson was determined to put the past behind him and to build a new life. He moved to California, where he started a family and worked as a schoolteacher. The suffering of the past happened to that boy who lived half a world away, in another time. He didn't tell his story: "I didn't think anyone would be interested," he said. Besides, he often thought, who could comprehend the madness and cruelty of the Holocaust, particularly his young students?
In 1994, the Oscar-winning film Schindler's List woke the sleeping hearts of the world to the crimes of the past. Suddenly, young and old alike around the world were discussing and learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and praising the heroism of this special German, Oskar Schindler. Leon Leyson knew it was time to speak. Stella Eliezrie, Chabad emissary to Yorba Linda, California, and a volunteer for Stephen Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, encouraged Leon Leyson to speak about the pain of the past for the first time in decades. Eliezrie, who interviewed 50 Holocaust survivors for the project, said the process of breaking the silence is "like going into a trance… these people have a great sense of urgency to give testimony…otherwise these things will be lost to history."
"A hero is an ordinary human being who does the best of things in the worst of times."
encouraged by the interest generated by Schindler's List and other accounts of the Holocaust, continues to share his experiences with individuals as well as through public speaking, addressing high school students in gymnasiums and adults in crowded auditoriums. Recently, he spoke to a standing-room only crowd of 1,400 in Chicago. Even in a huge crowd, there was collective silence and a total concentration on every word of his tale of fear and survival.
With Holocaust deniers threatening to revise history, Leon Leyson says the task of telling the stories of those who were affected by the Holocaust is an essential weapon in the constant battle against darkness and forgetting: "The Nazis did not kill millions," he said, "they killed individuals." Leon found in Oskar Schindler a true definition of a hero. "A hero is an ordinary human being who does the best of things in the worst of times."
This article was published in spring of 2009. On January 9, 2013 (the first of Shevat, 5773), Leon Leyson returned his soul to his maker. May his soul be bound up with the bond of life. - Editor